Mal gradually became aware of himself again, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dim light in the shuttle. He could feel a tightness around his chest, and a sharp pain in his knee that hurt something fierce. Finally he managed to sit up straight, and realized that part of the constriction he felt was due to his seatbelt, which he now vaguely remembered strapping on not long ago before they...crashed? Yes, that was it.
He had been heading back with Inara to Serenity after meeting her after...well, her business, was what he supposed it was...and the shuttle hadn’t gotten far. At the time he’d guessed it was one of the engine coils – the same ones she’d had been complaining at him to replace for about a month now – and as he looked around the cockpit he knew there would be plenty more now to repair besides the engine.
Finally, his gaze lit on Inara, slumped forward in her seat, and he felt his chest tighten further, though not from the seatbelt this time. He reached up to fumble with it and free himself, and in a matter of seconds was crouched in front of her.
“Inara? Hey there, you awake?” He lifted a hand and brushed away the hair from her face. He noticed a less than insignificant gash along her right temple. Her eyes were closed, but he could tell she was coming back to consciousness as well. She pressed her eyes even more tightly closed, her brow furrowing at what was clearly discomfort.
“Mm…” she murmured, gradually lifting her head. Mal allowed himself an inward sigh of relief that she was waking up, glancing over her for further injuries.
Judging from what her forehead looked like, he guessed she’d been jolted forward enough to smack her head against the control panel. Sure enough, when he checked her belt he found one side of the harness had torn, leaving her free to be thrown forward almost completely. He stopped himself from wondering what might have happened if both sides had broken loose, and concentrated on freeing Inara from the pieces that remained.
“Okay, now,” he murmured, opening the buckle and lifting away the straps. “How’re we doin’ here?”
Inara lifted a hand to her head, recognizing the wound she’d received, and blinked as she pulled away her fingers, contemplating the amount of blood. “Next time,” she said, sitting up, “I’m flying.” Even groggy, she still managed to sound exasperated. He managed a little smirk.
“Sure thing. Let’s just make sure we get to the next time first, sound good to you?”
“Sounds good.” She sat up, looking herself over as well as the shuttle. “Where are we?”
Mal stood once more, stiffly, and shifting as he remembered the wound at his knee. “Near as I can figure, we lost propulsion just before we cleared atom.” He strained to see out through the windows, and very little stared back at him. The sun had just gone down, and a dim orange glow still lingered on the horizon. “My guess is we’re at least a few hundred miles from anywhere, probably halfway to the uninhabited side o’ this little moon.”
“Perfect.” Inara put out a hand to steady herself on the control panel as she stood up. She looked around the cockpit, a thought occurring to her. “Is the emergency beacon working?”
He followed her gaze to the edge of the panel, moved next to her and reached over at a couple of switches. “Looks like it.” A red light flickered just below the switches he had just turned on. He gave the panel a quick smack with the palm of his hand and the light glowed more steadily now. “Serenity will know to look for it, once they don’t hear from us.”
When he straightened again he found Inara looking at him with mild concern in her expression.
“What?” he asked. “It’s working, I promise.”
“Yes, I believe you,” she answered, although there was hesitation in her voice. She turned, glanced around towards the interior of the shuttle. “Does it feel cold in here to you?”
“Well not so much as...” Mal paused. Ignoring the pain in his knee, he pushed open the curtains and found the shuttle door in the interior room – and found that it was hanging open. “Gorram it, yeah...” he let out a sigh. “That’d do it.”
He heard Inara’s footsteps behind him as he examined the door and its controls. “Oh dear,” she said, approaching.
“You can say that again.” Somehow the pair of sliding doors had been jarred open by the impact of the crash, likely something to do with the uneven terrain this far out on the moon’s surface. The temporary short in the electrical controls would have been caused at the same time, and now any warmth left in the shuttle was quickly escaping.
