Yes, I support weird pairings.

This one's hard to write for. I forgive everyone who's ever had an idea and then scrapped it.

There comes a time in every man's life when he is given to wonder; what, in the name of all that is good and holy in the 'verse, has gone wrong?

For Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this time came as he floated in the dark and the cold of the black.

And, oddly enough, he knew exactly what had.

Just now, his whole crew was huddled in Inara's rented shuttle. There was only enough power left to keep Serenity from freezing completely over – not warm, far from warm, but not cold as black – and then for re-entry in two days' time.

The last planet they touched down on was impoverished just a mite too severely for Mal to take their fuel, no matter the price; a couple hundred creds didn't move crops at harvest time.

So. They had gone away knowing full well what that all meant, and Wash had pointed them in a planet-wise direction, and Kaylee had slowed a heartbeat to a shiver and now Mal's ship was in a coma.

And Mal was drifting in nullgrav with a facemask and all the warm clothes he could scavenge from the rooms nearest the infirmary, where he had picked up the oh-two pack. Which meant raiding the passengers' dorms. Which meant some sort of an apology later…or just throwing the things back in the forest of nullgrav-floating clothes and no one knowing better.

Mal knew that he shouldn't be in the engineroom like this.

He knew that he should be in Inara's shuttle, the last bastion of low light and skimped warmth.

He should be huddled next to Kaylee, drinking her moonshine to keep warm and kissing her temple when she fell asleep with her pretty smile.

He should be sitting close-but-not-too-close to Inara, making her shiny hair stand up and avoiding eye contact.

But, instead of all those things, he was floating in the engineroom, shivering from 238-kay degrees of unshininess.

The air in his portable oh-two pack tasted like water left out five days. The big, thick sweater was Simon's, as found in River's room, drifting near the ceiling.

The blanket Mal had wrapped around himself like a cocoon was River's, though. Off her bed. Who knew how often she actually slept there.

It would probably smell like her. If he didn't have the facemask on.

He just drifted, looking at the small spark at the heart of the glacially slow central turbine. Whuuum…long, long seconds, until maybe it wasn't going to turn ever again…whuuum.

Mal didn't like having his ship in a coma.

Just like with the smell and the mask, Mal would've heard her coming if his ears weren't plugged to keep his brain from leaking out in the low atmo pressure.

But he didn't hear her. She just appeared out of the dark with ice-cold fingers, clamping onto his shoulder through four inches of cotton and gen-hanced sheep's wool.

Oh. He speculated that now there wouldn't be any girl-style warm clothes in River's room, either.

- And that was another thing, right there, that Mal didn't even think that it might be one of the other girls. Long fingers, uncalloused. Could've been Inara, maybe, but it wasn't, because Inara would never be out in the ship with low atmo and 238-kay and nullgrav. Because Inara might be a bit loose-kneed, but she was still most of the way toward commonly sensed.

River's colliding with him gave them both inertia enough to hit the wall – or the ceiling, or the floor, hard to tell with no light and nullgrav and small crazy people crushing ribcages at will.

As they lazily started to bounce away, Mal pushed a hand out of his River's-blanket cocoon and took her wrist, kept her with him. Her skin was tight and inflexible over her bones, and he thought that he was going to break her.

He threw her own blanket around her shoulders and tried not to feel like he was sharing.

Mal checked under all her anemone hair for earplugs, because she didn't have much brains to spare to low atmo leaking. Then, he convinced her to hang onto his shoulders and keep the blanket wrapped around them as Mal bumped and flew his way through the back hall and the dining room and the huge, empty expanse of the cargo bay and to the door of the shuttle.

He knocked as best he could. His fingers weren't working well.

The door slid open and plenty of hands pulled them in as fast as possibly and the air was suddenly fifty-kay warmer and the oh-two mask was dragged away and the earplugs popped out.

He clutched at a bulkhead, sputtering and clearing his ears, trying to draw in a longer breath than the incredibly ungraceful gasps he was struggling for.

When his vision was less spotty, he peering into the dim shuttle and saw, yes, River, wrapped in her blanket and her brother and Kaylee and Inara. Her hair was still splayed around her head and her lips were lined with blue.

He coughed to himself, "Of course she gets the attention."

Wash pushed himself over, just as comfortable in nullgrav as he was in a pilot's chair. "Aww. Mal, do you need a hug?"

Book, looking silly in a multicolored sweater-thing that had to have been a gift on an Earth-That-Was holiday that wasn't even in his faith, said sternly, "We thought you'd done yourself harm. We still don't know how or when our River went out after you."

Mal evened out his breathing and sighed. He rubbed the side of his pants leg and growled, "I need to have words with her. River. Do me a shine and pry her away from her keeper, willya?"

"On it, bossman," Wash said.

Two minutes passed and then Mal and River had another low-velocity collision. He grabbed her forearm to hold her in place.

Simon cleared his throat and gave Mal a look that spoke volumes about how small the shuttle really was and how much of this little meeting hinged solely on the fact that River had been wearing most of the blanket when they came in.

Mal left go of River's hand and left her take hold of his, instead, anchoring them together against the wall.

She said, "Heart near froze over."

Mal said, "Maybe it did. Nearly. Not all the way."

"Not yet, leastways."

"No. Not yet."

"Might someday."

"Let's hope it don't."

She smiled and her eyes focused on his ear. The color was coming back into her lips. Not blue anymore.

Mal said, low so that her brother wouldn't hear, "You understand – why you shouldn't have followed me out there, when it's all cold'n such?"

"Yes." She swallowed wetly, blearily refocused her eyes on his opposite shoulder. "But if River hadn't ventured, your heart would've frozen."

"And I thank ye kindly for that, Missy, I surely do. I'm just thinkin' that the next time you feel it necessary to venture, you should allay those particular urges until such time as it's above 238-kay."

"Duly noted in the log, Cap'n," she said, rapid and harsh.

Mal glanced around, glared at Simon until Simon turned to look away, and then leaned in even closer, working the cold overtime to keep the color out. "We needn't explain about my heart and the nearly freezin' to others, isn't that right?"


"Good. Just – you run along now, y'hear?"

She let go of her anchor and put out another arm to catch Simon, and then swiveled her doll-head to lean it against Simon's shoulder and wink somewhat incongruously back at Mal.


What has gone wrong? Mal asked him himself.

And he knew; Not much.

Not much at all.