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Trauma Medicine

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She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway.

* * * * *

Jayne is in a powerful good mood. Spent the whole of las' night in a bordello with a whore so good he found hisself wantin' to kiss her on the mouth. And unlike most mornin'-afters, he ain't hungover. Cos she served him one hundred percent genuine rice wine, not that gorram wood alcohol stuff you get in most cat-houses. He whistles his way up the cargo bay ramp.

The whistle freezes in his mouth when he sees the Captain striding over towards him, face like thunder, fists clenched and shoulders tense. Jayne ain't been under his command more'n a few weeks but he's already developed a healthy, uh, respect for the man. Fear would be puttin' it too strong. He considers whether he should try to dodge the punch he's sure is comin' or if he should jus' brace hisself an' get it over with.

"You're late."

"Thought you said we was leavin' at ten? 's only jus' gone nine." Jayne takes a step to the side. Jus' in case.

Mal glares at him. "So you were thinkin' - what? That you di'n't have to help out with stowin' the cargo? That we could do all the manual labour while you had yourself one more tumble?"

Jayne looks bewildered. "But .. we stowed all them crates las' night, di'n't we?"

"That ain't the point," Mal snaps, suddenly realizin' he ain't real sure what the point is his own self and before Jayne can ask, he stalks off to the bridge.

Jayne narrows his eyes as he watches him go. Wondering.

* * * * *

"Got a course set yet?" Mal asks Wash a touch impatiently as the pilot enters the kitchen.

"Yep. All done. Should be touching down on Sihnon in ten days time," Wash tells him with a defiantly cheery grin. If Mal wants to do the tetchy, well, that's his problem.

"Should be? Should be? I need better than that." Mal slaps a hand down on the table top. "We don't make that registration point on time, we'll be flyin' without documentation. An' we all know what that means."

"We'll make it, Mal. I mean, we'll make it Captain Harbatkin, Sir," Wash replies with an exaggerated wink, hoping for a bit of camaraderie between folks pulling the wool over the Alliance's eyes.

None is forthcoming. Mal grunts something like "Better had" under his breath and drains his coffee. Oughta take more sugar with it, Wash thinks as the Captain grimaces at the cold bitter taste.

"Mornin', Sir." Zoe steps down into the room. "Everythin' OK?" she asks, noting the tight lines around his mouth.

Unusually Zoe has not tied her hair back. This morning it tumbles in soft, inviting waves around her face, down past her long graceful neck, stopping a little short of her perfect breasts. A sharp reminder to Mal that she ain't jus' Zoe, his second-in-command, his comrade-in-arms. She's a separate person an', what's more, a woman person. With all that that implies.

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.

"'parently not. If your husband's to be believed." Mal stands up. "Gonna go get the paperwork ready. You an' Jayne run through the health and safety rules. Make sure we're in" - his lips twist as he says the word - "compliance."

Zoe and Wash exchange a look. Zoe's is of concern. It wasn't that she was expecting Mal to regard visiting a Core planet to get Serenity's documents up-to-date as shiny fun, but he does seem overly twitchy about it. Wash just rolls his eyes at her. Mal's crazy, they all know that. Today's crazy flavour is mean.

* * * * *

It's haunted his nightmares for years. And during those years he's tried to rewrite what happened. Make it something else.

Mal wakes up with a start and sits bolt upright. Even so, it takes him a while to get his bearings. The dreams are always so vivid, he can taste the blood and screamin'.

He knows he won't get back to sleep. Never does afterwards. Mostly because he don't want to. Don't wanna be revisitin' the horror if'n he don't have to.

So he pulls on a shirt and a pair of pants and heads up to the bridge. Ship's on auto, so he don't need to be there. Well, not for the ship's sake, anyhow. But nights like these, when the past won't let him rest, the Black offers sympathy. It's always night in space, jus' like it's always night inside him. The occasional star flickers with life but mostly it's dark and empty. Predictable. Which has become a comfort, somethin' to be glad of. Cos if his life's in the penumbra now, at least he don't get burnt by the heat of a sun that one day will die, leavin' him cold an' shiverin'.

* * * * *

Next day

"Kaylee! Kaylee!" Mal shouts into the engine room, but there's no reply. "Where the hell is that girl?"

That girl is in the kitchen, brush in hand, paint in her hair and on the end of her nose. So damn cute it ain't right. "What d'y'all think?" she asks, stepping back to admire her handiwork.

"Don't see the point," Jayne grunts. Under the table Zoe kicks his ankle. "Hey! Ow! Uh.. no, it's good Kaylee. All them leaves an' ... uh..."

"Makes the place look like a fancy wine bar on the Core!" Wash exclaims enthusiastically. "Nice job, Kaylee. Now all we need is some wine to go with the fabulous meal my wife is preparing."

Zoe shoots him a look. "I can hurt you," she purrs. "I think it's real pretty, Kaylee. Sure the Captain'll think so to."

"What will the Captain think?" Mal asks as he comes in.

"Kaylee's been decoratin'," Jayne informs him. "Leaves an' stuff."

Too late Mal realizes the paint is still wet. Brushing up against one of the pillars he gets a smear on his shirt. "Gorramit, Kaylee!" he spits, snatching the brush from her hand. "This is my boat. You wanna change her in any way, you ask me first. Dong ma?"

Kaylee hangs her head. " I jus' thought..."

"Well don't. I ain't payin' you for thinkin'. Now get up to that engine room an' make sure the damn Feds won't be able to say Serenity ain't space-worthy."

The mechanic bites her lip and scampers off quickly. Mal tries not to hear the little sob that escapes her when she thinks she's out of earshot.

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it. He'd tried and earned a crack to the skull with a rifle butt for his trouble.

Mal catches Zoe's eye. She doesn't have to say anythin'. He knows disapproval when he sees it. But it's superfluous to requirements. He already knows he's a mean old man. It's what keeps him from fallin' apart.

* * * * *

That evening

The others breathe a sigh of relief when Mal finally decides to head off to his bunk. He's been snippy – extra snippy – all day and the couple of glasses of engine-fermented wine Kaylee poured him did nothing to help. Made him worse, if anything.

Wash sees the crease on Zoe's forehead and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry about him, honey," he says with a smile. "He's just a grumpy ol' fella."

"No he ain't," Kaylee comes staunchly to her ge-ge's defence. "He jus' don't like goin' to the Core. Makes him jumpy."

"That ain't it," Jayne declares with utter certainty. "None of us likes goin' to the Core. Full of panty-waisted hun dans that looks down on workin' stiffs. Cap'n's problem is somethin' else entirely." He smiles enigmatically.

Wash laughs sarcastically. "And of course you would know the nature of that problem! You and Mal being such close buddies?"

Jayne huffs. "It's gorram well obvious, little man."

Zoe tilts her head to one side. "Really?"

"Yeah, really," the mercenary replies firmly. "I been on this boat ... what? .. a month now, and he ain't spent any time off ship, 'ceptin' when a job calls for it."

"Captain's happiest when he's working," Zoe explains.

Jayne ignores the remark. "How long you two been on this boat?"

"Signed up in 2512." Wash plants a kiss on Zoe's cheek. "Best decision of my life. Sorry, second best."

She gives him a slow smile and turns to Jayne. "Came aboard with Mal, a few months before. Why?"

The big man frowns as he does the math. "So that'd be about four years ago, right?" Zoe nods. "He ever get laid in all that time? In four years?"

Kaylee gasps. It don't seem right to be talkin' about the Cap'n's private life behind his back. Zoe says nothing but a light comes on behind Wash's eyes. "Don't think so," he says, trying to remember if Mal has ever even had the opportunity for what Jayne with uncharacteristic coyness refers to as 'a bit of trim'.

"There you go then," Jayne declares triumphantly, leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head. "Man's all bottled up. Needs someone to take his cork out."

Try as she might, Kaylee can't help but giggle.

Wash sighs, as more than one difficulty with Jayne's solution comes instantly to mind. "Even if we could arrange – uh - something," he muses, pretending not to see the don't-you-dare-go-along-with-this look Zoe is giving him, "We aren't gonna be makin' planetfall for more than a week."

"Tamade!" Jayne slumps forwards, elbows on his knees, head resting in his hands. He looks desolate. "Another week of him snarlin' at us?!" Then he looks up brightly. "One of us'll have to do it." He stares pointedly at Zoe.

Wash's eyes go wide with alarm. Zoe is his wife. Then again, she and Mal have this eerie bond he can't seem to break through. He knows she'd die for her Captain without a second thought. But this? One night he plucked up the courage to ask. Had they ever? Had she ever wanted to? Did she think Mal wanted to? Wash interpreted the flicker in his wife's eyes and the way she pressed her lips together as signs of the pain a wife feels when her fidelity is questioned unjustly. He thought she might punish him for doubting her by not answering. But she just smiled sadly and said "No, no and no." And Wash believed her. He stillbelieves her.

"Hey!" he shouts at Jayne, wrapping a possessive arm around Zoe. "That's my wife you're talking about. We're married. Sworn to keep us only unto us. Remember? It's your plan. You do it."

Jayne half chokes at the suggestion. "Me? He's on my back enough as it is. No thanks." He turns to Kaylee. "It'll have to be you."

She flushes and squeals, pressing both hands to her face. "Me? No! I cou'n't! ... D'you think I should?" she asks Zoe uncertainly.

"No," Zoe says so sharply and quickly it makes Kaylee jump and feel embarrassed she hadn't done so herself. "Absolutely not." There's something in her tone, in the way she stiffens that sets an alarm bell ringing in Wash's mind. But whatever it was is gone when she continues, "Jayne. That's enough." She holds up a hand to silence the protest forming on his lips. "Enough."

* * * * *

Wash watches his wife undress. Sometimes he likes to do it for her, but tonight he's more for the watching. Besides, she seems a mite untouchable at the moment. Slightly out of his reach. Could be he can't always silence the voice in his head that says she's too good for him. Could be something else. She's awfully quiet.

"That Jayne's a wacky fella, ain't he?" he says, for want of something better. "All the same – can't help wondering if he might have a point. Mal does seem to be getting tetchier by the day."

Zoe's head snaps round. Her eyes are hard. "Don't think we should be talkin' 'bout this, husband."

Wash's mouth falls open in horror as the penny drops. Oh my God! It's obvious now. Mal might not exactly be blessed with an instantly winning personality, but he's not entirely hideous either. He could get a woman if he wanted one. The fact he hasn't ... "It was the war, wasn't it?" He asks, eyebrows nearly meeting his hairline. "He got shot in the ... He lost ..." Wash shifts uncomfortably as he imagines the pain of it.

Zoe shakes her head, amusement warming her eyes. Trust a man to think of that! "No. He di'n't."

Wash looks relieved then puzzled again. "So why ...? He ain't sly, is he?" Because although being sly on the more civilized planets is as unremarkable as having two legs, on most Rim worlds it's tantamount to asking to be kicked to death. And the bulk of Serenity's work ison the 'verse's fringes.

Zoe rolls her eyes and slips into bed beside her husband. "No. He leans towards women."

"Leans?" Wash presses.

Zoe's eyes take on a far away look as she remembers. "There was this one boy once. They joined up at the same time. Inseparable for a while. Think there was a touch of hero worship in it on the boy's part. He was everything Mal wasn't. Serious, a little shy. Well-educated. They made a cute couple, but I think Mal was jus' experimentin'. Been under his Momma's rule for so long. Then the kid got posted some place else. Don't think they ever saw each other again."

Wash nods seriously, trying not to look as fascinated as he actually is. "Any girls?"

"Oh, he had his share of girls before the war. Good girls his Momma approved of. Think he was plannin' on settlin' down with one of 'em even if he never said so his own self." She rolls over and onto her husband, smiling down at him in that sultry way of hers. "Now can we please stop talkin' about Mal? Ain't we got better things to do?"

Yep. Looks like they do. Zoe can make Wash forget his own name when her skin touches his. When she runs her tongue over him. When she swallows him into her heat ...

"That was ... perfect," he breathes, oozing contentment. Zoe murmurs in agreement, turning onto her side and wriggling back against him to maintain body contact. "When I'm with you, bao-bei, it's like everything's right in the 'verse. All the fei hua just melts away." He pauses, satiation making him mellow and generous. "You gotta feel for Mal. Never having this. Maybe we could find him a willing woman on Sihnon? One we can afford, I mean. What d'ya think? Zoe? Are you listening?"

"Captain won't lie with a whore, Wash," she says bluntly, putting an end to further discussion. But the memories have been awakened and when she closes her eyes, it's Mal at twenty she sees. All smiles and indomitable optimism. Funny and kind. Determined but sensitive. And so chivalrous! She'd never met a man who opened doors for her before. Who pulled out her chair for her or who stood up when she did. He was charmingly old-fashioned. And if not exactly puritanical about sex, not keen on one-night stands neither. What the twenty year old Malcolm Reynolds wanted was to fall in love. Find a girl, get married and raise a family.

Deep down he still does.

But how's he ever gonna realize that dream? When he's withdrawn into his shell? Tucked himself inside Serenity's metal carapace so he don't feel the pain of losing again? If someone – if Zoe doesn't give him a gentle nudge he could spend the rest of his life this way. A shadow of what he could be. The prospect breaks her heart.

There has to be something she can do.

* * * * *

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it. He'd tried and earned a crack to the skull with a rifle butt for his trouble. And to punish him for his chivalry, they dragged him in too. They made him watch.

* * * * *

"We good to go?" Wash asks Mal as soon as he returns from the registration office. Mal merely scowls at him. "I'll take that as a 'no' then."

"There a problem, Sir? They refuse to register us?"

Mal grinds his teeth in exasperation. "No. They registered us all right. And the thieving wang ba dans only charged us seventy-five platinum for the favour."

Zoe's eyes go wide. "Seventy-five? That leave us with any coin at all?"

"Not enough to rattle," Mal spits.

Kaylee chews her lip. She was going to remind the Cap'n about that pinlock that needs replacin' but she don't want him to yell at her.

"So," Mal continues, "We gotta find us a job. Here! On the gorram Core! Chances of that would be one in a very large number."

"My Pop always says..." Jayne begins and immediately regrets it. He keeps forgettin' Malcolm Reynolds' only outlet for his frustration is violence. Jayne puts on his best don't-mind-me face and moves out of punching range.

Zoe looks thoughtful. "What about rentin' out one of the shuttles, Sir?"

Mal glares at her. "She me? You really think any of the fancible folk on this rock are gonna want to ship out with the likes of us?"

Zoe is unperturbed. "Won't know till we ask, Sir."

"You ask if you want to. I'm thinkin' maybe a bank job."

Kaylee squeaks. "But .. won't we all end up in jail, Cap'n?"

"Probably."

"Definitely," Zoe corrects him.

* * * * *

When she first teamed up with Mal, Zoe worried she might be a burden to him. Which today seems more'n a mite ironic. But then she remembers the old sayin' and decides there's no-one she'd rather carry.

It's a beautiful day. Zoe suspects it probably always is on Sihnon. Core planets have the best of everything, weather included. She sits down to think on a bench in the shade of a magnificent tree of some variety she ain't ever seen before. So many leaves. Such a sweet smell. How the diyu is she gonna find a shuttle tenant? Post a sign? Probably get arrested for littering if she did.

She's gazing into the distance, wondering whether the Dock Authority would be her best bet, when suddenly her eyes focus on one of the people walking down the street. A woman. Young, dark and slender. Exquisitely dressed. A bona fide Registered Companion no less, Zoe decides. Ain't never seen one in the flesh before. Always thought they'd be hard-faced but this girl has a sweetness to her expression that's in interesting contrast to her self-assured bearing. A child in front of her stumbles and falls and immediately she crouches down to help the boy to his feet. She dusts him off, smiling. Graceful and gracious.

Hmmm.

Two birds, one stone.

* * * * *

"I don't know her name," Zoe says impatiently to the receptionist behind the desk. "She just came in. Dark hair, curls. Red dress."

"I'm sorry, madam. Companions only contract with clients after a proposal has been presented through the proper channels."