He sighed, trying to pull them further closed and having little luck. His hands had already started to become stiff from the cold – it was already winter on this moon as it was, and now they were under nightfall. A strong draft was coming in through the gap in the door, and taking away much of the residual heat that was left inside the shuttle. They needed to move quickly
“I keep an emergency trunk in here,” Inara said, moving towards the small storage space near the cockpit. “There’s definitely a rope, perhaps even a tarp...” She found the supplies, pulling open the lid of the trunk and searching through it. Eventually she discovered what she was looking for, and her hands emerged with a large coil of rope and a black, previously-used tarpaulin. Mal watched this with interest, impressed.
“What?” she said, apparently reading his expression. “I’m not allowed to have emergency skills? The Academy isn’t all tea ceremonies and massage, you know.”
He put his hands in the air. “Hey now, I never said a thing.”
“Sure you didn’t,” she allowed, flicking a glance at him and arching an eyebrow. “Anyhow, what else would you suggest? If we’re going to keep warm in here for a little while longer, we’ve got to do something, and I don’t see you making much progress with—”
“All right, all right, no need to get tetchy...” Mal took the tarp from her and opened it out to its full length, which was considerable enough to cover the gap in the doorway. Inara had begun to uncoil the length of rope. “Here,” he said, reaching out for the now-unraveling bundle, and brushing her hands with his as he did so. “I’ll do this part, I’m taller anyhow. You got anything in here to keep warm with?”
“Oh, I should say so,” she said, looking around and withdrawing her own hands into the folds of her cloak. He’d have thought she might have taken up his last comment with her usual humour, but she let it go. Even that much made him feel more uneasy than he already was – it seemed he and Inara had ever managed to talk straight were in times of crisis.
“Well, any blankets or...anything that might be useful...” He turned away, began lashing the makeshift door covering to what bolts and hooks he could find. Best to take care of basic needs first, and worry about conversation later.
“I’ll see what I can find.” Mal heard her move away, searching her belongings.
* * *
Several moments later he tied the last knot and straightened again, surveying his work. It wasn’t airtight by any means, but it was better than the alternative. He flexed his hands, now considerably stiff and cold from the effort, then cupped them in front of his mouth to heat them with his breath.
Inara had indeed found a few blankets, which were now piled together on the sofa. She’d pulled one around her own shoulders, and was assembling candles on the small table.
“Is this really a time for ambiance?” He made an attempt at levity but it fell flat. Inara simply shot him a flicker of annoyance.
“Heat, Mal,” she said, pulling a small box of matches out of her pockets. “We can’t exactly build a campfire in the middle of my shuttle, but we can at least light these.”
She began to do just that, and sure enough, the flames from the candles collected there – it seemed like more than a dozen – was strong. He didn’t need any further encouragement to sit down. He crossed the few steps across the small sitting room, glad of the warmth that there was.
“I also tried the Comm for a minute, while you were working,” she added, and shook her head. “All I got was static.”
“How’s your head?” He watched her carefully, noting her movements. She was acting purposefully, but none too swiftly. He’d seen head injuries turn south quickly, and suspected she wasn’t about to wear her discomfort on her sleeve if she was having trouble.
Inara paused, brought a hand to her forehead. “I’ve been better,” she said. “But I’ll manage.” She came to sat down next to him, gingerly lifting a hand towards his leg. “How’s your knee?”
“Ah, well,” he considered, having managed to ignore it while he’d had a task to focus on. “Don’t imagine I’ll be walkin’ even for a few days, but mostly I think it’s just a bang-up.” He started a little as Inara’s fingers touched the knee in question, pulling at the fabric of his pant leg. “It’ll do for now, Inara, no need to go pokin’ around...” He caught her hand and lifted it away.
Her brow furrowed a little. “Your hands are freezing,” she said, concern in her expression. She left her hand where it was, pressed against his, and brought her free hand up to do the same – not that her hands were warm as a fire, either, but he admitted they didn’t feel so bad, where they were.
