Edited 17-08-2010 to fix html errors, typos and other minor errors.

She was paraphrasing one of the Browncoat leader's speeches, but the next phrases were her own.

"We're survivors, you and me. We fought and we lost but we're still standing. The Alliance kicked us down but we're getting back up. That makes us heroes. Big damn heroes.

"And heroes don't give up."

It was a backwater settlement on a backwater planet. That had been one of the things that had appealed to Mal. It meant no Alliance presence, for one thing. On reflection, it also meant a distinct lack of medical facilities.

Flip – Zoë couldn't remember the man's actual name; he'd garbled something long and unintelligible at her when they met and told her everyone called him Flip – was a solider they'd met during the last days of the war.

Officially of course the war was over, but the Alliance liked to gloat, and to do paperwork, and what was left of the platoons on Hera had been taken to an Alliance ship for processing. Food and water, a change of clothes, medical attention. Filling in their names on half a dozen forms to prove they'd survived and to forever enshrine the fact they'd been on the wrong side of the war.

Flip had been fighting on another planet and was the only survivor of his platoon. He'd gravitated to Mal and Zoë for companionship, and while they weren't much in the mood to be friendly, they weren't about to be mean to a fellow Browncoat who'd suffered as they had. For their part, Mal and Zoë had stuck together as much as possible. Zoë stuck by Mal not just because she trusted him with her life, but because she didn't trust him not to get himself in a fight with the Alliance guards. On more than one occasion she'd had to divert his attention before he pushed one of their overlords too far with his sarcastic barbs.

"I didn't help you survive the war for you to get yourself killed now, sir," she told him and each time Mal had glared at the man he was insulting and then wandered away.

Once free of the Alliance, the three of them talked about where to go, what to do. There was talk of a resistance movement beginning but Mal and Zoë were too weary to start fighting all over again and Flip had a better idea. He came from a small planet, so far out it wasn't worth the attention of the Alliance, and he was going to head back there, become a farmer. There were other opportunities too; mining, cattle ranching, stables to manage.

"I know a little about cattle," Mal had said, and so the trio had made the long journey out here.

Zoë hated the planet the moment she stepped off the ship. The sky was perpetually a rusty orange and the wind was constant and stank of brimstone. Even Flip wrinkled his nose and said, apologetically, "I forgot what home smelt like."

Flip's house was small but well-kept; Gala, a neighbour's daughter had kept an eye on it, tidied it for him when she heard the war was over. Flip seemed oblivious to the daughter's obvious attraction to him; Mal rolled his eyes and Zoë decided she'd talk to the girl and impress upon her the need to be more forthright with Flip. He was a nice man, but, as was so often the case, somewhat dense.

There was a spare room, and Mal insisted Zoë take it, becoming strangely gallant – Zoë thought maybe he was trying to give Flip pointers in a roundabout way. She didn't protest, and was grateful to sleep in a proper bed that first night, while Mal slept on the shabby sofa in the living area.

The basic plan was to help Flip plant the crops for this season, tend them, harvest them, sell them. It was a fast growing crop meant as animal feed, and the first cycle would only take four months. With the profits, they'd buy some cattle, and Mal would take primary responsibility for the cows while Flip took primary responsibility for the next round of crops, but it would still be a partnership. Zoë would, as always, just do what most needed to be done.

There was a ramshackle barn that Mal was certain could be fixed up to meet their requirements, and he had plans to build a small dwelling next to it so he didn't have to sleep on Flip's sofa for the rest of his life.

Zoë had her doubts, but she kept them to herself. Mal was in love with the idea of this quiet life right now but she was certain it wouldn't last. A month, a year, and he'd be bored. So she bade her time, listening as Mal talked about crop rotation as if he really knew anything about it.

They helped prepare the fields. They helped plant the seeds – Gala joined in and Zoë had a few words with her about Flip's inability to see what was in front of him.

Six weeks passed and Zoë gave Mal credit where it was due; she was sure they'd have been thumbing a lift on the next ship going anywhere-but-here by now.

The rains came. The only mercy was that the damp air smelt of mud rather than sulphur. For two weeks it poured almost non-stop. Flip was delighted. The feedstuff he was growing might be ready ahead of schedule if the weather kept up like this he said. Zoë thought this might be the last straw but Mal simply donned his wet weather gear and tended the crops as always.