"Look," Zoe says between clenched teeth, "I can't make a proposal if I don't have a name, can I? Why don't you stop bein' so gorram .."

"Is there a problem?"

Zoe turns around and looks straight into the face of the woman from the street. She's even more beautiful close up. "I was lookin' for you," she says bluntly.

The woman smiles. "I'm flattered." She extends a perfectly manicured hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Inara Serra and you are ..?"

"Zoe Washburn," Zoe replies. "I'd like to make you a proposal."

Inara Serra flutters her eyelashes and turns a delicate shade of pink. It's a trick that never fails to beguile. "In that case, why don't we discuss it over tea somewhere more private. After you." She indicates a corridor and follows Zoe along it. Inara likes the look of this woman. Lithe, powerful and confident. Immensely attractive in a wholly natural way and with a fire in her eyes that suggests a passionate heart. Her proposal will have to be ridiculous for Inara to find it unacceptable.

* * * * *

"But that's ridiculous!" Inara laughs. "You want me to take on a client I've never even seen, let alone assessed? I'm afraid I can't accept."

Zoe frowns, then reaches inside her leather jerkin. She hands a small, tattered photograph to the Companion. "I can tell you anythin' you need to know about him."

Inara studies the photograph in silence for a full minute. She does not normally choose her customers for their appearance, but it's a relief to see the man is at least presentable. She smiles at Zoe. "The fact that you're here at all tells me you care for him. Which makes me wonder how truthfully you would depict his character."

"He's rude, bad-tempered, arrogant an' all manner of irritatin'." Zoe declares. Inara raises her eyebrows at that but her eyes twinkle. Interesting. "He's also honourable, decent, brave an' utterly dependable. Probably the best man I've ever met. An' I include my husband in that."

Inara's smile broadens. "He's sounds like a paragon of virtue. I'm surprised women aren't queuing up outside his door." Then, more seriously she asks, "Is there a reason they aren't?"

Zoe sighs and for the first time her posture sags a little. As if the weight of her concern for this man is becoming too heavy to bear. She gazes at the floor as she answers. "He won't let anyone near him. Pushes them away."

"Perhaps he simply prefers his own company?" Inara suggests. "Not everyone craves intimacy."

Zoe looks up at her. "He does. Always did. It was the war." She drops her head again. "Think he's afraid of losin' everythin' all over again. Used to be so up. Always goofin' around, laughin'. I want him to get that back."

"And you think I'd be the best person to help him do that? Why not you? Or his friends? Does he have other friends?"

"He got crew. People he takes care of. What he needs is someone to take care of him."

"What makes you think he'll like me?"

"Oh, I'm pretty sure he won't," Zoe replies with a grin. "First, you're what he'd call a whore. No offence," she adds quickly as a spark of anger flickers in the other woman's eyes. "And second, you're from a Core world. He ain't so keen on the Alliance."

"We sound like a perfect match. I'm sorry – but I don't see how this is going to work if he's going to hate me and everything I represent."

"You'll get under his skin. You'll make him mad, so mad he won't be able to ignore you. And there's nothing like bein' annoyed by someone to start noticin' other qualities in 'em too."

"It is certainly true that the line between love and hate can be a fine one," Inara nods, thinking Zoe Washburn would have made a good Companion herself. She knows the whole idea is absurd, but to tell the truth, she's been getting a little tired of her job. Always the same clients, always the same dance. The proposal before her at least has the merit of being different. A challenge even. "How long were you thinking of engaging me for?"

"As long as it takes."

"Perhaps we should discuss payment."

Zoe grimaces. "Can't pay you."

Inara's mouth falls open in surprise.

"But we can rent you a shuttle."

"Rent me a shuttle? I would be paying you?" Inara shakes her head as if she can't quite believe her ears.

"You'd be free to take on other clients. In fact, I hope you do. For the irritation factor." One corner of Zoe's mouth lifts conspiratorially. "We're always on the move – you'd get the chance to find new customers." Zoe's face takes on an expression as close to pleading as it's ever worn. "Wou'n't you like to see a bit more of the 'verse?"

IBy contrast, Inara's expression is unreadable. "I'll have to consider this carefully. If I decide to accept, I'll come to your ship tomorrow. You're at the main docks?"

Zoe nods. "One thing – let's keep this arrangement strictly between the two of us. No need for anyone else to know about it."

"If we come to an arrangement."

* * * * *

"The Alliance has no quarrel with me. I supported Unification."

The money she'd be payin' would help a lot. Mal just ain't sure he wants this high-and-mighty woman with her better-than attitude on his boat. Then again, the presence of a Registered Companion on board would give Serenity a touch of respectability. Gorramit but he feels trapped. Trapped enough to lash out.

"Did ya? Well I don't suppose you're the only whore that did."

She don't even flinch. Jus' gives him that superior smile as she says "Oh – and one further addendum. That's the last time you get to call me a whore."

Tamade - she's annoyin'! But Mal can play cool too. "Absolutely. Never again."

* * * * *

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it. He'd tried and earned a crack to the skull with a rifle butt for his trouble. And to punish him for his chivalry, they dragged him in too. They made him watch. He tried to turn away but they wouldn't let him. Made him stare right into the face of that darkness, kind of darkness he'd never even imagined

Chapter Text

2515 – Then

"Ah, Doctor Tam!"

The professor's voice always had the same effect on Simon. First came the little tremor of awe, then the holding himself more erect, trying to present his very best self to the man who had become his mentor - albeit a demanding and challenging one who seemed to revel in making things hard for him. "Good day, Professor Sharpe. Did you ..?"

"We need a little talk, Doctor Tam," John Sharpe cut him off unceremoniously. "Which I think would be best conducted in private. If you're not busy?"

Simon shook his head and fervently hoped his face betrayed nothing of the sudden fluttering sensation he felt in his stomach. For some reason he always dreaded being summoned to the professor's office – as if at any moment his inadequacy as a doctor would be laid bare. Academic success had come easily to Simon Tam - too easily, he feared. Of course he had studied hard and, all modesty aside, he knew he was very smart. But deep down he wondered if that was enough, if he really was all that people said. He worried that there was still so much he didn't know. That someday he would have no idea how to treat the patient before him. If he wasn't the brilliant doctor his father had demanded he become, then what was he? Was he worth anything at all?

He followed Sharpe into his office and stood in front of the large oak desk, waiting.

Sharpe closed the door behind him and sat down in the big leather chair. For a moment, he said nothing, staring intently at Simon with his piercing ice blue eyes as if seeing him for the very first time. Then he looked down at the paperwork in front of him. "I see you've chosen your speciality." There was an edge of disappointment in his voice. No, not disappointment. Something harder. Distaste.

"It's a very interesting area," Simon attempted to defend his decision. "There have been a lot of developments...." Sharpe leaned back, eyes narrowed and unimpressed. Simon swallowed hard and continued. "Autologous transplant therapy has made immense strides since Jackson and Shank's work on telomere rejuvenation..."

"Jabber, jabber, jabber," Sharpe snapped, rising from his chair and walking round the desk to stand eye to eye with his student. "Autologous transplant therapy! Pah! You know what that is? The delusion of old men who've wasted their lives and think they can buy a new one. Oh, it's a lucrative enough field, I'll grant you that...." He paused, realization dawning. "It was your father's suggestion, wasn't it? What did he do? Tell you to go where the money is? I thought better of you than that."

The flush on Simon's cheek confirmed Sharpe's assumption.

"What do you want on your tombstone, Tam? 'He made lot of money'? There's more to life than money. More to you, anyway. In here." And to Simon's utter astonishment, Sharpe lay his hand momentarily on the centre of his chest. Shocked, Simon found himself wondering if a defibrilator delivered such a charge. Then Sharpe was walking away before either of them had to think about the moment too hard. " 'Always at my back I hear, time's winged chariot drawing near' ..." he mused. "We're none of us here forever, son. Make the best use of the time you have. Choose a career you won't regret when you're old and grey. A career that makes you feel alive."

* * * * *

"Trauma surgery?" Regan Tam repeated as if she had to hear the words spoken out loud again before they would make any sense at all. "I thought you had already been accepted for ..." she fluttered a hand, unable to recall the name of the speciality she and her husband had thought best for their son.

Simon tensed. "Yes. But I've changed my mind."

"Had it changed for you, more like!" Gabriel Tam's eyes were cold and hard as he spat out the words. Simon tried to remember if they had ever been anything else. Oh yes – bored. They'd often been bored. "It seems to me Sharpe has been exercising undue influence. I have half a mind to bring this up with the hospital's directors."

"If you feel you must, I can't stop you," Simon replied with quiet defiance. "But it won't make any difference. I'm going to become a trauma surgeon, with or without your blessing."

Gabriel Tam snorted angrily and clenched his jaw. He glared at his son in impotent rage before finally finding words hurtful enough to fling at him.

"Thankfully this family's future lies with your sister, not you."

Despite years of bitter experience, Simon still found himself turning to his mother for support. But she wasn't looking at him. Instead she was tapping at a keyboard, bringing up figures on the Cortex link.

"It may not be as bad as you think, Gabriel," she said, scanning the rows of numbers. "Some trauma surgeons are extremely well paid."

* * * * *

2516 – Now

"Gorramit - these boxes are ruttin' heavy," Jayne complains, as he and Mal carry yet another case into Shuttle #1. "What in diyu d'ya reckon she's got in here?"

Mal gives him a look that would shut anyone else up in a heartbeat, but the mercenary's boundless enthusiam for anything to do with sex is running away with him.

"You think it's equipment? Cuffs an' stuff? Some fellas get off on that kind of thing ..."

They took her ... made him watch. He tried to turn away but they wouldn't let him. Made him stare right into the face of that darkness, kind of darkness he'd never even imagined ...They held her down and ignored the way she sobbed and pleaded.

"Jayne." A single word, spoken in a low even tone. And yet somehow enough to ensure the other man falls silent for a while. Seated at the shuttle controls where she is receiving instruction as to their use from Wash, Inara raises an eyebrow, surprised at how quickly the big man fell into line.

"This is the forward thrust..." Wash tells her, pointing to a knob on the control panel ... "and this" ... pointing to another ... "is the reverse thrust. You know how they work, I suppose?" he asks with a quick smile that he hopes isn't too much like a leer. Wo de ma, but this woman is beautiful.

Jayne sniggers and nudges Mal as they go to fetch the last of Inara's belongings from the cargo bay. "Shou'n't think there's much about thrustin' she don't know!"

Inara hears the thud of something heavy hitting metal and a startled "Hey!" followed by a voice growling too low for her to make out the words.

Wash rolls his eyes at her. "Nothing to worry about," he assures her. "Just Mal reminding Jayne of his manners."

Inara smiles sweetly. "How very gallant of him."

* * * * *

Inara has dressed down for dinner but she's still the most glamourous person Kaylee has ever seen. Her eyes go as wide as saucers as the Companion steps down into the mess, gracefully lifting the hem of her pale blue silk dress to reveal a glimpse of ornate golden slippers. Mal watches the expression on his mechanic's face change from fascination to warm welcome as the women's eyes meet and feels distinctly uncomfortable. As if one more element of control is slipping away from him.

"Hi," Kaylee says with a shy smile. "I saved a seat for you." And she pats the empty chair beside her.

There is real warmth in the smile Inara gives her in return. She slips into her seat and inclines her head by way of hello to each crew member in turn. Mal is the only one to avoid eye contact. Which means he notices the way Jayne is all but salivating. Mal shrugs. Whores must be used to that kind of thing.

At first conversation is a little stilted as, despite themselves, Serenity's crew are on their best behaviour. Then Kaylee starts bombarding Inara with questions and everyone begins to relax.

"They real?" Kaylee asks, pointing to the glittering string of stones around Inara's neck. The Companion nods. "Tian shao! They're so beautiful. If'n you don't mind me askin' – where d'ya get them?"

"They were a gift," Inara tells her. "From a client."

Mal's mouth twists into a sneer, but Kaylee is looking wistfully at the jewels, suddenly saddened by the knowledge she will never own anything as lovely.

"Looks like you shoulda gone into a diff'rent line o' work, Kaylee," Jayne grins. "You been polishin' up the wrong kind o' parts!"

Kaylee blushes, more for Inara than for herself. Ain't right, Jayne speakin' like that in front of a real lady.

It seems that Mal agrees.

"Jayne – best you go check everything's secure for when we break atmo," he says quietly. "Ma shang."

Jayne looks like he might argue, but then thinks better of it. Grumbling to himself, he picks up his plate and stomps out of the room.

Inara ventures a look at Malcolm Reynolds.

"I appreciate the gesture, Captain, but I assure you I wasn't offended in the least."

He frowns, faking incomprehension.

"Never thought you was. Jus' remembered there was a job needed doin' is all."

He catches Zoe's eye but can't read her expression. Jus' gets the feelin' she's watchin'. Waitin'. An' it's all manner of irritatin'. It was her damn idea to rent out the shuttle in the first place an' now she's all tetchy cos he found them a tenant. Gotta feel sorry for that husband of hers sometimes.

They all continue eating in silence for a while, then Inara asks, "Do you have a course set, Captain? Because I thought I'd start screening clients once you have a schedule."

Kaylee has to stuff a large spoonful of mashed protein into her mouth to stop herself from squealing with excitement. Even so, she starts picturing handsome face after handsome face smiling invitingly at the Companion, pressing expensive gifts on her, offering flowers.

Similar thoughts are occupying Mal's mind, only he's seeing the smug, oily, self-satisfied faces of the Alliance elite an' their graspin' claws. The stare he gives Inara is as blank as he can make it, but he can't prevent disdain from tweaking at the corners of his mouth, nor contempt from burning in his eyes.

"Headin' for Whitefall," he says curtly, "Touch down in about a week."

Inara nods. Every movement she makes is graceful.

"A happy coincidence, Captain," she replies. "A former client of mine now resides at the garrison on Athens."

Garrison? Mal starts, something like concern in his eyes blinked quickly away.

"A soldier who can afford a Companion?" He pauses, calculating. "Must be a gorram general at least."

"A Companion does not disclose information about her clients, Captain Reynolds," Inara replies haughtily.

Mal grunts.

"Well, jus' you try not to kill the old fella with your ... Companionin'. Get enough trouble from the Alliance as it is."

Wash glances at Zoe and is surprised to see the ghost of a smile on her face.

"Allow me to put your mind at rest on that score, Captain," Inara says through a deliberately false smile. "The gentleman in question saw active service in the war and emerged physically unscathed. He is both younger and fitter than you are yourself."

She rises from her seat and sweeps out of the room.

Zoe hides her mouth behind a hand and Kaylee tuts under her breath. Why'd the Cap'n have to go an insult Inara right away?

Mal folds his arms across his chest. Active service. Tamade! ... No. Ain't nothin' to worry about. She said he was an 'old client'. Musta serviced him before. Must know wha's comin'.

Not that it's got anything to do with Mal.

* * * * *

Having engaged the autopilot, Inara returns to the shuttle's main room. It bears little resemblance to the cold metal cell it was a week ago. Now it's draped with silks and velvets – red, gold and black. A couch has replaced the steel bench and an immense bed dominates the room. Inara needs space in which to work. A Companion must be prepared to satisfy all requirements.

She crosses to the bedside cabinet and opens the drawer. The syringe is preloaded, as tradition dictates. Nothing should interrupt the flow, the path from emptiness to fulfilment. She tightens a leather strap around her upper arm and squeezes her hand into a ball. Unlike most other Companions, Inara always uses the serum. It means she can go further, accommodate more ... It keeps her whole. Whatever service she is called on to perform, she will be safe – her body insensate and her mind still.

And of course anahaemofluxine also prevents bruising and reduces bleeding.

* * * * *

The winding gear stands black against the grey sky, its skeleton the only remnant of a once-properous mining venture. A sorry sight somehow, Mal thinks, as he surveys the location from his hillside vantage point. Alliance moved in, gouged what they wanted from the unwilling earth and left nothin' but scars and dry bones behind. Di'n't oughta be surprised by it no more.

"You sure we got the rights for this job, Sir?" Zoe asks, scanning the hills and valley for signs of movement. "This rock's a long way out of Badger's usual range."