“Yeah,” he said, eventually pulling his hand away, and reaching instead for a blanket. “Best avail myself of some layers.” He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, making note to tuck his hands inside the folds. She’d found a few bottles of water, too, he could see, and had taken the liberty of setting them next to the table. He found himself giving Inara a little wink, as if reassuring her that he wasn’t about to freeze, then felt strange having done so.
She was quiet for a moment, then stood again. “I’ll make tea,” she said. “Surely that will help.”
“And what exactly kinda tea are we talkin’ about?”
Inara paused to flicker a brief glare in his direction. “Nothing fancy, Mal. Peppermint all right with you?”
“Sure,” he said, looking back at the collection of candles and reminding himself this really wasn’t the time for jokes and barbs. Trouble is, he was still figuring else what else that left him to work with.
She set up the little gas burner she kept in the corner of the shuttle, and lit the flame to heat the kettle. Tucking her hands underneath her own blanket and robes, she paused and waited for it to boil. “Sometimes tea is just tea, you know, Mal,” she added quietly. “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
He looked up at her, but couldn’t see her expression, as she stood with her back to him. Somehow he didn’t think he needed to, either. He didn’t bother responding.
A few moments later he let her put a cup in his hands, wordlessly, and he was instantly grateful. He put both hands around it and felt them warming immediately, despite the persistent draft. The first sip was too warm, too bracing – but the second was better, warming him from the inside. He kept the cup in his hand.
“Good tea,” he said after a moment.
From the side of his vision he could see her blinking, registering this. “Thank you,” she said, more gently than he might have thought.
“I guess I haven’t been as quick on the repairs as I should have been,” he offered. Considering the damages they’d just sustained, he knew there would be no choice in the matter, now.
Inara set down her own cup of tea on the table, tucking her arms back inside her blanket. “I know money’s been tight,” she said. “And I know Serenity takes priority first, not my little shuttle.”
Mal looked over at her. She was looking ahead at the candles, as if thinking something through. He couldn’t read her very well just then, and it made him want to keep talking, filling the silence with something - anything.
“Well sure, but this shuttle’s part of Serenity, too.” He looked up and glanced around the small room, noticing Inara’s things. It occurred to him that he’d lost track of what the inside of the shuttle had even been like before Inara came on board, he’d become so used to her presence here. “O’ course, it’s a lot nicer lookin’ than the rest of the ship, but it’s still Serenity’s all the same.” He smiled a little as he looked back at Inara, but found her expression still serious.
“Well, I’ve done a good job of making it look good on the outside, at least.” She began looking around at the walls just as he had done. “I wish I knew more about the rest of it, though, maybe I could have helped with the upkeep somehow...”
Mal’s smile broadened a little further at the idea, struck by an endearing image of Inara working away with wrenches and soldering irons. “You gonna take lessons from Kaylee, now? Engine repair and the like?”
Inara’s mouth began to curve into the very hint of a smile and he relaxed just a little.
“Sure, why not?” she mused. “I’ll get my own jumpsuit and boots, a few tools…Besides, my head wishes I’d at least learned to fix that seatbelt, let alone the engine.” She lifted a hand to her forehead, brushing the marks left by their crash. She sniffed a little, as if admonishing herself for a fault.
Part of him quailed at the idea that anything that had happened in the last hour was due to anything but his own neglect. He wasn’t about to let that fact fade away just yet.
“I do believe you’re stealing my thunder, woman,” he said. “Plenty of blame to go around, most of it mine I expect.” He shifted towards her, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief and then opening a bottle of water to splash over it. At least the water itself was cold, he thought to himself, even if they had no ice. “Here, should have done this first thing...”
He brought the damp cloth to her forehead, pressing it gently over the wound. She winced slightly, but relaxed again as he kept the handkerchief where it was. He brushed it then across the wound a couple of times, cleaning it a little.