The two horses had their coats put on and were shut away in a concrete floored stable to protect them from the vagaries of the weather. Zoë envied them somewhat, having nothing to do but stay dry and eat hay.

The next week, Gala came back from the market with news that the Fever was back. Flip paled visibly and when pressed by Mal, said it hadn't been seen for ten years. Last time was when the rains were this bad. It was a cruel irony that the rains, full of nutrients, would ensure bumper crops yet carried with them a disease that had once decimated the population.

It had an impressive range of symptoms and a high fatality rate. Men were more susceptible to the illness, Gala said and Zoë just nodded and thought weaker sex, my ass.

With each meal, they ate blueberries, a variety of which was thankfully common here, as this fruit was the folkloric preventative measure against the disease. Three days later however Mal refused the evening meal. Zoë found him throwing up outside.

"You're not allowed to get sick, sir," she said.

"I give the orders not you," Mal said without malice, adding, more sternly, "Don't tell the others."

The next day, while they were weeding the parallel rows of green stalks, Mal passed out. When he came to, it was in Zoe's bed.

"My turn for the sofa," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. Outside a storm started, the lightening slicing through the grey and russet sky.

Gala boiled lavender in a huge pan of water and used the resulting mixture to bathe Mal's face and neck, but to no avail. He was already feverish though his skin was cold and clammy and his breathing was becoming laboured.

They moved the bed into the living space, close to the fire. Gala looked nervous every time Flip sneezed. Zoë hoped this still might pass; it happened sometimes, Flip said. If the fever subsided during the night, it showed a natural immunity to the disease, and there was no need to worry. Zoë felt sure this would be this case.

By morning however, it was obvious she was wrong.

"I can't feel my legs," Mal told her, almost matter-of-factly.

Zoë looked to Flip in desperation.

"There was to be something other than lavender water," she said.

"There is," he replied. "We're waiting on a supply ship to bring the drugs. The Chief Overseer put in a request as soon as the first case was confirmed. If we're lucky it has been delivered now, or will be in the next day or so."

That reassurance was diluted by Gala. It was no use relying on the Alliance, she said. One crate of the antibiotic drugs would be delivered to the largest town and that would be it. If they wanted the cure they'd have to go and get it themselves, hope there was enough go around, and pay through the nose for it.

It would take maybe a day to get to the township on foot in good weather, but with the dangerous conditions caused by the still constant downpours, it would be more like two or even three depending on how well some of the trails held up. Maybe a six day round trip.

"How long does he have?" Zoë asked.

Flip and Gala exchanged glances. "Maybe three days," Flip said. "He was strong and healthy before the disease took hold. Four if we're lucky."

"It depends on the individual," Gala said. "If he can fight it, maybe longer. And, rarely, someone survives even the worst of the Fever without any drugs."

Despite the risks and the low chance of success, the three of them all agreed they had to try and fetch the medicine. Zoë found out the small amount of money given to her by the Alliance to "start a new, more honourable, life".

"I'll go," Flip said. "I know the terrain."

"You're not going alone," Zoë protested. "It's too dangerous in this weather."

Gala agreed. "What if you get sick on the way there?" she demanded. "You must take one of us with you."

While Flip slipped a leather bag around his neck and dressed in multiple layers against the cold and wet, Zoë and Gala argued briefly about which of them should go with Flip and which should stay with Mal.

"I've lived here my whole life," Gala said. "I know the trails better than you do. And I love Flip. I'll keep him safe."

Zoë protested; she wanted to be the one taking action, not sitting wringing her hands.

"Mal needs you," Gala said. "You have to keep him alive until we get back. You were at war together. He trusts you; he barely knows me. You can talk to him, make him hold on. Just like I'll take care of Flip, you need to take care of Mal."

"It's not the same," Zoë said. "We're not…I don't love him."

Gala shrugged. "Not like a husband, maybe. But you love him like he's family," she said.

Zoë made a pot of the hot, sweet, tea that Flip served with every meal. It was almost as good as a meal in itself calorie wise. She kept sipping at it, long after it had cooled, hoping the sugar would keep her alert. She made Mal drink too, grateful for any dribble of fluid she got into him.