Mal pats his coat pocket. "Got the papers right here. Offical stamp an' all."

Jayne sniffs, like he's got wind of somethin'. "Best we be gettin' on with it. 'fore anyone decides them papers ain't worth a damn. Whitefall's got a bad rep."

"Ain't gonna argue with that. Let's get goin'."

Zoe twists the accelerator and the mule starts its descent into the valley trailing clouds of dust in its wake.

* * * * *

GSW? The abbreviation is familiar but not in common usage on a Core planet like Osiris so Simon Tam has to concentrate on remembering what it means. Gunshot wound! He stares at his med student in amazement. "A gun shot wound? How? What ..?"

The young man gives him a wide grin. "Petty criminal, Doctor Tam, trying to escape justice. First reports say he fought for the Independents. The pursuing federal officers had to open fire."

Simon's heart is beating a little faster than usual. He's never treated a gunshot wound – sorry, GSW before. It's exciting. A challenge. "Is the injury serious?"

The student grins again.

"Probably. They got him in the back!" he adds, eyes shining."I can't wait to see what kind of damage it did."

The boy is young, Simon reminds himself. Young, inexperienced and stupid.

"You aren't here to revel in other people's misery, boy," he snaps, surprising himself with his impatient tone. When did he turn into John Sharpe? "You're a doctor. Try to act like one."

Chastened, Tony Yi drops his gaze to the floor. Just as well. Simon can't work with those adoring eyes fixed so unblinkingly on him. Ha! Another of life's bitter ironies. A month ago Simon might have been tempted, might have tried for a life outside of work. But now he can't. He has more pressing matters on his mind. At long last he's deciphered the code: "They're hurting us. Get me out." His sister – his beautiful, gifted brat of a sister – needs him. It's as simple as that. He has no time for complications right now.

The doors crash open. Three paramedics. A fed. A man groaning and bleeding. Intravenous drip bag swaying. Trolley wheels. The smell of sweat. Voices. Questions. Crowding.

Simon takes a deep breath.

"Everyone just stand back."

A space forms around the trolley, allowing Simon room to examine his patient. Already condemned as an outlaw, no-one has bothered to put him in a brace to prevent further injury. He's lying on his side, so the bullet entry point is easy to locate. A quick wipe with a swab shows the bullet is lodged against the L2 vertebra.

"Laser extractor, angiogenesis driver and neural bonder!" Simon barks. Yi hesitates. "Now!"

Lee scurries about, assisted by the senior surgical nurse. "Here," he says, handing them over.

"Hold him steady," Simon orders, firing up the extractor.

"But – Doctor Tam! You could paralyze him. This'll go on my record! Don't ask me ..."

"I'm not asking. I'm telling. Now just do your job."

 

* * * * *

The restraints are Inara's own. It was the last thing she insisted on before allowing him full rein. They look convincing enough, will rattle and not break if she strains against them but they will fall open in an instant if she twists her wrists outwards. A Companion's work is all about illusion, after all.

* * * * *

"Looks to be the last of it," Mal decides, as Jayne drops a final length of worked iron onto the back of the mule. "Let's get back to the ship."

Jayne ain't complainin'. There's somethin' about this xi niu rock that gives him the heebies. He jumps up beside Zoe.

"Now, hold on there one gorram moment, pretty boy!"

Mal spins round to see a middle-aged woman, her face obscured by the brim of a large brown hat, flanked by a coupla lackeys and followed by a few more, bearin' down on them. Guns drawn already, so goin' for his own'd be plain stupid.

"Been a long time since I was a boy, ma'am," he shouts back, "though I like to think I'm still pretty."

The woman shakes her head, unamused by his attempt at a joke.

"Who are ya? An' what ya got there?" she demands, indicating the scrap piled up on the mule with a jut of her chin.

"Name's Malcolm Reynolds, ma'am and this here's Zoe and Jayne. And that there's a bit o' salvage," Mal tells her, keeping up the affable tone. No point gettin' tetchy.

"You ain't got no right to be goin' after salvage on this rock. Now, you hand that stuff over all gentle like an' my boys here won't have to be wasting lead on ya."

Don't look like the boys'd consider it much of a waste if the sound of guns cockin's anythin' to go by.

"Got all the proper paperwork right here," Mal tells her, still hopin' to smooth this over. "If you'd care to examine it?" he asks, moving his hand slowly to his pocket so that none of them gun-totin' boys gets the wrong impression an' thinks he goin' for his pistol.

She nods. "Best I cast an eye over that." she holds out a hand and Mal steps carefully forwards to show her the licence. "Hmmm. Yeah. This is the genuine article, all right. Now son, why don't you unload that mule o' yours and get gone."

Lao tian Ye! Shoulda seen that comin'. Never goes ruttin' smooth.

"Can't we be reasonable....?" Mal makes one last attempt to hang onto the goods.

The woman nods to the lanky, bald man to her left. He takes aim and Mal is rooted to the spot as he watches a gnarled finger squeeze the trigger.

* * * * *

Heat slides into flesh and ignites it. A shudder. A low moan. A spurt of blood.

... "Wo de ma, Simon! I mean, Dr Tam."...

... "Oh my God, Inara!"...

... "Zao cao! Mal!"

* * * * *

When Mal opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is Kaylee staring down at him, brows crinkled with worry, nervously fingering some twinkly bit of pretty round her neck he's sure he's seen before though not on her. The first thing he feels is the warmth of her hand, wrapped tightly around his. Tears of relief wet her lashes when he speaks.

"What the hell happened?"

"Woman called Patience shot you, Sir," Zoe says calmly, opening her fist to reveal a small, silver bullet. "Managed to get it out. No sign of infection yet, neither."

Mal gives her a half-smile. "Thanks. I'm grateful. You're turnin' out to be quite the doctor."

"No I ain't. You jus' got lucky this time."

"Yeah. Lucky." The word has a hollow sound to it.

* * * * *

"Thought you said she was due back at fourteen hundred?" Mal asks, pacing around the bridge behind Wash in a way that ain't exactly conducive to good flying.

"I said between fourteen hundred and sixteen hundred," the pilot replies. "It's only fourteen fifteen now."

"Yeah," Mal grunts. "Well, jus' don't wanna be orbitin' this fancy rock any longer than we have to..."

"There!" Wash interrupts him as a light on the console blinks red. "She's waving us now."

Mal lets out a long breath. "Right."

* * * * *

"Captain," Inara smiles politely from the doorway between her shuttle and the walkway. "Kaylee." A nod. "Is this a welcomin' committee?"

Mal huffs, on the verge of denying it, but Kaylee pipes up, "Well, 'tis your first time away from us. Did you have a good time? Was he....?"

Mal turns a wide-eyed shut-up-now glare on her but Inara simply smiles.

"It went as expected." No, actually it went better than she expected. He seemed less desperate, less possessed. "I'm afraid I can't tell you any more. It's Guild Law."

Mal snorts.

"Guild Law! Fancy way of sayin' ..."

His voice trails off. There's a cut on her lip, a suggestion of discomfort in the way she descends the stairs. For the first time he sees how young she is. How slight her body is.

Little more than a kid ... They held her down and ignored the way she sobbed and pleaded. One of them brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her, but he could still hear the muffled whimpering.

"You all right?" he asks, closing the space between them, reaching out instinctively to touch her face before he can stop himself.

She pulls away.

"I am perfectly well thank you Captain." Her tone is more frosty than she'd intended. "There's no need for you to concern yourself ..." The words were supposed to be placatory. Instead they sound condescending.

He blinks as though she just slapped him. "Ain't concerned at all. Sure your business is none of mine."

Gou shi! Inara thinks to herself as he stalks away. Zoe Washburn was right. All manner of irritating. And there's nothing like being irritated by someone for making you notice other qualities in them too.

Chapter Text

"I got no notion to be arguin' this, Jayne." Mal cuts the mercenary off mid-sentence with a glower. "We ain't robbin' from no Rim-world school. 'm'I makin' myself clear enough for you?"

"Why the hell not?" Jayne persists. "Ain't like education's gonna do any of them poor kids any good. They're stuck at the ass-end of the 'verse where learnin' ain't worth a damn thing. I never had no schoolin' – di'n't do me no harm!"

Mal gives him a long, hard stare. "That a fact?"

Jayne narrows his eyes, grunts and punches a fist into the wall as he walks away.

Mal looks round to see Inara standing serenely at the bottom of the stairs into the cargo bay. There's somethin' he can't quite make out in her expression. It makes him feel defensive. "You lookin' for somethin'?" he demands angrily.

"I think I may have just found it," she replies cryptically, one corner of her mouth lifting slightly. "But thank you for your offer to help, Captain."

He stares after her as she ascends the stairs, wanting to yell after her that he wa'n't offerin' her no ruttin' help but is hypnotized into silence by the way her peach gown lifts and billows and swirls.

* * * * *

Late frosts are rare on Persephone. This morning's will surely lift before long, but for now the world looks new again, sparkling as if fresh-made under low slants of light from the rising sun. Where their warmth hits, the thin dusting of ice melts, lifting in a veil of mist - dreamlike.

Book stamps down on the spade but the soil resists, tight and hard and cold. Impenetrable. He tries again, without success.

"Yesu tamade!" he mutters under his breath, oddly annoyed by the ground's reluctance to yield. He has made it his mission to plant strawberries today, to grow something sweet in this reclaimed patch of land the Brothers have made their garden – you'd think the earth would want to cooperate!

"Blasphemy, Brother Book?"

He looks up and, shielding his eyes against the shimmering dawn, sees Brother Qingren. The old man is smiling.

The corners of Book's mouth turn down in self reproach. "Old habits die hard, Brother."

"Why don't you leave your labour, Brother?" the older man urges. "Wait until the land is ready. Only then will your efforts bear fruit. Walk with me a while? I find my legs grow unsteady."

"Of course," Book hurries to provide an arm for his companion to lean on. Qingren's mind is so sharp and his heart so joyful, Book often forgets how old he is. How frail his body is becoming.

They walk a few hundred yards in silence until Brother Qingren asks, "It still troubles you, doesn't it?"

Book nods, once.

"As you know, our order does not require it, but confession can be good for the soul."

Book is silent.

"God is good, Brother Book. If you ask for bread, he will not give you a stone."

"A stone is more than I deserve."

Qingren stops mid-step. His voice is soft with compassion as he asks, "Why not let the Lord decide what you deserve. Ask for forgiveness. Let it go."

"I can't." Book says flatly. "Maybe someday ..."

"That is the sin of pride, Brother. You do not earn forgiveness – it is granted by God's grace."

Book nods.

"I know. I just ... You – the others brothers – you're all such good men. I feel ..."

Qingren shakes his head sadly.

"We used to be your support, brother. Now we have become a burden to you. An obstacle on your path to God. What you fail to realize is that we are simply a little further along that path than you. It's not a race, brother."

Book frowns. A cloud has obscured the sun and the air grows chill again.

"I think you should leave us for a while. Walk in the world. Find your own path."

* * * * *

At the sound of footsteps heading towards the kitchen, Kaylee scrubs her eyes with the back of her hands and stuffs the printout she was reading into the pocket of her overalls. She bends her head over the sink, to all appearances intent on scraping a large pan clean of baked-on grease.

"Good morning," Inara says softly, noting sadness in the slump of the mechanic's shoulders.

"Oh, hi!" Kaylee waves a quick hello to the Companion and turns back to her task.

Not merely schooled but gifted in reading body language, Inara knows something is wrong. And by instinct she knows how best to bring comfort. She approaches the younger woman and lays a hand on her forearm.

"You seem troubled ..."

Kaylee instantly bursts into tears whilst pulling a don't-mind-me-I'm-jus'-bein'-silly embarassed face. Inara shakes her head and takes Kaylee's hand.

"Would you like to tell me about it?"

Mal hesitates in the doorway. Tian xiao de he hates tears. 'specially on li'l Kaylee ... He could still hear the muffled whimpering ... Fears they might seep into him, wash the starch out of his paper-thin self-control an' turn him to mush if he gets too close. On the other hand, Kaylee is his sunshine an' he'd do anythin' – well, damn near anythin' – to make her smile.

Kaylee gulps in a lungful of air and nods, allowing Inara to steer her to a chair.

"What is it, sweetie?"

Inara's arm encircles Kaylee's shoulders and she gently strokes the mechanic's hair.

"Got a wave from my Daddy. Says business's been bad an' he's to rent out my room to bring in enough coin to keep my brothers fed. Told me ... told me not to worry, all my things is safe. In storage. But it feels like .. like home .. ain't home no more. "

Another bout of sobbing.

Inara waits patiently, just holding her.

Mal's eyes narrow. Least he don't have to deal with this - which is a comfort – but he gotta wonder what the whore's game is, whether she's gonna be presentin' him with a bill for all this smoothin' and huggin'. No way's he cuttin' her rent anymore than he already has. She said no servicin' crew – that was their agreement. No way he's payin' for this.

Inara looks up to see him staring at her, suspicion etched deep in the lines around his eyes. She gives him her sweetest smile.

"I think Kaylee might like a cup of tea," she suggests.

Mal looks stunned. Did she jus' give him an order? On his own gorram boat? He blinks and gives her a quick flash of teeth that's more like a snarl than a smile.

"Feel free. Bags are in the second locker from the right."

Inara's eye twinkle with amusement. Oh yes – all manner of rude and irritating.

"Would you like a cup yourself, Captain?"

Wiles. Damn wiles!

* * * * *

Simon's head hurts. Hurts like diyu. There are some painkillers in his bag – the bag that was confiscated, along with his watch, his pers-comm and his shoelaces. If only they would turn down the lights a little. White bouncing off white adds another layer of torment to his suffering. Or perhaps that's the point?

He thought he was being mugged. It was certainly that kind of district. Dark alleys prowled by men in grubby coats with hats with wide brims hiding their eyes. Gaudy prostitutes plying their trade on every corner, making him inappropriately explicit offers as he passed by, eyes downcast. So when someone came up behind him in that sleazy bar and grabbed him by the shoulder, he was sure it was a mugger. He'd taken a swing – a laughably ineffective swing – at the man before even noticing he was in uniform. Too late to avoid being clubbed over the head with a heavy duty baton.

So here he is, locked in a cell in a police holding centre and no nearer to getting his sister out of that place. He closes his eyes and rubs his temples miserably.

There's a clang as a metal barrier opens and the click of hard-soled shoes on stone flooring. He looks up to see a warder swipe a card through the cell door reader.

"Time to be going," the warder grunts. "Seems you check out. Your father's here to collect you."

His father? Oh gou shi! At the end of the corridor, leaning an elbow on the reception desk, Simon can see Gabriel Tam. He doesn't look pleased.

As soon as Simon is released by the warder, Gabriel hisses at him, "Have you completely lost your mind?"

'Yes,' Simon thinks and then 'No, and it seems like I'm the only one who hasn't' as his father starts complaining that his arrest interrupted a dinner party.

A dinner party? Simon tries to make him understand he was trying to help River, maybe even save her life but all Gabriel Tam is concerned about is how much Simon's efforts have cost him in terms of coin and reputation. His father has always been cold and remote but now he's icy. A stranger. Simon feels dizzy – not from the blow to his head but from the sudden feeling of being cast adrift, of being totally alone. Gabriel hardly needs to says the words: "I won't come for you again. You end up here, or get mixed up in something worse, you're on your own. I will not come for you."

The journey home is a silent one as Gabriel Tam plans ways to restore his standing in society and his son vows he will rescue his sister no matter what it costs him.

* * * * *

"What d'ya mean, ya don't like it?" Jayne demands, glaring at Wash across the table. "That there is my mother's own recipe. Passed down to her by her mother an' her mother before that."

"Strong stomachs must run in your family then," the pilot replies, pushing his plate away. "I'm sorry but I cannot eat that."

Jayne grinds his teeth, readying himself for a fight but Kaylee jumps in. "Wha's it called, Jayne?"

The mercenary likes the li'l mechanic – sees a kindred spirit in her – so her question diverts his attention from Wash who's mouthing the words 'da xiang bao zha xing de la du in a gou shi sauce' to his wife. "Welders' Warmer," he tells her proudly.

