Disclaimer: I don't own it. Everything you recognise belongs to Joss. No infringement is intended and
I'm not making any money from this story.
Summary: There's an accident on the ice.
Author's note: Written for the prompt Fight at the 10hurtcomfort challenge community on Livejournal. Set some
time after the movie. This is the tenth and therefore final ficlet in this series. Thank you to all who have been
reading and reviewing!


Under the Ice

by Hereswith

Two out of three are subdued, one unconscious and one disarmed. Zoe's searching them to retrieve the money they
are owed, Jayne keeping guard, but on the ice-covered river, Mal's still trading blows with the third man, and River
starts towards them. When the man lands his fist with full force, Mal staggers back, almost loses balance but rights
himself. And the ice creaks.

The sound echoes, a low, rumbling groan fading into silence. Ignoring the now fleeing man, River concentrates on the
captain, standing motionless, his arms slightly raised like he would take flight if he could, his face tense and lined with
shadow in the lead-grey light.

"You stay away," he calls to her, in a tone of command, and she can recognise the sense of it, she skids to a halt,
powdery snow dusting up around her boots.

She can't see the crack from this distance, how wide it is, if it branches out, spreading, but Mal takes a tentative step
to escape, and his expression changes, clouding over, like there's a weakening where it was solid beneath him, and
her fingers clench the instant before the ice snaps open, hollow and booming. He plummets, disappearing whole into
the black, rushing water—cold, so cold it burns, she can't breathe—the shock of it, his shock, causing her to bend over
and gasp, the air chilled in her lungs, a tight fear inside her until he resurfaces, river-slick and coughing, his jacket
drenched dark.

He tries to find purchase, but the frozen layer is thin, it breaks and breaks, she can hear the harsh, irregular note of
his curses and, calm down, she wills him, he's hyperventilating from the submersion and panicking will make it worse.

"Zoe!" she shouts, spinning around, but the other woman has already realised the danger, she's approaching at
a running speed, a branch that she must have grabbed in passing clutched in her hand.

"He can't get up," River says, as soon as Zoe arrives, and she knows it, he's numbing, his core temperature dropping,
it won't be long before hypothermia begins to set in, slowing his body's reactions. She adds, "I'm the lightest."

Zoe doesn't argue, she merely holds out the branch, and River takes it, solemn, accepting the weight of it and the trust.

"Hang on, sir," Zoe urges, "we're coming." And to River, her voice grim with warning, "Crawl. And don't go nearer than
you have to, dŏng ma? Last thing we need is you both getting stuck in that hole."

"It would complicate the problem," River agrees, falling to her knees and, with no pause or hesitation, onto her stomach,
pushing the branch along with her as she advances, anchored by Zoe's grasp on her ankles.

The damp cold seeps through her clothes, into her skin, she shivers from it, and her hair trails in the snow, catching on
her elbows. Annoyed, she twists it out of the way, and extends the branch as far as she can manage, the length of her
arm. It isn't enough, so she inches forward once more, stilling at a faint squeak and tremble of ice, waits poised, her
heart palpitating, counting second after stumbling second. When nothing happens, she ventures further.

This time, the branch scrapes along the edge of the hole, but Mal is out of sight, and she cranes her neck, biting her lip
hard—then, he's there, amidst the floes, it's the current he's fighting, it buffets him, threatening to sweep him downstream,
trapped beneath the glassy surface. And it isn't hers, this dread of a slow sinking, of going under, being gone, but she
understands it.

"Mal," she says, loud, "Mal," and it cuts across, carries past the spiralling train of his thoughts. He looks straight at her
and she tells him, "You can make it."

She rattles the branch for emphasis, here! Now! He has no energy for a dry comment, but the glint in his eyes reassures
her. Movements sluggish, he paddles in her direction, and with an effort reaches for the branch, misses, hitting the snow,
but succeeds on his next attempt, and River braces for the tug.

"Pull me back," she instructs Zoe, and Jayne, whose grunt of affirmation follows Zoe's answer.

Kicking his legs horizontal, Mal labours to draw himself hand over hand as they drag him, waves sloshing, and he's up to
his belly on solid ice, ice that doesn't fracture, when he suddenly fumbles, too stiff-fingered to maintain his grip.

He'll die. The river will take him if she doesn't. The decision is split-second and River acts as quickly, discarding the useless
branch. She lunges for him, Zoe exclaiming behind her, but she's seized him by the arm, fists bunching in his jacket, and
she holds, though he's water-logged and heavy, though her muscles strain in aching protest, and it's only the counterweight
of Zoe and Jayne that keeps Mal and herself from sliding in.

"River?" Zoe's question is sharp, worry-laden, and River confirms, "Got him," then repeats it to Mal, puffing a small cloud of
mist at each panted word. "I've got you. Won't let you slip."

He closes his hand around her right wrist, clumsily—she'll have bruises there, but it's inconsequential. She can feel the deep
shudders going through him, the vibrations travel up her shoulder, and his mouth turns, not a smile, but acknowledgement,
his teeth chattering as he speaks. "That's—good."

"Try again!" she flings over her shoulder, and like that, bit by bit, they haul him out and away from the hole, and to safer
ground.

Exposed to the wind, soaked-through fabric stiffens, and she releases him, struggling to sit, her limbs sore and throbbing
from the exertion, her fingers cramped. She flexes them, noting with vague interest that they are alone, the bank is empty
but for the tracks. Jayne mutters, unfolding and stretching, brushing off caked snow, while Zoe strides over to help Mal
upright, and River rises, too, moving to Mal's other side. He's pale, his lips blue-tinged, and his lashes glitter, it's pretty,
like frost on grass.

"I have the money," Zoe informs him. "We'd better get you indoors fast."

"Warm you up," River supplies. He glances at her, and, though it isn't said, she responds to what she reads in his gaze and
gives his arm a careful pat. "You're welcome."