"How long they going to be gone?" he asked her.

"A little while," Zoë said, poker face firmly in place. "The storm's starting to blow itself out but the rain hasn't quieted any. They'll have to take it slow, but they'll be here, sir"

Mal tried to moisten dry lips with his tongue. "The war's over. You don't have to call me 'sir'." It was a regular conversation and Zoë was grateful for the familiarity of it.

"Force of habit, sir." Zoë drained her mug. "I'm going to make more tea."

The hours dragged by. Zoë passed the time reminiscing on the few lighter moments they'd shared during the war, or telling Mal stories from before the war. When she ran out of personal anecdotes, she dredged up folk tales from her childhood, stories of monsters and heroes, tales from far-off moons and myths from Earth-that-was.

She wasn't used to talking so much and it added to the emotional strain, but the silence was heavy and oppressive, and so she kept rambling, trying to engage Mal in conversation lest he slip away while she wasn't paying attention.

On the third day, Mal said, "Don't bury me on this godforsaken planet."

"You're not dying here," Zoë said firmly. "Anyhow, I think they prefer cremation."

"Then cremate me and scatter the ashes in space," Mal muttered. "Better out there, better to be free." It was the first time in two days he'd managed more than one sentence at a time and Zoë was not comforted that he only found the strength to do so now when fixated on such a morbid topic.

She was no more comforted when that night Mal found his voice again and spent several hours thrashing about in his delirious state, veering between muttering unintelligibly and shouting odd phrases in Chinese.

By the fifth day, Zoë was beginning to get stir crazy. The tea supplies were running low and the lavender was all gone. The storm was over and at least the ever-present rain had slowed from downpouring to moderate, which would make Flip and Gala's return journey go a little faster. Zoë refused to consider that they might not make it back, or would come back empty-handed.

"Don't stay here," Mal said softly as bathed his face again. "I know you only came here 'cause I did."

"That's right, I did. And I'll stay as long as you're here, or we'll both leave together."

He swallowed painfully. "…don't think that's going to be possible."

"This again? Who are you and where is Sergeant Reynolds? I never heard him talk like that, not once, not even in our darkest hour of the war." Zoë flung the cloth aside.

"Sergeant Reynolds…died on Hera. Just…Malcolm Reynolds now." He closed his eyes. Zoë knew he'd left his faith in God and a lot of faith in humanity back on Hera, along with his hope for freedom for the Alliance. She wondered if she should have mentioned the war in this context and figured it was too late to take it back. So she pressed onwards, instead.

"Nothing wrong with that. We are who we are. You know, I didn't help you survive the war to have you die now, sir." Zoë squeezed Mal's hand tightly. "You just have to hold on a while longer. It'd be shameful, a war hero like you succumbing to some peasant's disease on a backwater like this."

Mal, too weak now to even open his eyes, swallowed painfully. "Not a hero."

"Sure you are. We are both are." Zoë blinked hard. She wouldn't cry, not in front of Mal, even if he couldn't see her tears. "We fought not because we thought we could win, but because we couldn't not. We gave our all against incredible odds."

She was paraphrasing one of the Browncoat leader's speeches, but the next phrases were her own.

"We're survivors, you and me. We fought and we lost but we're still standing. The Alliance kicked us down but we're getting back up. That makes us heroes. Big damn heroes.

"And heroes don't give up."

He was silent for a long moment before the ghost of a smile crossed his lips.

"Big…damn….heroes," Mal muttered, squeezing her hand in return. "I like… sound of that."

He fell silent and his hand went limp in her grasp. Frantically, Zoë searched for a pulse and found one, faint and slow, but regular. She spent the next three hours with her heart in her throat, checking frequently that he was still breathing at all.

At last the door flew open and Flip, closely followed by Gala, entered. They were both soaked through, and covered in mud. Gala's raincoat was torn and Flip had a long scratch on one side of his face. Gala bolted the door behind them, shutting out the wind, and Flip ran over, shrugging off his coat.

"We're not too late?"

"No." Zoë watched with relief as Flip stripped off his sweater to reveal the small leather bag. He pulled out a vial of clear liquid and a syringe from the pouch.