"Certainly has the texture of something that's seen a lot of welding," Wash concedes.

Jayne's lip curls back and his fist tightens around the knife in his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Mal sees Zoe's feel for her gun. Zao cao – even mealtimes don't go smooth. He's just about to open his mouth an' put both men firmly in their place when Inara speaks.

"I've had something like this before. On Bellerephon." Mal knows she's lyin'. Don't eat lan dong xi like this on fancy rocks like Bellerephon. Jayne seems convinced though. He winks at the Companion, glad of her support. "Only I think it had more herbs ... May I?"

She rises from the table and opens one of the food lockers over the counter, pulling out a silver foil pouch. She sprinkles a handful of its contents over the lumpy mix in the casserole dish and gives it a stir.

"Try it now."

Wash is staring at her in disbelief but dips his fork into the pan. Swallows a mouthful.

"Ti wo de pigu!" he exclaims. "That's not half bad!"

Jayne gives him a triumphant sneer.

"See? My folks ain't the barbarians you seem to think."

"No, but you can see how a man might jump to a conclusion of the sort," Mal says straight-faced, making Wash and Zoe smile and Jayne frown. Time he put an end to this. "Wash – got word from Badger. Wants a meet on Persephone. Something about a carrier that may be worth a look."

"We still speakin' to Badger, Sir?" Zoe asks. "After Whitefall?"

"Weren't his fault," Mal replies, absent-mindedly fingering the still unhealed wound beneath his shirt. "An' besides – we speak to anyone who's got a job for us. You know that. Only way to keep flyin'. How far we out from that low-life's midden?"

"Week – ten days at the most," Wash tells him. "An' if I fly clever, we should make it all the way to Persephone without runnin' out of fuel."

"Do you expect this job to take you back to Persephone again, Captain?" Inara asks. "I have several clients based there ..." Mal shoots her a is-there-any-place-in-the-damn-galaxy-you-don't-have-a-ruttin'-client? glare but she continues, unperturbed, "I would like to make appointments with as many of them as possible."

As many as possible?

They held her down and ignored the way she sobbed and pleaded. One of them brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her, but he could still hear the muffled whimpering. As it went on and on, with him powerless to stop it, he prayed to the God he no longer believed it that they would hurry up and finish. All five of them. Get it over with.

How many is as many as possible? Mal gulps down a mouthful of water, in a futile attempt to wash the taste of bile from his mouth.

"Expecting a full docket?" Wash asks conversationally.

"Full somethin'!" Jayne guffaws.

Zoe catches the glint in Mal's eye. "Jayne," she warns quietly.

* * * * *

Brother Qingren is dozing before the fire, his open Bible resting against his chest. Book clears his throat and the old man's eyes fly open.

"I have come to say my farewells," he says simply, brown eyes welling with emotion. "I hope this will not be the last ..." He can't finish the sentence. Bites it off before there's any mention of mortality or uncertainty.

Qingren gets to his feet and clasps Book in a warm embrace. "I am sure it will not be. There will always be a home for you here. Only -" he pushes the other man back a little so he can look him in the eye - "don't come back until you're sure it is home, not a prison."

"I will. Xie-xie, lao peng you."

"Walk with God."

* * * * *

"Qing wa cao de liu mang," Mal curses - not exactly under his breath - as a jagged edge on the handhold slices through the skin between his thumb and forefinger leaving a raw gash.

Inara steps out of her shuttle into the hallway to see him sucking on the cut. "Is there something wrong, Captain?"

"Gorram rail," he mutters, examining the wound. It's deeper than he'd expected and there's a lot of blood.

"You should put a bandage on that," Inara tells him."Ma shang."

Mal don't take kindly to be bein' told what to do. "Should I?" he snaps back at her. "Tell you what – you worry about your whorin' an' I'll worry about my bleedin' ..."

She ignores him. Simply catches his wrist in her cool hand. The unexpected touch makes him jump but he's too surprised to pull away. "I have something to stop the bleeding. Although -" she gives him the kind of full-on smile that generally reduces strong men to putty, " - I doubt you have anything to stop my whoring. Come in."

He glowers at her but enters the shuttle anyway. He looks around, taking in the lush fabrics, the sweet scent of incense and oils. Inara doesn't so much walk as glide over to a cabinet from which she removes a small case. She takes out a tube of cream and something in a cellophane wrapper.

"Give me your hand," she orders, adding "Please," just in time to stop him bolting.

It feels all kind of strange to be touched like this. To feel his hand resting in hers. Her palm is smooth as the silk of her dress. Against it his own hand is too rough, too big. He swallows uncomfortably as she begins to massage the cream into the cut and almost flinches.

"Does it sting? Sorry. But it will slow the bleeding. There," she lifts his hand for closer inspection and he can feel the warmth of her breath as she continues. "It's working already."

Could be. Then again, it could be his blood's found some place else to go.

"Yeah. Great." He pulls his hand from hers, looking away in embarassment. His glance falls on the Cortex link screen in the corner of the room. Looks like a diary entry. He can't help but read it. Atherton Wing: April 17thth (UAP revised calendar). Well there's one fella whose blood flow's gonna be more'n a mite predicatable that day. "Got customers lined up already?" he remarks, a touch unpleasantly.

Inara smiles as she hands him the bandage pack. "I'm much in demand."

Five of them ... an' he cou'n't do a damn thing about it..

* * * * *

"Fixed it for now," Kaylee announces as she reaches the top of the stairs leading onto the bridge. "But that compression coil's not gonna last forever." She casts an appealing look at Zoe who's sitting on the arm of her husband's seat.

"I'll let the Captain know," Zoe says, folding her arms as if bracing herself in advance for Mal's reaction to a request for money they ain't got. "When he's in an accommodatin' frame of mine."

Wash grins knowingly. "If it's accommodating you're looking for, sweet-cakes, perhaps you should get Inara to ask him."

Zoe arches an eyebrows. "Meaning?"

Wash looks mightly pleased to have noticed something about her precious Captain that his wife hasn't. "He likes her. Don't tell me you haven't seen the way he looks at her."

Zoe's face betrays nothing of the satisfaction she feels at the knowledge her plan is working. In fact she frowns, making a good job of looking doubtful. "Heard him snipin' at her. An' her at him."

Wash laughs. "You mean like we used to? Before your inevitable surrender to my manly charms?"

Delighted that the grain of sand is becoming a pearl, Zoe allows herself a half-smile. Beside her Kaylee is all wide-eyed excitement. "You think the Cap'n might fall in love with her, Zoe?" she asks hopefully. "She's real nice an' she'd make a beautiful bride. An' the Cap'n'd be so shuai as a groom."

"Don't know about that .." Zoe begins.

"But you like her, Zoe, don't you?" Kaylee pleads.

"Yes. I like her. But don't you be sayin' anything about this to either of them, dong ma? You do an' like as not the Cap'n'll tell her to leave, jus' to prove us all wrong."

Kaylee nods earnestly, delighted at their romantic conspiracy. "Not a word," she promises.

* * * * *

"Where are you taking me – taking us?" Simon asks, as the larger of the two men bustles him into a battered shuttle. "Are you sure this vehicle's space-worthy?" He's talking too much, asking too many questions, he knows. He has a tendency to babble when nervous.

"May not be the fancy kind o' vessel you're used to," the large one – Yandor – mutters, sealing the outer door, "but she'll get us to the ship all right. Never you mind about that."

Simon looks around him, distaste written all over his face. The musty smell of men who can't have washed since last U-day is bad enough, but the remnants of their last meal are scattered all over the floor, crawling with flies. Yandor laughs a deep, rumbling laugh and slaps Simon on the back. "Maid's day off," he tells him.

All too aware of how his own safety and River's depend on these men, Simon apologizes quickly. "Sorry. It's been a hell of a day."

Yandor's partner, a thick set ginger man in his twenties, gives him a black-toothed leer. "Welcome to the real 'verse, Doc."

"Mmm," Simon mumbles, rolling his eyes from one unsavoury sight to another. It's too much. He shuts them tight and tries to concentrate on what it will be like to be free. On how he and River will laugh about this in the weeks to come.

"Now'd be a good time to settle up," Yandor says, once he's programmed in the shuttle's flight path.

"Ofcourse," Simon reaches into his pocket for his wallet. Coin, they said, not credits. Outlaws don't have the luxury of credit accounts. "We agreed twenty thousand platinum, didn't we."

"Plus four thousand for the cryo box," Yandor's partner says hastily. "Had to get a bigger one than we was plannin'."

Simon nods, aware they are scamming him but with no choice other than to accept their terms. At least that will leave him with enough coin to buy passage to an out-of-the-way planet. If they ask for any more he'll be in real trouble. This morning he discovered all his accounts had been frozen..

Once the money is safely in his pocket, Yandor visibily relaxes. He lights up a cigarette and Simon tries not to splutter as the smoke burns the back of his throat. "Soon have ya on Persephone, Doctor. If you want my advice, you'll make your way to the Eavesdown Docks. They got all sorts there. You won't look out of place – even in them fancy threads."

Simon fingers the expensive fabric of his tailored suit, regretting not having acquired something more appropriate for a life on the run. If he'd had only had more time ... He would have emptied his accounts over a longer period and perhaps have avoided the attention that his major withdrawals in coin attracted. He would have found someone capable of producing forged ID cards. The ones he has are worse than useless bearing, as they do, the name Tam. But the word that they'd got River out of the school came so quickly, he'd had no time. Just had to make a dash for it.

And despite feeling light-headed and a trifle queasy, he doesn't regret it one bit.

"And go for one of the older ships. Nothin' flash. More disreputable-lookin' the better. Junkers is safest for you an' your sis. Alliance like to travel first class."

* * * * *

"Firefly class transport, identify yourself and state your destination."

Mal bristles at the precise, clipped intonation of the metallic voice hailing them. He flicks a switch. "Serenity. Captain Harbatkin speakin'. En route for Persephone."

A pause that seems to stretch into eternity. Then: "There is no record of your having been granted permission to land at that location. By Authority of the Alliance of Unified Plants you are therefore ordered to change course."

Mal slams a fist angrily down onto the control panel.

"Firefly class transport Serenity: I repeat – by Authority of the Alliance ..."

"Yeah, yeah, I hear ya," Mal spits into the mic. So damn close an' they get turned around! Ni tamade tian xia suo you de ren dou gai si! By the time they've found a way to sneak in under the radar, Badger'll've found someone else for the job. Biting his lip with frustration, Mal curls his fists into balls.

An arm reaches past him and an ivory finger tipped with a glossy red nail flicks the comms switch back to the open position. "I am afraid this is all my fault. My name is Inara Serra and I am a Registered Companion. I asked the Captain..." her eyes dart to Mal's face as she tries to recall the false name, " Captain Harbatkin if he would mind taking a detour to Persephone so that I might meet with a client."

Mal realizes his mouth is open and snaps it shut.

"Insert your ID card into your ship's reader please, Miss Serra," the voice crackles back. Mal notes the reverential tone the Alliance uses when talkin' to a whore. Inara slides a wafer of polycarbonate into the reader and waits, beaming at Mal like she's enjoying herself. "Thankyou Miss Serra." A pause. "Firefly class transport Serenity: you are clear to proceed to Persephone."

Mal leans forward to kill the link. He catches Zoe's eye. Knows she knows he's seethin' inside. "Bastards," he hisses over his shoulder as he barges past Inara and leaves the room.

"Not at all," Inara calls after him. "It was my pleasure, Captain."

* * * * *

Wash sighs and kisses the tip of Zoe's nose.

"I am the luckiest man in the whole of the gorram 'verse!" he declares, meaning it. "An' you, my woolly one, are the best wife a man could wish for. You know sometimes," he murmurs, tenderly stroking her cheek, "I watch you sleeping an' I think it's me that's dreaming. Doesn't seem possible I could have you at all – let alone all to myself."

Zoe takes his face between her hands and kisses him long and sweet. "Well you have."

Wash's smile turns a bit shame-faced.

"An' to think I used to worry about you and Mal. I'm sorry I ever ... I know you never ..."

"Shhh," she whispers. "There's no need to say anything ..."

He nods, rolls onto his side and pulls her up against him. Within mintures, the slow steady sound of his breathing tell her he's asleep.

'I know you never...'

Zao cao! She hadn't meant to lie to him. And maybe it wasn't a lie. Because that wasn't Mal. Not really. Oh, it was his body all right but that wasn't him. Mal would never've ... If she'd been expecting it, she'd've hit him back. As it was, it took all her strength to scrabble out from under him. To get away.

They never spoke about it. She read the pain in his eyes the next day and knew it wasn't him, wasn't her. So they never spoke about it. And gradually it was buried, alongside all the other corpses from their past.

Chapter Text

They held her down and ignored the way she sobbed and pleaded. One of them brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her, but he could still hear the muffled whimpering. As it went on and on, with him powerless to stop it, he prayed to the God he no longer believed it that they would hurry up and finish. All five of them. Get it over with.

He couldn't look at her, nor at what they were doing to her body. He didn't need to. Unable to close his eyes or turn away, he chose to look at them. Those tamade hun dans. He studied their faces and promised himself he would kill every damn one of 'em if he got the chance. And what savagery he saw in those faces. Brutal desire. Voracious self-gratification. Eyes glazed, unfocused in the heat of sensation. Mouths hanging open loosing bestial grunts with every thrust into her. Faces florid and dripping sweat. And then the hideous predictable grimace that signalled release. How gorram ugly, how totally ruttin' repellent these men were. He felt his own mouth twist and the sting of perspiration as it dripped into his eyes.

How ugly men can be.

He expected them to put a bullet in his brainpan afterwards, but they didn't show him that charity. Didn't save him his suffering.

It's haunted his nightmares for years, filling his nights with impotent rage as the horror replays over and over again. And always there's the serpent's voice telling him that maybe it wasn't like that. Insinuating that she didn't fight because, well ... hiss, hiss ... And sometimes his anger turns on her, on her vulnerability and her inability to save herself. She should have fought them, gorramit!

Her abused body – scratched and battered and bleedin' – looked dead at first. So pale, so small. Immature breasts and slender thighs exposed by torn clothing. Intimate areas of a woman no-one should see without her consent. And this wasn't even a woman. Little more than a girl.

But she didn't die. At least, not straight away. She staggered out of that place just as Mal and Zoe and the others were being put onto a prison wagon. Looked him cold in the eye. Did she blame him? He never did find out. Killed herself a few weeks later. Couldn't live with it, couldn't endure it.

She damn well let them win.

The nightmare hasn't faded with time. The colours are still vivid. And each day a new thread is woven into its terrible fabric. Green like the fields and trees of Shadow for Zoe, the closest thing to home he has left. Yellow as sunshine for Kaylee with her sweet smile and unquestioning love for him. And lately, scarlet for Inara, red as passion and blood. When he closes his eyes to sleep he never knows which one of them will that takes that girl's place as he takes her and holds her down. Never knows whose eyes will be staring into the darkness in his soul. The only certainty is that he will wake with a mouth full of ashes and despair.

They call him a survivor. He's not. He knows what lies in the heart of men. Has to live with the knowing. Find a way somehow to bear it.

* * * * *

"I merely asked you what time you expected to make planetfall," Inara is saying, crisply enunciating each word to emphasize the reasonableness of her enquiry and, by contrast, the absurd churliness of Mal's reply.

A muscle in his cheek twitches and his nostrils flare. "An' I'm fed up with you harassin' me about it. We'll touchdown when we touchdown, dong ma? Have a bit of patience, woman."

Inara laughs out loud. "I'm afraid we're not all blessed with your sang froid. When I make an appointment with a client I do my best to be punctual. It's called politeness, Mal – a concept you are clearly unfamiliar with."

When did she start callin' him Mal? Still calls him Captain too. Gorram whore has an uncanny knack of pickin' the one that will annoy him most accordin' to the situation. An' what the hell's song fua anyway? Mal pushes his chair back from the table with an angry scrape. If it weren't for gettin' the gorram shuttle back, he'd happily dump her on Persephone. Do it with a clear conscience too – she wou'n't come to no harm there. Her kinda world, or near as makes no never mind. An' i's not like she'd starve. Plenty of clients there. Said so her own self.