“You sure you’ve just got the one bump, now...” He reached up with his free hand to make sure. He pushed the hair away from her face, looking over the other side of her forehead and neck. It took him almost a full thirty seconds before he realized he was touching Inara’s perfectly smooth and unmarked skin, and then felt his cheeks warm as he pulled his hand away again.
“It’s very chivalrous of you to ask, Mal, but I think I’ll survive.” She reached up to take the cloth in her own hands, lifting away his own hand in the process.
Mal nodded, feeling awkward. “Sure, well, you never know with concussions and head wounds and all...”
“I’m sure Simon will be pleased with your First Aid efforts.” It was a reminder of the waiting game they were still playing.
“Sure. Just so long as we’re not in the grips of hypothermia by then...” At that, Mal stood, slight urgency returning. “You know, it’s been a while since that beacon’s been turned on, I think I’d best give the radio a try again. Never know, after all.”
Inara picked up her tea again with her free hand. “You never know.” She smiled at Mal briefly before he turned away towards the cockpit.
* * *
Mal tried for a short while to rewire the radio, cursing intermittently. Finally he thought he was getting through, could hear some voices on the other end of the transmission, but wasn’t convinced anyone was hearing him. He spoke their estimated location three times, hoping something was working.
At the very least, he could see the flashing indicator on the beacon, so that was a comfort that one thing on this shuttle was still functioning properly. He checked the clock again, too – it had been more than an hour since they’d crashed, and things certainly weren’t getting any warmer inside. He drew up the collar of his coat as high as it would go, and wished he’d worn the blanket when he left Inara’s sitting room.
Standing again, he rubbed his hands a little, blowing warm air into them and trying to keep circulation going. He lifted away the curtain as he moved into the other room, and was struck once more by the chill in the air. It was definitely getting cooler.
Inara still sat where she’d been before, though now her teacup stood empty on the table in front of her, along with the handkerchief. She was still, and he thought for a moment her eyes were simply downcast, watching the flicker of the candlelight. He rarely managed an uninterrupted opportunity to simply look at her, and he was no less struck by her beauty, even now in the cold.
He realized then, though, that she was not simply observing the light but had in fact closed her eyes. This, he knew, was not a good plan, not given their state.
“Hey now,” he said, gentle but assertive. “Not nearly time for that yet.” He saw her blink her eyes open again, registering that she’d begun to doze off.
“Oh...” Inara shivered a little, wrapping the blanket more tightly around her. “I didn’t mean to. I know I probably shouldn’t.”
“Still need to let the Doc look at you. That’ll be happenin’ soon enough, I expect, just need to wait a bit longer.” He sat next to her again, lifting his blanket around his shoulders again.
“Any luck with the radio?”
“Some, I think. Looks like somethin’s transmitting, just a matter of waiting.”
“Mm,” she murmured back. She shivered again, her shoulders burying farther inside her blanket.
Mal reached over next to him and took the last one there was, unfolding it and starting to lift it around her.
“What are you doing?” she asked suddenly, eyes widening just a little as she flinched at his movements.
“Tryin’ to keep you warm, as a matter of fact,” he answered. “In case it hasn’t taken your notice, you’re shiverin’ more than a little, and I ain’t too keen on adding hypothermia to our list of injuries.” He let the blanket come to rest around her, wrapped it around her as best he could before tucking his arms around himself again.
“It would be just our luck, crashing out here in the middle of winter,” she commented. “I don’t suppose anyone’s ever managed to do this in the heat of summer...or even a balmy spring afternoon would be nice...” He could see her imagining this now, and her eyes closed again as she began to form the mental picture in her head.
“Sure, then it’d be a problem of staying cool,” he thought out loud. “We’d be tryin’ to put together fans and searchin’ for water.”
“Ah,” she said. “Perhaps it’s just as well, then. At least my skill set includes boiling tea.”
“And emergency preparedness,” he added.
“And that, yes,” she said, and gave another vague shiver. “After all, a girl can’t just get by on her good looks out in the black, even a Companion.”