"One in the arm," Flip ordered and Zoë pulled back Mal's sleeve so Flip could administer the first injection. Gala, still panting with exertion, pulled off her damaged coat and came over to watch. "Now we wait, at least one minute."

Zoë mentally counted to sixty. "Now what?"

Flip reached into the bag and pulled out another vial and a second syringe. The contents of this vial were blue. Flip frowned in concentration as he filled the needle with the precious liquid.

"This one has to go directly into the heart." Flip sounded nervous and now his hand was shaking.

Zoë stared at him. "Are you sure?"

"That's what the doctor said," Flip told her and looked to Gala for support. She nodded in agreement and Zoë pushed back the blankets. She undid Mal's shirt and looked back at Flip, who looked like he was about to throw up. Understandable that he was nervous; she had, at least, given an adrenaline shot to the heart once before. Of course she'd be more comforted by that thought if the soldier hadn't died despite her efforts. Still, it had to be done. She held out her hand.

"Let me."

Flip didn't argue, pushing the hypodermic into her outstretched palm. He stepped back and put one arm around Gala. Zoë could have done without the audience but she tried to block their presence from her mind. She focussed on the task at hand, using two fingers to work up from the base of ribs to locate the heart and trying then to find a suitable space between the ribs to administer the shot.

"Flip, is there any of the drug left?"

He swallowed audibly. "Yes, enough for one more shot. And there are two more syringes."

If she missed, hit a rib and damaged the syringe, she had one more chance then. That took the pressure off a notch. Zoë took a deep, calming breath, and jammed the needle into Mal's heart.

Mal slept for two days. Zoë and Gala took turns checking on him, but his fever was gone and his heart rate and breathing had returned to normal. The rain finally stopped and they began to harvest the crops.

When Mal finally woke up, he wanted to help, but at first it was all he could do to sit on a chair outside and help tie up the bales. After a few days he began to regain his strength, eating voraciously at every meal – "Making up for lost time" he said.

One more week later, when the harvesting was complete, Mal and Flip were sitting outside, looking at the stars. Gala was cooking up a special punch over a bonfire a small distance away, and instructing Zoë in how to add the various herbs to give a particular kick.

"You're leaving," Flip said suddenly, apropos of nothing.

Mal's mouth dropped open and he shut it again quickly. "I hadn't rightly decided."

"Yes, you have." Flip gazed up at the open sky. "You're not a farmer, Mal. You long to be back out there."

Mal shook his head. "I promised to help you and I don't break promises. Especially to men who've saved my life."

"We had a bountiful first crop. I'll be fine, Mal. With my share, I can even hire some help if needs be." Flip smiled. "Just promise you won't leave before the wedding."

"Wedding?" Mal looked over at Gala, who was urging Zoë to sample the punch.

Flip nodded. "We were on our way back to you, and we fell into a bog. I thought we were done for, but I wasn't going to give up. I reached for Gala, to try and help her, and I thought she would be afraid but she wasn't. She said: 'We are going to live through this and then you are going to marry me.' How could I refuse?"

"And why would you want to?" Mal laughed. "That is fantastic. I'm pleased for you, Flip. A home, a wife, a way to make a living that doesn't destroy your soul. Who could ask for more?"

"You." Flip pointed to sky, between the two moons. "That's where freedom is for you. I see how look at the sky. You need to be free and if you ever marry it will be to a woman who understands that."

Mal wondered if these were really Flip's introspections and the younger man was better at reading people when they weren't, like Gala, so close to him. Or maybe Gala had confided these things to Flip for she seemed a rather perceptive woman, and one that would be of great help to Flip in the years ahead.

"You're probably right," Mal conceded. "At least you've found the one who understands you. Don't let ever let her go, you hear?"

Flip nodded. "Same goes for Zoë," he said. "I know you're not lovers, but she understands you. Keep her close."

Mal stood as the two women headed towards them, bearing hot glasses of punch. "I have every intention of doing just that."

Shortly after, with Flip and Gala wedded, and the crops sold and the profits split, Mal and Zoë managed to get a ride on a ship headed towards civilization.

A few odd jobs and several planets later, Mal laid eyes on the ship he would name Serenity and the rest was history.