... five of them ...

Inara watches him squeeze his eyes shut and shake his head, as if to dislodge something. Something painful. He catches her looking at him with something like sympathy and it stings like acid. "Hmm. Well I got work to do. Not all of us gets paid for lyin' on our backs."

* * * * *

Mal is still muttering about that gorram fancible whore an' her attitude when he reaches the bridge. Zoe swiftly slides off her husband's lap and stands to attention. "Good idea of yours to rent the shuttle to a Companion, Sir" she says. "Wasn't it, dear?"

Wash nods. "It's amazing, Mal! Everytime they run a sweep on us, we keep getting confirmation to land on account of Inara. It's like we've got our very own ship's Ambassador! Stroke of genius getting her on board."

Mal bites his lip. "Can't say I'm surprised the Alliance is prepared to bend the rules for a whore." He gazes out of the viewports."Badger waved us a meet point yet?"

"Just came through. Written the location down for you." Wash hands him a scrap of paper. "Think the pay'll be good?"

"Better had be. Runnin' low on about every damn thing we got."

* * * * *

A pair of blue-gloved hands reach out to accept the proferred folio of printouts and photographs. It is marked: Special Programme: Reference 00/7/Ps42: TAM, River.

"Missing."

"With or without assistance?"

"With. Probably the brother. A surgeon. Dr Simon Tam."

"Are you sure?"

"The hospital in Capital City, Osiris where he is employed as a trauma surgeon reported him absent without explanation earlier today. A warrant has been posted on the Cortex. Meanwhile ..."

"There is not a moment to lose. The project must be completed."

"Our authority?"

"Absolute."

* * * * *

Zoe raps her knuckles softly on the door to Inara's shuttle.

"Qing jin."

Zoe nods a greeting and Inara dips into a half-curtsey before taking a seat and offering her visitor some tea.

"Captain said to let you know we'll be making planetfall by eighteen hundred at the latest."

"Thankyou," Inara replies, the arch of her eyebrows asking why Zoe didn't simply use the intercom to pass on the information.

Zoe's eyes flicker about, as if she's looking for eavesdroppers. "Been looking for an excuse to come an' ask how you think it's goin'?"

Inara's lips bow into a serene smile. "My grand seduction of the Captain, you mean?" she asks, with a little laugh at the way Zoe all but jumps at hearing the words said out loud. "As well as can be expected."

Zoe frowns. "Thought he was showin' a bit of interest myself."

Inara takes a sip of tea. "He's certainly being insufferable. I take that as a good sign." Another sip. "And he appears compelled to denigrate my career choice whenever the opportunity presents itself. I must say, the Captain can be astonishingly inventive when it comes to insults.." She smiles, shaking her head in wonder as she recalls some of Mal's more colourful remarks.

Something tickles at the back of Zoe's brain. "He ain't upsettin' you, is he?"

Inara's smile is extra bright. "Absolutely not. Not at all." She's fairly certain her tone is convincingly firm. And besides – Mal's harsh words really haven't affected her in the least. It's all those other things – the little glimpses she gets of his sense of honour, tell-tale signs of the pain he tries to keep hidden, his ridiculous protectiveness. It's just as well that, despite the rush of lust she sometimes discerns in his eyes, he regards her with such contempt. If he were at all pleasant ... "Don't worry about me. I can handle Malcolm Reynolds."

Zoe fingers the twist of leather around her throat. She likes Inara – she really does. Sees a strength in her similar to her own. An ability to bear things others cannot. Both women take a pride in being exceptional at their jobs. Had she chosen a different path, Inara might well have made a good soldier. "Good," Zoe says, relieved. "Captain's bark's worse than his bite."

When the kiss became a bite, it ignited something in her and she cried out more from the pleasure of it than the pain, little knowing that cry would lead to something that drew a line between them forever.

"Zoe? Did you hear me? Would you please tell the Captain I plan to take the shuttle out after we land at – say - about twenty hundred hours?"

Zoe nods hastily as Inara's voice brings her back to the present. "You'll be takin' the shuttle out. Right." She stands up, eager to be out of here an' afraid she might betray her sudden misgivin's. Before she betrays Mal. No reason to think it would necessarily go that way with Inara. Besides she must've provided her customers with all manner of servicing. Would probably shock her much less than it did Zoe.

"I'll let him know," she repeats and slides the door shut as she leaves.

 

* * * * *

"Cap'n says I gotta stay on board," Kaylee sulks, sprawling out in one of the commons armchairs. "Says he don't wanna be worryin' about me fritterin' his money away."

"You can keep me company," Wash offers. "Mal doesn't want me going with them either. Thinks I'll be in the way."

Jayne raises his head, sniffin' trouble. "Reckon he wants to get your woman alone, do ya? Can't say I blame him ..."

"Hey! Do we have to go over the her being my wife thing again?" Wash leans angrily towards the mercenary.

"Don't stop a man lookin'," Jayne points out, amiably enough. "Mal ain't blind. Tell you what, li'l man – I'll keep an eye on 'em when we're in town. Let ya know if there's any hanky-panky."

Wash opens his mouth in indignation but snaps it shuts again quickly, deciding he doesn't want to discuss his marriage with this neanderthal.

"Ain't gonna be no hanky-panky," Mal says firmly, making the others shift nervously in their seats. Especially Jayne. Ai ya! Huai le! – has he been listenin'? "Ain't got time," Mal continues, mildly suspicious at his crew's discomfiture but not overly concerned about it. "You got a job to do, Jayne. Here's the list of stuff we need." He holds on to it a mite longer than needs be, fixin' the big man with a look. "I ain't gonna have a problem with you, am I?"

"No, Mal. No," Jayne replies quickly, eager to keep going down this particular conversational track an' away from any suggestion he mighta been talkin' out of turn about the Cap'n an' Zoe.

Mal frowns slightly but decides to accept Jayne's deference at face value. He turns to Kaylee.

"You got any last minute shoppin' requests? Important stuff? Nothin' expensive mind..."

Her bottom lip juts out slightly.

"'pends what they got. Can't tell if I'm stuck on ship. Captain." Yep, tha's a powerful sulk she's aimin' his way.

"Best you go along with Jayne then," Mal says unexpectedly, with a wink. "Keep him out o' trouble for me."

Kaylee's smile lights up her face. "I love my Cap'n."

"Mmm. Just you be careful, mei-mei."

Wash smiles to himself as Mal leaves and just can't stop himself from asking, "Notice anything different about our dear Captain lately?"

Jayne chews the inside of his cheek, considering.

"Well, he ain't actually yelled at me for a coupla days..."

"Exactly!" Wash exclaims with a wag of his forefinger. "Any notions as to why that might be?"

Kaylee grins.

"Mus'n't be my turn. Heard him givin' 'Nara a piece of his mind 's mornin'."

Kaylee and Wash try really hard not to exchange a knowing look.

 

* * * * *

"Captain," Inara says mildly, rising to her feet as Mal stalks into the shuttle, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you knock."

He knows damn well she knows he di'n't. Knockin' - another of the gorram rules of polite society she sets such great store by. Kind of society where you can buy a woman for your bed an' have the deal thought respectable.

"Probably too used to listenin' out for the clink of rich men's coin," he suggests with a sarcastic smile as he sits down on her couch.

"Please do take a seat," she invites him with a wave of the hand and a sarcastic smile of her own. "To what do I owe this .. pleasure?"

Her lips are painted bright red and her eyelids have been dusted with purple shadow so dark they look bruised. Her hair is neatly coiffed into an elaborate pile of tidy curls and she's dressed in layers of silk that shift through the red-yellow spectrum like flames. Not exactly a uniform, but a statement of who and what she is. Mal hates it. Might as well have a ruttin' sign flashin' "For Hire" over her head. Not many can afford her - tha's for sure – but it don't make her any the less cheap.

"Come to tell you if everythin' goes smooth, job should be done in a coupla days. That a problem?"

He damn well hopes it is. Right now nothin' would delight him more.

"Not at all, Captain Reynolds."

"Thought you had a whole regiment of fellas lined up," he goads, somewhat surprised to find he's fishing for information.

"More like a squadron, Captain. Two days will be perfectly adequate, thank you." Her smile is wide but irritation crackles in her eyes.

"Right then. Good. Right."

He stands up and snaps his suspenders as if they've just come to an agreement.

"Don't let me keep you."

Mal makes for the door but when he reaches it, stops.

"Best you check in with Wash whenever you're .. uh, not busy. Let him know you're still on schedule."

Inara's eyes go wide.

"You want me to report in, Captain? Because when I rented this elderly vessel from you, it was on the understanding I would have complete autonomy."

Mal clenches his teeth together as a whole passel of reasons why he needs to know where she is bubble up. Too many of 'em nothin' to do with business for him to be sayin' out loud. He glowers at her.

"We're off this rock in two days. Make sure you're ready."

* * * * *

"Soon as they arrive, let me know," Badger tells his muscular side-kick. "Won't do 'em any harm to wait a bit for me – jus' so as the nature of our business relationship is clear to 'em – but let me know." He taps the side of his nose. "You can tell an 'ell of a lot about a man by the way 'e be'aves when 'e don't know you're watchin' him."

The underling nods and Badger retires to a side room. Could be a good job, this 'un. Alliance ships got sophisticated emergency systems an' blow-outs don't usually cause much damage. 'Course that means Alliance usually checks 'em out eventually, salvaging anythin' worth 'ard cash. The trick is to get there before they do. An' get out again.

Time was, 'e'da done a job like this 'is self. But now he's a man o' some standin' it'd be a real shame to get caught handlin' stuff the Alliance figured was theirs. So nowadays 'e always gets someone in. People 'ose good name's already a thing of the past. People like Malcolm Reynolds.

Now there's a man Badger can rely on. Lost most everythin' already an' always dirt-poor enough to take on the dir'iest jobs. No friend of the Alliance neither – what with them 'avin' practically vaporized his 'ome planet. See? Every cloud as a silver linin'.

They've 'ad dealin's before – an' not all of 'em've gone well. But Reynolds ain't nowhere near rich enough to bear a grudge. Always ready to talk business if the job's worth enough to keep that le se junker in the air.

* * * * *

Simon Tam is still trembling when he closes the hotel room door behind him. He presses the autolock switch and tries the handle. It holds reassuringly firm. Then he notices there's an unauthorized access alarm option on the autolock and flicks that switch too. Better safe than sorry. Safe. He lets out a long breath and sinks down onto the bed. It's almost as soft as the one at home. He grits his teeth, deciding that some things are best not dwelt on.

The room is startlingly normal. Bed, table, easy chair, vidscreen. A bathroom off to one side. An ordinary room for ordinary people leading their ordinary lives. Which makes everything about it seem strange to Simon. What use could he possibly have for the Guide to Persephone to which the hotel has helpfully tuned the vidscreen? What pleasure could he derive from sinking into the whirlpool tub glimpsed through the open bathroom door? Even the chair seems incomprehensible. He stares at it in amazement that anyone would waste time on making something so lavishly upholstered and clearly intended for just sitting in. Will he ever be able to just sit again? Or will the rest of his life be spent planning for flight, for getting just far enough ahead of the authorities?

If only there were someone to talk to. The cortex link in this room is a biometric one, so he dare not use it. It might as well not be there. Is a cortex link still a cortex link if it is unused – or merely an assemblage of plastic and wires?

For distraction he takes the Bible-pod from a bedside cabinet drawer and punches the keys at random. He's surprised to notice his hand is shaking. A surgeon with unsteady hands? He drops the pod and holds the hand out in front of him, trying to predict when the next tremor will come. Before now he has only paid attention to his hands when they were clad in surgical gloves. This hand is pale and naked and utterly unfamiliar. Looking at it makes the room spin. Suddenly Simon feels nauseous.

" ... to make one wise, she took of its fuit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate." The disjointed synthesized voice makes Simon jump. He snatches it up and punches the off switch. There must be some delay in the buffer because the machine spews out "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked" because the processor finally cuts out. Naked ...

Earlier that evening

The men in the alley way had told him they wanted him naked. He tried to ignore their lewd suggestions as they followed him, tried not to change his pace or give any indication of fear. He couldn't think what he'd done to attract this kind of attention. He hadn't so much as made eye contact with anyone as he forced himself to eat dinner after leaving River's cryochamber with dock security. Surely nothing he'd done could have been construed as an invitation. So why were they following him and saying those things?

A hand reached out and grabbed him, spun him round and slammed him into a wall. Simon looked the man eye. There'd been a mistake. He must have unwittingly given out a signal or something that could be interepreted as such on this planet. But that didn't have to be a problem. He would simply apologize, explain there had been a mistake and everything would be all right.

The man was about his height, thick-set and with a badly healed scar the length of his cheek. He had the breath of a man without dental insurance and jaundiced yellow eyes.

Clamping Simon's chin between calloused fingers and thumb, he hissed, "Alway fancied drillin' me a Core boy. Heard tell you can get rich if you strike lucky."

A thrill of dread went through Simon as he realized it didn't matter to this man if he was interested or not. He thrust both hands against the man's chest to try to push him away but for all his unhealthy appearance, he was strong. He pushed back and Simon's head hit brickwork with a thump that made him see stars. Whilst he reeled, his assailant began tearing at his vest and shirt. Fabric was rent and buttons popped. The attacker's companions were laughing and jeering, egging him on.

Suddenly the frenzied struggle of limbs stilled and everything went quiet. Simon stared in disbelief as the expression on the man's face changed from enraged determination to one of pained surprise. His head lolled backwards and he folded into a heap at Simon's feet.

"You all right, Sir?" one of two federal officers asked solicitously, resheathing his baton. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Simon swallowed his panic and nodded.

"Y-yes. Thankyou. Officers." He looked down at the inert body. The other men were nowhere to be seen. He straightened the shirt he'd purchased earlier in the day because he'd thought it plain enough to allow him to go unnoticed. "I'm – uh – very grateful."

The second officer rolled Simon's attacker onto his back with a shove of his boot.

"We could have him bound by law, Sir," he said slowly, "But quite frankly it's paperwork we could do without. Don't worry though, Sir ... he won't be giving you any more trouble. Or anyone else."

The officer seemed to be suggesting ... an officer of the law? Shouldn't he be upholding it rather than breaking it? Some part of Simon's brain reminded him he ought to be grateful for that and he grunted his assent. The last thing he needed was to be asked to produce his ident card.

Now

Simon decides the shirt and vest are beyond repair and dumps them into the garbage chute. Neither had helped him blend in. With their costly fabrics and professional tailoring, the other clothes he's brought won't either but at least he'll be comfortable in them. They were his, after all.

* * * * *

Shepherd Book's departure from the abbey was delayed by the unexpected death of one of the brothers. The idea of going before the funeral seemed like leaving a friend without having the good manners to say good-bye, so he stayed on. He stood under the cherry blossom that was already being shaken from the bough as they laid him in his grave, pondering the brevity of life. How short a span man is granted in this 'verse before the Lord calls him back home. He offered up a prayer that he might be allowed a few more years – years in which he might put at least some of his wrongs right.

Eavesdown is not entirely unknown to him, but it has grown rapidly since the last time he was here and it takes him a while to get his bearings. He decides to overnight at a hotel and let the Lord help him choose a ship and a destination in the morning. His clerical garb is a source of some amusement as he books in at reception. In his room he opens the window to clear the stuffy air and wonders if perhaps he should adopt less blatantly religious attire.

From far away comes the cry of a rooster. No. The dog collar must stay.

* * * * *

"Captain Reynolds! Come in, come in!" Badger slaps a hand on Mal's shoulder and uses it to encourage him through the entrace to his inner sanctum.

Once in the room, Mal removes it with an ostentatious display of distaste. "Tell me about the job."

"Eager, ain't ya?" Badger says with a sharp-toothed little smile."Gotta say, I like tha' about you, Captain Reynolds."

Mal gives him an impatient smile that melts as soon as it forms. "Shiny."