“I believe it.” Mal noticed her eyes starting to blink heavily again. “Hey, none of that,” he said again.
“I’m not tired,” she responded defensively, opening her eyes again. “I’m just...trying to conserve my energy.”
“Sure,” he said, not believing her at all. “You’re like one of those doves that always line the fences near the docking bays on Persephone. One minute they’re watchin’ your every move, and the next they’ve got their heads down on their feathers, eyes closed without a care in the world.”
That made her smile, in spite of herself. “Do they at least have fine plumage?” she asked, “These doves by the docks?” She sounded skeptical, even as she glanced around at the grey and purple wool around her shoulders.
“Oh, the prettiest, you can be sure,” Mal answered, although he didn’t pay much mind to what he was saying just then. “And they don’t mind the cold, either, but somehow I don’t think I can say the same for you, darlin’.”
“I’ve got two blankets and my heaviest cloak, I think I’ll be...What are you doing?” she interrupted again, as he shifted closer to her and reached around her shoulders with one arm.
“I’m tryin’ to keep you warm, you stubborn woman, you ain’t gettin’ very far with those layers o’ yours. I don’t fancy the tongue-lashing I’ll get tomorrow if you wake up with a fever.” He let both of his arms come to rest around her, and his blanket at the same time. “Now come here,” he said. “And don’t fall asleep, either.”
“I’ll try not to get too comfortable.” The veil of defensive humour still lingered in her words, but she acquiesced, letting herself lean against him.
After a few moments he felt her shifting again, becoming more comfortable and settling her cheek against his shoulder. He had to admit to himself that it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant situation to be in, potential hypothermia notwithstanding.
He rubbed one hand against her back, as if in demonstration of the purpose of his attentiveness to her. “Feeling any warmer?”
“Mm.” She breathed deeply and easily, letting out a more relaxed sigh than what he’d heard from her before. “Yes, a little.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“You know, you still never fail to surprise me, Malcolm Reynolds,” she said, and he looked down at her, his attention caught by her use of his full name.
“I suppose I’m glad to hear that, too,” he answered. “Any particular reason, though?”
She paused for a moment, still bent against him, her eyes blinking leisurely. “I never took you for such a gentleman.”
“Well,” he said, unsure how to respond. “I don’t know that I ever took myself for one either. But I do know that I don’t take kindly to a lady catchin’ her harm from cold. ‘Specially such a pretty one.”
He let out a sigh, as if relieved to have admitted as much, but Inara remained quiet. They were speaking more gently now, and even that much made him relax further. For a moment he thought she might have fallen asleep - He looked down at her face, brought a hand to lift away a few strands of hair from her eyes. She was still awake, had only let her gaze become distant, and her thoughts seemed to have drifted elsewhere.
“Anyhow,” he continued, “I’d have thought you would have had plenty of gentlemen fallin’ around after you, what with your trade an’ all.”
“Mm,” she murmured, as if in agreement. “Sometimes I do.” She shifted, lifted her head to look at him, and her breath clouded in the chilled air between them as she spoke. “But it rarely occurs to any of them to do this.”
His brow furrowed, as he considered her last comment. He looked around the shuttle, wondering what she could possibly mean. “What, crash your shuttle for you in the middle of nowhere?”
“No.” She shook her head a little, a brief smile toying at her lips. She leaned her head back again, resting against his shoulder. He could feel her breath, warm against his neck. “This,” she repeated. “They never hold me.”
“Oh,” he said, and this time was genuinely at a loss for words. He leaned back further, settling back against the cushions, pulling their blankets around them more closely. He wrapped his arms around her.
He felt her arms relax, unfolding and letting a hand press against his chest. He waited, wondering what else she would say, and when no other words came he realized they were not needed.
* * *
Serenity’s lights eventually flashed above them, signaling their rescue. Neither of them moved until the last, their breathing rising and falling with the other.
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