Zoe casts an anxious look at him, willing him to keep his cool, agree terms and get out of here before anyone starts doin' anythin' stupid. Mal and Badger have a way of lookin' at each that reminds her of dogs circlin' each other before a fight. Badger rubs the lapel of his pinstripe jacket between a thumb and forefinger and Mal pushes back the sleeves of his battered suede coat. Businessman and outsider size each other up a moment.

"There's a carrier adrift about ten hours out from here," Badger says at last and the tension eases. "Engine blew out a few months ago. All 'ands died in the blast. But," he pauses for effect, "An' 'ere's the good news – it was stocked with supplies for settlers out of the border. Cargo like tha's worth a pretty penny."

"What about the Alliance?" Mal asks. "They shown any interest?"

Badger shakes his head. "Accordin' to my sources, they're treatin' it as a graveyard. With respect." He gives Mal a sharp look. "You ain't gonna get all shi dang about Alliance dead, are you?"

Mal stares right back at him. "Not as a rule."

"Good. Then, Captain Reynolds, it looks like we're in business again. I'll get you the coordinates an' I'll expect you back here with the good in – shall we say – thirty-six hours?"

"Thought you told Wash two days?"

"Guess I'm like you – eager."

"You ain't mentioned payment," Zoe points out before Mal feels the need to explain how very different he is from this jumped-up colony boy.

Badger grins at her, like she's caught him out.

"Bright as a button, that one," he remarks to Mal as if Zoe weren't there.

She allows herself the pleasure of plannin' a painful end for him as he engages Mal in a spot of haggling. Eventually terms are agreed and Badger extends a hand to shake on it. Mal waits a second longer tha is comfortable before taking it.

* * * * *

"Now that," Kaylee sighs sucking on the wishbone, "was real tasty." She licks the grease from her fingers with a pink, strawberry-shaped tongue.

Jayne grins. He likes watchin' this li'l mechanic eat. Girl takes a pleasure in it that's downright stimulatin'. Appetite like that at the table promises a fair helpin' of enthusiasm in the bedroom. Sure would like to get her in his bunk some day. See if'n he can't make her close her eyes and purr with pleasure like that. Often thinks on it when he's abed at night.

Must've been lookin' at her too long, cos suddenly she flips him lightly in the chest an' asks "What? What're you lookin' at me like that for?"

He turns his attention to his his beer an' takes a long swig.

"Nothin'," he mumbles, wipin' foam from his upper lip with the back of his hand.

Leavin' aside the fact that Mal'd probably slice of his John Thomas an' beat him with it if he thought Jayne was lustin' after the girl, the mercenary knows the value of patience when it comes to womenfolk. So he walks soft. Don't wanna spook her. He got all the time in the 'verse – ain't like there's a lot of rivals for her affections on Serenity.

'fore he took to trackin' men, Jayne used to hunt birds for the pot. Taught him stealth and how to wait till the moment for pouncin' was ripe. Taught him gentleness too. Hands might be big an' powerful, but he ain't never crushed a bird nor bruised a lover with 'em. Knows how to hold 'em jus' so. No need to be rufflin' their feathers.

Them was good days, back then with all the family around. But it ain't right for a full grown man to be tied to his momma's apron strings. A man's gotta stand on his own two feet. Make his way in the world.

"Better be getting' back to Serenity soon," Kaylee says, getting to her feet. "Don't want the Cap'n yellin' at us for bein' late. This job's awful important to him."

Jayne plonks his slouch hat onto his head and tosses a handful of coin onto the saloon table. Kaylee slips her arm through his as they step out into the bustling street. Makes the big man's heart swell with pride when passers-by look at 'em like they's man an' wife.

* * * * *

Book kneels by his bed, despite the pain in his left knee, or perhaps because of it. Without the ritual of communal prayer, it's hard to find the words he wants to say. Just him and God now. No hiding behind the regular pattern of the standardized service. It's liked being stripped naked and the desire to cover up is like a physical need. The room feels cold.

Cold as that place where all was metal and marble and white light.

He keeps on kneeling and waiting. Hoping that God will understand.

* * * * *

You wonder where the pain went. Did it stop or did it reach such a pitch your nervous system could no longer process it. Perhaps you died. Because now all you feel is cold. Bitter, biting cold and complete stillness. Are the thoughts that swirl up through the sparkling mist the dreams that come unbidden as dying neurons flare and are extinguished? Your mind is filled with dazzling glitter and brittle light. The Ice Age. Everything here is virgin white – untouched. But look closer and there's blood in the snow and the bare trees are skeletons. Hands turning blue in the cold. The ringing in your ears is not the wind but the sound of screaming – your own. The tingle in your skin is not the nip of frost but the crackle of electricity. And the pictures in your mind are not your own. They put them there. And some of it is true and some of it is made up and some of it can't be quantified. Only endured.

Chapter Text

You've been cold for so long – shut down, insensate for so very long that it's easy to believe you've always been this way. You're used to it now and can even take comfort from the numbness, the lack of feeling. Better this than the electric sting of nerves and blood. At least you're safe here in. Cerebral, cardiac and pulmonary activity suspended. Deep frozen in your metal shell.

But under the ice floe, a warmer current is moving closer. You can feel it coming. All is flux and flow and nothing is forever. Things change and you must change with them. The seasons progress and winter must give way to spring. The frost will melt away and you will uncurl. You will blossom despite your fears.

Part of you longs for it just as part of you tries to burrow deeper into the snow.

* * * * *

"Definitely a big ship, Sir, and she's without power."

Captain Grayson hesitates. It pains him to have to let the hyenas go but he has no choice. The Dortmunder's gunships are only short-range and don't carry enough fuel to cover five clicks unsupported, let alone thirteen. "Gunships'd never get back to us in time...all right. Let's go help those people." Then it occurs to him that he doesn't have to let those pirates get away scot-free. "Put a bulletin out on the Cortex," he tells the ensign "and flag Interpol: a Firefly with possibly stolen goods aboard. Maybe someone'll step on those roaches." He certainly hopes so. Because people like these undermine the civilized values the Alliance is trying to spread throughout the 'verse.

These vultures need to be stopped.

* * * * *

"You want to do what, Sir?" Zoe asks incredulously, leaning back against her husband's chair. Wash tries to keep the delight he feels at his wife's refusal to go blindly along with whatever wacky notion Mal comes up with from showing on his face.

Mal glares at her. "Don't see why you're objectin'. It was you gave me the notion in the first place."

"I did, Sir? Care to explain how?"

"As I recall, rentin' out the shuttle was your idea. Takin' on passengers ain't so different. 'sides – it'll give us a legitimate, Alliance-proof reason for settin' down on Boros. They got damn near a batallion stationed on that rock now. Don't always wanna be usin' Inara as an excuse," Mal says firmly. Truth is, he don't want her havin' that kind of power over his ship. Over him.

Zoe sighs deeply, as if about to tackle a particularly tedious task. "Big difference between tenants and passengers, Sir. You checked Inara out. Explained the nature of our business. Can't do that with passengers."

"Got no plans to. Way I figure it – we get 'em on board, take their money and tell 'em the cargo bay's off limits durin' transit. Claim it's for safety reasons or some such. That way we can keep them an' the goods from runnin' into each other."

"And what kind of goods are we going to be carrying this time?" Wash asks. "Tell me it's nothing that's going to get us in trouble with the feds again. We were lucky today, Mal. If we hadn't had that cry-baby ..." he trails off, noticing the look passing between Zoe and the Captain. "What? Wo de ma!" He shakes his head. "No. Please. Not more stuff likely to land us all in jail? What's wrong with poultry for a change? We could get rich selling chickens on the Rim. Or geese. We could get extra for geese. There's this trick ..."

"Hunting rifles, dear," Zoe tells him, leaning on the word 'rifles' to press home her point about passengers being a bad idea. "Captain's plan is - we drop the goods off with Badger an' use the coin he pays us to buy in a few crates of hunting rifles we can sell on at a profit on Boros."

"Hunting rifles. Exactly," Mal says, emphatically stabbing a finger in her direction. "For shootin' game. Not people."

"Sure the Feds will make that distinction, Sir," Zoe replies, clearly unconvinced.

"And if they don't?" Wash asks, running a hand anxiously through his hair. "We end up in prison? I don't wanna get locked up. Not without my wife." The prospect fills him with such dread he refuses to accept it as a possibility. He pastes on a hopeful grin. "Us being married, I think they'd lock us up together."

* * * * *

Five years ago

They were in a bar. Been released that very afternoon. Free at last, but too twitchy to think about where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do, they decided they didn't want to think at all. Spent too much gorram time thinkin' during their months in prison, when all they had to look at was four walls, a ceiling and a floor. But on their first night of freedom the outside world felt too big, too free. So they exchanged bars for a bar and decided to get thoroughly drunk.

A couple of hours into the drinkin', Zoe found herself studyin' Mal's face. Partly to stop the room from spinnin' an' partly because she was tryin' to predict which of them would slide under the table first. Sarge's focus was off – she could tell by the way his pupils had opened up like black holes. One minute she was thinkin' she oughta challenge him to a test of sobriety – cos she loved nothin' better than winnin' – an' the next she was thinkin' all manner of things she shou'n't. Like how war hadn't made Sarge any less pretty. In fact, there was a danger and a darkness to him now that made her spine tingle. Other bits too. She realized she wanted him to touch her. An' not just a comradely arm round her shoulder, nor a comforting squeeze of the hand neither but in a way that would wipe out everything else but the touchin'. A way that would make her blood pulse in time with his.

He caught her lookin' at him that way and somethin' behind his eyes snapped shut. He swallowed the rest of his drink down in one gulp and stood up. "Best see if they've got any rooms. Don't fancy beddin' down in the street an' gettin' arrested for makin' this pi tiao ke de rock look untidy."

Rooms, she noted. Not a room. The two of them had slept in ditches together – worse places too - an' here was Sarge gettin' all proper now they were civilians again? She watched him as he leant on the bar and gestured for the bartender to come over. A command more than a request. Prison ha'n't knocked out any of the leader in him. He had a way of standin' – of bein' – that made folk compliant. Well, when he wa'n't makin' 'em mad as hell, that was. An' it wa'n't just the pretty – there was something overwhelmin' about him. And – damn it! - she wanted to be overwhelmed. For tonight at least. She was floatin', adrift an' in sore need of tyin' down. She'd lost everythin' but him an' the 'verse made no sense to her any more. Only solid point in it was him.

He walked carefully back across the room like a man tryin' to pretend he got no problem handlin' his liquor and tossed her a key, not meeting her eyes. "Only had rooms at opposite ends of the corridor. Goin' up now." She began rising from her seat but he shook his head. "Finish your drink. See you in the mornin'."

Surprisingly he managed to take the stairs two at a time, like the devil was on his tail. Zoe's brows knitted together as she tried to work out what in the diyu was wrong with him, but her brain was too fogged up to think straight. She swayed a little as she got to her feet and she left her drink unfinished.

Her room was cold and too quiet. Ha'n't spent a night on her own for years. No hope of sleepin'. Mal was awake too. She knew it, bone-deep. He was awake an' frettin' - tormentin' himself with thoughts of what might have been. What should have been.

She threw back the covers and slipped out of bed. The door creaked a little as she opened it. There was just enough light in the corridor for her to find her way. She didn't bother knocking.

"Sir? Sarge?" she whispered into the room."Mal?"

"Shen me?"

She stole across the room and slipped into the bed beside him. He shifted over, making space between them.

"Cou'n't sleep," she explained, as if that was reason enough for her to be there. When he didn't reply she moved closer and lay a hand on his chest. "Wanna help me with that?"

Even in the dark, she could see his eyes widen ever so slightly and his mouth opening to speak. She couldn't bear to hear him say 'no' so she leant over him and blocked the refusal she feared was coming with a kiss. Just her lips on his. A question, that was all. She felt him tense for a second and then his hand was on the back of her head, pulling her down onto his mouth. Teeth, lips and tongues fit together like they had been made for each other. Every connection felt right. Zoe breathed a chuckle of relief into him and rolled them over, so that now she was underneath an' smilin' encouragement up at him. They'd faced death together. It seemed only right to face life together too.

Mal felt the room spin and himself with it. It was like he was divin' into a boilin' sea. A strange scent filled his nostrils and he could taste blood in his mouth.

To his bewilderment, he felt his teeth sink into skin.

A quicksilver pain flashed against Zoe's throat, making her gasp and cry out. But the pain subsided quickly leaving only heat and she arched into it, a soft whimper escaping her lips.

She sobbed ... pleaded ... The nightmare hasn't faded with time. The colours are still vivid ... Green like the fields and trees of Shadow for Zoe, the closest thing to home he has ... How ugly men can be ... She didn't fight ... He takes her and holds her down ... They call him a survivor ... he's not ... knows what lies in the heart of men and fears it may be in his own ... He could still hear the muffled whimpering

Could hear it still. Needed to make it stop. Make her stop. He brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her.

But it was Zoe that yelped with surprise. It was Zoe that he had pinned down and vulnerable. Zoe? Mal shook his head. How could that be? It di'n't make any kind of sense. Zoe never cried. She was strong – strongest woman he'd ever known barrin' his Momma.

Had Momma cried?

His head throbbed and the room felt unbearably hot. His gut twisted like somethin' savage was trying to claw its way of of him. Somethin' savage and ugly that he couldn't fight. Or perhaps it was somethin' he didn't want to fight. Because it was him. The Real Him. Sweat trickled down his forehead and dripped from his brow. Hurry up and finish. Get it over with.

The slap sobered Zoe up faster than any quack remedy or jugful of coffee could ever've done and instincts honed on the battlefield told her she couldn't fight this. She could only run. Save herself first an' worry about savin' Sarge later. Wherever he might be. Cos whoever this man was ... well, she di'n't recognize him.

She knew with cold certainty that he'd be too strong to resist with kicks and punches. Probably wou'n't even hardly feel 'em. Flow round rock that can't be moved, Daddy used to say. She went limp and his grip on her wrists loosened. Slippin' away, she unsteadied him. Losing his balance, he toppled forwards with a grunt and Zoe was gone.

Part of her would never come back.

* * * * *

NOW

"Oh ... oh ... oh my god," Inara breathes against her client's neck with consummate professionalism. She runs a hand through his hair in a practiced gesture of tenderness as he shudders and stills. The same old dance. Being on Serenity was supposed to have changed that. She sighs, smiling at the young man beside her and allowing him to think it's with contentment. But she's sighing because being on Serenity has changed things. Her clients have become interchangeable, indistinguishable from each other. Their auras blend into each other and not a single one of them interests her any more. They are all cut from the same cloth. Predictable. She needs more to work with than that. She needs a puzzle. A mystery.

She rises from the bed and prepares herself for the zai jian ceremony. This time the tea she pours is sweetened with honey. Unlike the welcoming ceremony beverage, it leaves the palate sated not craving more.

Back in his uniform, her young client looks little more than a boy.

"Our time went too quickly," she lies.

A sulk settles around his mouth. "Your clock's probably rigged to speed up and cheat us out of our fun."

Her smile tightens and she is grateful that he is too young and inexperienced to see it. A Companion without her mask is as vulnerable as a crab ripped from its shell. She must never lose her sheen of cool composure. Instead she must use it to reflect back a client's deepest desires, leaving the soft heart of her safely hidden and unknown. Why did her mask slip today?

She hasn't been sleeping well of late, so the explanation may lie in simple tiredness. Despite its layers of silk and satin and down, her bed has become increasingly uncomfortable, as if the expensive mattress were full of lumps. At her lowest moments she suspects Mal of slipping grit under her sheets.

Then again, the boy all but called her a whore and of late the accusation has acquired a vicious sting.

* * * * *

Something older. Nothing flash. Disreputable-looking. Junkers. Simon goes over Yandor's list of desirable qualities in a ship over and over again. He has to get this right, make the right decision. Otherwise he will end up in a federal prison and River ... No! He will not even contemplate the possibility.

Even though it's still morning the Eavesdown Docks are busy and extremely hot. There must be some kind of system here as everyone is moving about purposefully but, for the life of him, Simon can't work out what it is. He gets jostled repeatedly as he tries to make his way through the crowd. It's an uncomfortable feeling this being in such close proximity to strangers and not at all what he's used to. On Core planets people respect one's personal space. Double so one's intimate zone. A hand slides briefly into his pocket, making him start and fear he's again unknowingly done something to draw unwelcome attention, but the hand is swiftly withdrawn and he realizes its owner's motivation was theft, not assault. And the pocket is empty. Simon might not be used to places like this but at least he's had the foresight to hide what little money he has in the inside pocket of his vest. He smiles to himself as the pick-pocket moves on to pastures new. It feels like a minor victory.

There's maybe one vessel to which he'd feel like entrusting his life – a gleaming cruise ship sporting the latest in heat-deflecting panelling – which of course makes it the one vessel he can't choose. Most of the others promise a bumpy ride with an unsavoury crew and some look as if they were designed with the specific intent of disproving the laws of aerodynamics.

"Lookin' for a ride?" a gruff voice asks.

Simon turns to see a broad-set man in his early thirties, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket and matching hat. "I beg your pardon?" he asks carefully.

The man eyes him with poorly disguised disdain. "A ride. Passage. On a ship," he says slowly as if Simon were unable to comprehend simple English.

"Oh, I see. Uh ..."

"We're heading for the outer rings. Heard a lot of you Core folks like to spend time on the Rim," the man elaborates. Does he have a facial tic or what that a wink? "So – you wanna come with us?" OK, now it's a definite leer.

Simon straightens up and somehow manages to look down his nose at the taller man. "No. Thankyou. I have other plans."

The hustler shrugs and moves on. "We're cheap, we're clean," Simon overhears him saying to a grey-haired man in clerical attire. "The Brutus is the best ship in the 'verse."

* * * * *

"The Brutus is the best ship in the 'verse," the young man insists but without any real conviction. Book recognizes a sales pitch when he hears one and, to be blunt about it, he'd rather not. And as if that weren't enough, he's familiar enough with Earth-that-was history to feel uncomfortable about that name. Brutus. Et tu, Brute? Conjures up the image of a friend's knife between the shoulder blades.

There's been too much betrayal already.

"I never married," Book says cryptically and walks away.

"What?"

"I'm not a grandpa." Ah, it feels good to explain and yet not. Let people believe what they will. Something of the man Book used to be surfaces with a self-satisfied smirk as he makes his way towards the Firefly class ship. It'll be interesting to see how much the design has changed.

* * * * *

Jayne reholsters his gun, fighting down feelings of rage and ... disappointment? Embarrassment? No – shame, tha's what it is. Gorram, ruttin' shame. An' not on his own account neither. If'n it'd been his call he'da shot that chou wang da ban Badger where he stood an' qin wode pigu with the consequences.

He gotta believe Mal knows what he's doin' – that somehow he's gonna turn this to his advantage. Jayne can smell the anger comin' off him, which don't reassure him none. But Mal's come out smilin' from situations worse than this before. An' there ain't no denyin' he's got smarts. Probably got a back-up plan all worked out already. Yeah, that'll be it. Mal don't do nothin' without a reason. The kinda reason that turns into hard coin.

* * * * *

"Not an aught three though. Didn't have the extenders, tended to shake."

Kaylee suddenly sees the man before her in a different light. Not just as an elderly Shepherd but as a man who knows about engines. An' ships. She realizes he ain't that old either. Older than her daddy surely, but still got a bright twinkle in his eye an' a ready smile. He's lookin' up an' down at the ships in dock, not the destination panels. Been a lot of that today. There was this handsome young man too ...

"So how come you don't care where you're going?"she asks almost as soon as she realizes that is the case.

"Cos how you get there's the worthier part," he replies simply.

Kaylee nods at the Shepherdly wisdom of that. Heard stuff like that from the missionary that came to preach in the chapel near her daddy's workshop. "You a missionary?"

Is it his imagination or has the sun blazing over the Eavesdown Docks grown brighter? Book looks at this pretty girl in her simple overalls and turquoise silk jacket and a sense of stillness – of meaning – comes over him. He fancies he can hear the beating of a dove's wings.

"I guess..."

* * * * *

Mal takes a deep breath and a step closer to Badger.

"Maybe I'm not a fancy gentleman like you with your ... very fine hat," he says slowly, pleased that he's able to get the words out without laughin' in the pompous little ji bai's face, "but I do business. We're here for business."

They eyeball each other for a while. Mal idly wonders why Badger chooses to dress that way. Don't suit him – certainly don't make him look the respectable businessman with roots in the community he pretends to be. Oughta have a shirt with a pinstripe jacket, any fool knows that. Exceptin' Badger of course. An' the hat is jus' plain ridiculous. Overall impression Badger creates is of a sad little upstart, desperate to join a club that won't have him.

Badger's eyes narrow. Did Mal let his contempt show on his face? "Try one of the border planets – they're a lot more desperate out there. Of course, they might kill you but you stay here and I just know the Alliance'll track you down. I have that feeling."

He don't just wear the clothes, Mal realizes. He dances to the Alliance tune too when it suits him. Man's made of straw – hollow inside. Nothin' of himself left to call his own. No roots of any kind – and when the tide turns, he'll be swept clean away.

"Wheel never stops turning Badger."

"That only matters to the people on the rim."

* * * * *

Kaylee feels bad Wash ain't back yet with the mule to help the Shepherd with his luggage. Don't seem right, a man of his age havin' to haul all them bags and boxes up the ramp his own self. But he wou'n't let her help. Such a nice man. Weren't his fault he di'n't have enough coin for the full fare. She hopes the Cap'n won't be mad at her for accepting fresh produce as part payment.

Sure is hot here, even under her parasol, but Kaylee ain't complainin'. She's enjoyin' the chance to indulge in some people-watchin'. Fancy ladies, feds in uniform, hustlers, whores an' street vendors. All of 'em with stories.

The crowd thins a little an', makin' his way down the berths - takin' a right close look at every ship, Kaylee spots him. That same handsome young man an' just about the most shuai fella she ever did see. Dark suit, black hair and fine features. Can't see his eyes as they're hidden behind sunglasses but he's got a real pretty mouth. She hopes he'll pass close enough by for him to notice her. She'd like to see him smile.

"My wife back yet?" Wash asks as he slows the mule before ascending the cargo bay ramp.

Kaylee smiles at him. "She'll be OK, Wash. She's with the Cap'n."

"Not necessarily the same thing," Wash replies, scanning the crowd for any sign of the others. "You heard his latest ...?"

Kaylee suddenly stands up, all her attention elsewhere, and the pilot wonders if he's suddenly gone invisible. "Hi," she's saying with a flutter of eyelashes and a shy girlish dip of her head. Wash turns round to see a dandy fella who looks like he oughta be swankin' around someplace cool on the Core rather than sweatin' into his silky shirt here in the Eavesdown Docks.

"Uh. Good day, miss," the newcomer says as he casts an inexpert eye over Serenity's battered skin. "I ... uh, I'm looking for ... I mean, I want to book passage to ... uh..."

Wash raises a quizzical eyebrow at Kaylee. Wacky fella doesn't even know where he's heading. Something a bit cuckoo about that.

"Boros," Kaylee finishes the stranger's sentence for him and gives him another sweet smile. "Are you travellin' alone? Ot with a ... friend?"

Wash rolls his eyes. Oh yeah, Kaylee – real subtle!

"No. I'm travelling alone. Although I do have rather a lot of luggage. Will that be a problem?"

She shakes her head. "Not a bit of it. You need help carryin' it? Cos Wash can put it on the mule."

Simon likes the way she talks, the way she smiles. River used to smile like that. Before. Sometimes Mother would put her hair up in that exact same style too, although Simon doubts that, unlike his ten-year old sister, this young woman wanted to look like a dinosaur.

"Thankyou." He turns to Wash and bows his head formally "I would be very grateful. It's in store at the freight depot. It is rather heavy ..."

Wash grins, wondering what a man who looks like he's never even had to carry his own handkerchief would call heavy. "No worries."

* * * * *

At last the mule comes back into view and, to Simon's immense relief, it's carrying the cryochamber. "Please – be careful with that," he urges as Wash drives past.

The contrast between the two pieces of equipment is striking: a low-tech, bottom-of-the-range utility vehicle and a state-of-the-art dedicated life support system. Simon doesn't imagine any of Serenity's crew will have ever seen anything like it before. He prays they will be careful with it. Press any of a dozen buttons and the interior will start to thraw, awakening River from her dream of death. Will they ask awkward questions? Will they see through his carefully elaborated cover story? He will just have to remain cool and composed. He's come too far to lose now.

The mule disappears into the ship's cargo bay and Simon finds himself on the receiving end of a laser stare, full of ice and heat. A shiver travels the length of his spine.

"Mal, this is Simon," the girl with the parasol – Kaylee? - is saying. "Simon, this is our captain."

Simon has almost frozen under the burning weight of the other man's eyes. Captain? He'd been expecting someone older, someone less ... discomfiting. Nonetheless he manages a stiff nod. "Captain."

Mal keeps right on starin'. Somethin' about this boy sets bells ringin' in his head like a fire alarm goin' off. Don't much like the look of him. Seen his type too many times before. Moneyed, that's for gorram certain. Can see it shinin' out of the whiteness of his shirt an' the easy confidence of his expensive black suit. Badger oughta be here. See how someone born to 'em wears these kinda clothes. Boy's got that better-than attitude perfected too. Nose in the air an' a barbed wire fence of brittle politeness round him to discourage ordinary folk from getting' too close. Every damn thing about him is all manner of irritatin'.

Mal lets his resentment smoulder in his eyes before looking briefly away. It's only for a moment, but that moment is like a cool breath of air. Maybe no-one's gonna get burnt today after all ...

"This all we got?"

* * * * *

The temperature is rising, even if the dials haven't yet registered the fact and the atmosphere has changed. You aren't dead after all. The sky grows light and chaos is come again.

Chapter Text

Simon would have preferred to eat in his room, but it seemed like he was expected to join the others in the mess and he didn't want to stand out or appear weird in any way. So here he is, fiddling with his food and trying to act relaxed. Being seated across the table from that really big man with the hairy arms and killer's eyes doesn't help ease the tension in his neck and shoulders. Simon takes a sip of water and then another. At least Kaylee is opposite him. Whenever she catches his eye, she gives him a little smile. She passes him dishes, encourages him to try all that's on offer and is generally kind to him. Yes, it could be worse. It could be the Captain opposite him. He's grateful he doesn't have to look up and find those eyes on him. He takes a longer drink from his glass. At least he understands the look the thug's giving him – resentment, prejudice and contempt. And doubtless he's bouncing the same thing right back. Malcolm Reynold's expression is as unreadable as it's intense.

"Once they're terraformed, " the Captain is saying, "they'll dump settlers on there with nothin' but blankets an' hatchets an' maybe a herd. Some of 'em make it. Some of 'em ..."

Simon sees an opportunity to make up for having asked too many question earlier. He'd irritated the man his safety depends on – if only for the next ten days – without meaning to. Asked too many questions about the medical supplies they're taking a detour to deliver. "Then I guess it's good we're helping," he offers.

The Captain gives him a cold, slightly bored look but Kaylee asks "You're a doctor, right?"

Simon is a little thrown. So much of his sense of self comes from his work and he's proud of how good he is at it. Except that now ... "Oh. Uh, yes. Yes, I was a trauma surgeon on Osiris, in Capital City."

The Captain raises his eyebrows a touch. "Long way from here."

Kaylee flutters her eyelashes at Simon, admiring him for having achieved so much at such a young age. He flatters her back. Jayne looks from one to the other, smellin' another fox in the yard. Without thinkin' it through none he wades in. "Little Kaylee here just wishes you was a gynaecologist."

The mechanic gasps and looks appalled. Simon feels embarrassment crawl slowly up his back.

"Jayne, you will keep a civil tongue in that mouth or I will sew it shut. Is there an understandin' between us?" The Captain's tone is even.

"You don't pay me to talk pretty."

"Walk away from this table right now."

Simon holds his breath, fearing a fight. Long seconds pass as the big man – Jayne – curls his lip back like a dog about to attack. Then he huffs, shovels some extra food onto his plate and gets up. Oozing resentment, he stomps off. The Captain goes calmly back to eating, leaving Simon slightly less intimidated by Jayne and slightly more wary of Malcolm Reynolds.

And when's he's nervous, he always talks too much. "What do you pay him for."

"What?" This time it's Mal who's caught off balance. Gorram rich folk with their need for talkin'. He glares at the boy. Don't like him. Don't matter why. Somethin' about him just bothers Mal.

"I was just wondering," Simon explains, because when you're in a hole if you dig really fast ... "what his job is. On the ship."

Mal's glare darkens. The chopsticks in his hand squeak against each other as his grip tightens. He can feel Zoe shootin' him a warnin'. Think about how much money you got out of this damn fool who thinks he so ruttin' smart, he tells himself. "Public relations," he deadpans finally and bites into a slice of tomato.

The meal ends pretty much in silence and Simon is glad to escape to his room. At least he understands the hierarchy and is certain the Captain will keep Jayne in check. He knows Jayne dislikes him and Jayne reminds him of someone.

 

Five years ago

It was Christmas Eve. Despite the way she dismissed the holiday's religious significance and the idea of a fat old man in red squeezing his way down their non-existent chimney with equal contempt, River loved Christmas and Simon was determined not to spoil it for her. So on his return home, he smiled and joked and tousled her hair and made for all the 'verse like nothing was wrong. He told her he needed to take a shower and change before dinner and reluctantly she released his hand, watching him go through eyes clouded by incomprehension. Something had happened – something bad had happened - to her beloved ge-ge and he was trying to hide it from her. And he never kept anything from her ...

Simon stood under the hot water for as long as he could bear it, imagining the skin cells lifting and being washed away. The bruises didn't look so bad once his skin had flushed pink with the heat. He dried himself carefully and took out some anaesthetic cream from his bag. Within minutes the sharp pain dulled to an ache and he didn't have to concentrate on walking normally any more.

His discarded clothes lay in a heap on the floor. He bundled them into his bag, planning to dispose of them in the hospital's incinerator next day. Because even if the maid washed them a hundred times they would never be clean.

He dressed and opened his closet door. Inside River's present lay apparently untouched and uninvestigated. It looked like she had kept her word to him. He picked it up and headed downstairs.

River was waiting at the foot of the winding stair case, gazing up at him. He kissed her cheek and put the gift in her hands. "Merry Christmas, mei-mei," he said. "I'm on duty tomorrow so I thought we could have our Christmas tonight." Their hands touched briefly and a jolt went through her. She turned eyes wide with questions on him but he simply smiled. "Aren't you going to open it?"

"Sometimes it's better not to know," she said solemnly, turning the package over in her hands, admiring the gorgeous wrapping paper and the wide silver bow. "Sometimes it's not what you want."

Simon pretended to frown and gave her a playful little shove. "Better had be, brat," he grinned. "You've been dropping hints for weeks about what you wanted."

She tilted her head on one side considering. "Perhaps it's better to get what you need rather than what you want," she mused, ripping off the paper. A second's silence and then she was shrieking with delight. "Oh! Oh, Simon! A pers comm! Daddy said I couldn't ... This is amazing. The latest model. You know this has the very latest in biocircuitry ... oh, Simon! I love you." She flung her arms round him and hugged him tight and he managed not to wince at the pressure on tender flesh. He even managed to push the memory of that brawny, dark-haired arm he thought he wanted wrapped round him holding him still long after he'd thought better of it to the back of his mind.

It had been his own stupid fault after all.

* * * * *

"So," Wash says meaningfully when it's just him, Mal and Zoe in the kitchen, "A doctor, eh? Might come in very handy."

"You reckon?" Mal don't think so.

"If Patience decides to shoot you again," Wash grins. "He could patch you up."

"Unless her aim's improved," Zoe points out. To Mal.

"Unless her aim's improved," Wash agrees. He scratches the back of his head. "Gotta wonder what a doctor's doin' on a boat like this. Hey! Why don't we keep him – you know, refuse to let him get off on Boros? Number of times you and my wife need ..."

Mal slaps a hand down on the table and leans in towards the pilot. "We ain't keepin' him."

* * * * *

By tradition a Companion always bathes after spending time with a client, regardless of how that time may have been spent. On Sihnon Inara always relished the ritual. Baths deep and large enough to swim a few strokes in. Hot, scented water. Things on Serenity are very different. Mal rations water out strictly and she doesn't object because it's a necessity on a ship of this size and type. Rather surprisingly he gallantly allows her a little more than the rest of the crew get, although unsurprisingly he announced his decision in an indelicate manner. Over dinner one night. "Your line of work - figured you get dirtier than the rest of us." She accepted graciously and ignored the way Jayne licked his lips.

Today she is taking longer than usual over the rite. She dips the sponge into the basin and squeezes it out against her body over and over again. The boy questioned her integrity and Mal insulted her. Between them they managed to make her feel dirty. She tries to concentrate on the sensation the cool rivulets make as they trickle down her back but her mind refuses to be schooled. "Dirty whore," it calls her. "Dirty tamade whore!"

2508

She was fourteen and giddy in love. Shui was three years older. Her heart beat faster just thinking about him. She couldn't eat, she couldn't sleep. All she could do was dream about him when he was elsewhere and touch him when he was with her. When they kissed, she thought she might die of happiness.

One night she heard a noise in the courtyard below her window. The silver light from her windows spilled down upon him as she pulled back the drapes. "Inara!" he hissed loudly in the way moonstruck youths do. "I must talk to you."

She nodded, wrapped herself in her heavy silk dressing gown and crept through the house. It was cold outside, but in his arms she was on fire. "What is it? What are you doing here?"

He kissed her and kissed her as if to stopper up the words in his mouth but finally he pulled away and said miserably, "My father – he enrolled me with the military. I have to leave for the training school on Ezra tomorrow."

Inara wilted in his arms. "I ... Why? .. No! I can't bear it!" She began weeping hysterically, her sobs shaking through the still night air. He tried to calm her with a kiss but she clawed at him, pulling him ever closer. And under the shade of her father's favourite cherry tree they made love.

How her mother knew was a mystery to the fourteen year old Inara but know she did and she was furious. Her cheeks went livid and the soft curves of her face took on new, harsh angles. "You dirty whore!" she said coldly. "You dirty tamade whore." She dragged her screaming daughter into the bathroom and forced her into the bath. Scrubbed and scrubbed at her skin until at last her anger subsided. Inara sat mute and uncomprehending in the water as it cooled around her.

Her father's reaction was harder still to bear. She'd always been his special girl, his princess. His heart and his arms were always open to her. But that day he closed himself off from her. Turned a cold back and said, "If her talents lie in this direction, she should at least ensure a decent future for herself. With training, I'm sure she would make a decent" - he stumbled over the word - "Companion."

* * * * *

"We got a mole on board," a horrified Wash tells Mal..

So – he wa'n't wrong about the boy. Shoulda heeded the crampin' in his gut after all. The so-called Doctor's a ruttin' Alliance mole. Spacin' him'll be a gorram pleasure.

"Forget your tooth paste?" Mal snarls when he finally tracks Simon down in the cargo bay.

Nonplussed by the question Simon says nothing. Tries to work what in the 'verse the Cap ... And goes sprawling on the floor as Mal's fist connects with his cheekbone with more force than even Mal had been expecting. He's surprised by how much the blow hurts him. Boy's face must be made of rock. Mal shakes his hand to relieve the pain in his knuckles.

Simon presses a hand to his cheek, automatically checking for a fracture. He shouldn't be surprised by this turn of events, given the boorish nature of the Captain and his crew, but somehow he is. He'd hoped ... He looks up. "Are you out of your mind?" he asks, not bothering to hide his contempt.

"Just about," Mal growls back at him, hand moving to his holster. Nice quick endin' to this would suit him fine. "What'd you tell them?"

Simon is back on his feet and there's as much anger in him as there is in Mal. "Tell who?"

"I have exactly no time for games," Mal says, drawing his pistol.

"You're a lunatic," Simon diagnoses with professional certainty.

"And you're a gorram fed," Mal snaps back, cocking the weapon.

Time seems to stop as Simon stares at it. How did he get to a point where death is a muscle contraction away? Then everything starts happening in a rush. Simon hardly has time to process one emotion before another crashes over him. He's vaguely aware of Mal seizing hold of him and trying to make some kind of deal with Dobson. He struggles but can't quite get free of the Captain's grip. Then there are more people, threats, yelling and finally the crack of gunshot.

And Kaylee rocks back against a wall and slides to the floor clutching her belly.

* * * * *

"Who sent the wave?" the tall, gaunt one asks.

"Dobson. Laurence Dobson," the shorter ginger one replies.

"Dobson? Not one of ours then?"

"Not at this stage. Don't want to attract attention. The clean up is always so ..."

"Bloody."

"Yes."

* * * * *

Working on Kaylee affords Simon a respite of sanity, even if the Captain insists on scrutinizing his every move. At least Malcolm Reynolds is familiar enough with dealing with people who've been shot to provide some help with the surgery. So he's not actually in the way physically. Mentally, his presence is like a huge black bird of prey sitting on Simon's shoulder. The bullet is easy enough to remove once Simon has his own equipment, and the damage – though serious – is not complicated. The girl should pull through. Simon suspects Jayne will rip him apart if she doesn't. Crouched outside of the infirmary window, the big man continues staring at the unconscious mechanic with a look Simon last saw on a dog..

* * * * *

"Saw that coming," Jayne declares happily as Simon hits the deck for the second time that day. This time the Captain splits his lip. Simon watches him stalk off feeling oddly guilty. He knows he hit a nerve and the punch was almost a reflex beyond the other man's control. He gets to his feet and walks back into the kitchen. Wash gives him a sympathetic, embarrassed smile and the Shepherd pats his shoulder. Jayne smirks. Zoe just looks at him, eyes moving between the darkening skin on his cheek and the cut on his mouth.

"I need to check on my sister," he announces, as if a single one of them were interested, and heads for the passenger dorm.

Five years ago

Zoe woke up feeling like zao cao. She dragged herself over to the wash basin and splashed cold water on her face. The mirror above it confirmed she looked as ghastly as she felt. Her cheek was bruised and slightly swollen and there was congealed blood on her lower lip. Bastard.

She ordered weak tea and dry toast at the bar in the hope of calming the waves of nausea and took a seat near the door. No way was she lettin' him slip out without a gorram explanation. Cold light of mornin' made her see things different. Oh, she was so goin' to kick his ass.

So she sat and waited, waited and sat till damn near mid-day when at last his boots came into view on the landing above. She stiffened in her seat.

He di'n't spot her at first an' when he did he all but jumped. Like he was surprised to see her. Ah – that was his game, was it? Lie low till the coast was clear. Thought she'd just leave, did he? Dumbass. Even so he tried to pretend she wa'n't there. Tried to sidle past, eyes fixed on the floor. She stood up, arms folded, blocking his exit.

"Mornin', Sir," she said, voice even but dangerous.

Never seen more reluctance in makin' eye contact, she thought as Sarge's gaze slowly met hers. He flinched visibly at the connection and looked quickly away but she still saw it. All that pain an' loss an' total ruttin' hopelessness. "You still here?" he muttered.

"Looks like.".

Because when you can't walk, you crawl. And when you can't even do that ... well, you know the rest.

* * * * *

River's eyes fly open as Simon slides the door back. She's sitting cross-legged on the bed and, for a second seems disorientated and fearful, but then her face lights up with recognition. "Simon."

He sits down on the bed facing her. "Yes, mei-mei – it's me."

Her hand flutters round his face, fingers finally alighting on his cut lip. "Hurt," she says sadly, jumping up to dampen a flannel with which she cleans off the blood.

He shakes his head. "Not really," he assures her, taking her hand in his and squeezing it gently. "I'll mend."

She tilts her head to one side, pressing her lips together and gazing at him as if he's speaking another language. "Third not second."

"Right," he nods, uncomprehending. Did he give her too much sedative?

"Are you one of the horses or one of the men?" River asks.

Simon searches her face, hoping against hope that she's teasing him. Riddles were a favourite childhood game. But her expression is deadly serious and it scares him. He sighs. "One of the men."

River shakes her head, almost angrily. "No!"

"One of the horses?" he asks uncertainly, only to be be slapped on the shoulder. "Then why don't you tell [i/]me, mei-mei?"

She taps a finger lightly on the end of his nose. "Neither, silly. You underestimate yourself."

Overestimate myself, more like. Otherwise I wouldn't have brought my precious sister aboard this junker where she's caught between a Federal Officer and a crazed Captain. Plain to see I'm not up to the job of protecting her.

"You're wrong. Things ... not plain at all ... What's the word? Shiny? No. But it's like that."

Now he's really alarmed. It isn't just the drugs that's making her talk like this. "River?"

She laughs and is suddenly lucid. "I'm hungry. I want tomatoes. Love apples."

Simon smiles and hugs her. "Well, there were certainly tomatoes for dinner. I'll get you some. Not whether they've got any apples ..."

"Boob."

* * * * *

Pushing aside the calm, matter-of-fact way Zoe just told him she'd kill him on the Captain's say-so, Simon asks her "If that battle was so horrible, why'd he name his ship after it?"

Zoe gives him the tiniest of indulgent smiles. It's clear she thinks him naïve beyond words. "Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave there," she explains before leaving him to his thoughts.

Simon considers her words. It makes sense. There are a lot of places he still lives in. Places he can't escape. He can empathize with the Captain in that respect. Although Zoe seems to have escaped the Valley, Simon reminds himself. But then again, she's married. She has family. Simon lies back on his bed and wonders why Captain Reynolds didn't go back to his.

 

Early 2507

"At ease, Sergeant."

Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds assumed the pose, feeling anything but 'at ease'. The major began pacing the room, looking at the ground and twisting his hands behind his back. Not hardly a reassuring sign.

"Sir?"

"Had some bad news, son. About your ...." He tapped three fingers against his lips and continued staring at the floor. "About Shadow. I'm sorry, son."

Mal swallowed hard.

"Fell to the Alliance more than a month ago."

Mal blinked and blinked again but he was still in the major's tent. The ground beneath his feet was still soggy and churned up. He waited.

"There's no-one left, son. They all ... "

He should have been there. Should have known. Should have at least felt something when it happened. Instead he was leading his men triumphantly through territory newly won from the Alliance and feeling like a king. A god. His lips moved to ask the one word question but no sound came out.

"Dead, son," the major said, awkwardly patting him on the arm. "The ones that survived the ground attack they finished off with radiation. Burnt the land and damn near evaporated the sea. Whole planet's a wasteland."

There were crumbs in the major's moustache, Mal noticed. And one of his jacket buttons was undone. The canvas walls of the tent were pressing in on him.

"How ... how long did they hold out?" he asked hoarsely.

"Six weeks, according to despatches," the major replied, his brown eyes soft and sad.

Six weeks. A lifetime. Mal was a soldier. He knew the kind of things that befell a defeated enemy. The kind of things soldiers did when the fear and adrenalin was still pumping through every blood vessel. The delight some of 'em took in it. Men tortured, women an' children ... tian a!

"What ... the civilians ... did they ...?"

The major gestured helplessly with his hands. "We don't know, son. We just don't know."

Mal clicked his heels together and stood to attention once more. "Thank you, Sir. Permission to leave?"

"Get some rest, son. Take some time ..."

"Won't be needin' no time, Sir," Mal replied firmly. Which was all manner of ironic, bein' as from that point time was the only thing left to him. Deserts of vast eternity.

* * * * *

"It's your call."

Simon will shoot Dobson if he has to. The trouble is – how will he know whether he has to? He's never killed anyone – not even when he was a med student – and he doesn't want to start now if he can avoid it. How is it done anyway? Is it just a matter of squeezing the trigger or are there secret catches and buttons to engage? What the hell should he do?

Every muscle in Simon's body is tight. Zygomaticus major and minor, Risorius, Trapezius, Deltoids, Triceps, Biceps – all of them under so much tension he can practically hear the fibres grate against each other. His heart pounds and his breathing has become rapid and shallow. It's a wonder he doesn't pass out.

There's a noise from behind and Simon is distracted. He hears Inara shout his name and the sound of a gun firing. Now – somehow – Dobson has a gun to River's head. Should he shoot now? And assuming he manages to hit the officer before getting shot himself, can he be sure the impact won't cause Dobson's finger to squeeze the trigger?

"I'm not playing anymore," Dobson warns. "Anyone makes so much as a ..."

Simon freezes, teetering on the edge of snapping. Another noise, this time from his left. The tension explodes and a bullet penetrates the centre of Dobson's forehead. He crumples to the ground. Still holding his breath, Simon stares down at the body. A wave of relief crashes over him and he realizes he hasn't felt this sense of physical release in a very long time. He exhales with a shudder, feeling his knees wobble as the tension ebbs away. He's not surprised to find he's trembling. Mal strides past, reholstering his weapon and Simon feels a very strong impulse to hug him. A feeling he is profoundly grateful he's too repressed to act on.

* * * * *

Stowaways, a little more gunplay than he generally likes an' now Reavers. It surely ain't been his day.

That said, the rush of adrenalin is familiar and comforting. Makes things simpler. Only one thing to think about right now: save as many of his people as he can. Kaylee an' Wash – he needs them here, workin' their magic, gettin' more out of Serenity than he's got a right to ask of her. Zoe wou'n't go even if he told her too. Probably punch him if'n he did. An' Jayne – hell, Jayne was born to fight an' leave this 'verse the way he came into it – bloody an' screamin'.

What Mal don't need right now is the rest of 'em. 'Cos they ain't part of this. He can't ask a one of 'em to stay even if the Shepherd's handier to have around than a Bible-thumper oughta be an' the boy's got some spunk in him after all. They have to get the hell off this boat an' soon. They're a compellin' good reason for Inara to go. An' when she does, Mal won't have to wonder why she di'n't stay. Nor why he never asked her to.

He catches up with her in the hallway. "I want you to get in your shuttle. Get the civilians and be ready to go."

She looks at him, eyes full of somethin' he don't wanna be thinkin' on right now. And then -too zai zi – she says just about the worse thing imaginable. "We can't just leave you here."

Shit! Now all he can think about is kissin' her. Letting himself fall onto and into that mouth. Taste her, drown in her – have one good thing before .... No. No. Ain't gonna die. Ain't gonna happen. Pull back, don't let this weakness overtake you. "Thought that was the plan."

It was mean of him to toss that back at her. But meant as a kindness. To them both. An' she knows it, the gorram mind-readin' freak. "Mal, don't ..." Her voice is soft, her eyes gentle. Lookin' into them threatens to dissolve him.

Which is why he needs her to go. "We get boarded, you take off, head for town. We might be able to stop them from followin'."

"They'll kill you," she sighs, irritation at his obstinacy mixed with fear for him.

Somehow his hand is on her shoulder, her skin warm under his hand, hair cool silk threads tangling round his fingers. "Inara ..."

She looks down at the hand and when her eyes meet his again the light in them has changed subtly. Something between them has shifted. Does she know? Companions claim they can see a man's aura – did she see it? The Real Him? The nightmare hasn't faded with time. The colours are still vivid. And each day a new thread is woven into its terrible fabric ... Scarlet for Inara, red as passion and blood ... he takes her and holds her down ... mouth full of ashes and despair. He swallows and the oasis of hope disappears. Only a mirage after all. He can't ever ... not her, not no-one. Never. He can't risk seeking the comfort of skin against skin and flesh in flesh because it turns him into a gorram monster. Those ke wu, qing wa cao de, xi nu, ruttin', tamade hundans screwed him real good. People wonder why he still hates the Alliance so much after all these years? Ha! His reason's right here. They didn't just take away his home, his people and his past – they took away his hope for a future. Took away the core of him and filled him with something ugly and dangerous.

The corners of his mouth tighten. "Go."

* * * * *

Kaylee strokes the wall like Serenity's a livin', breathin' critter. "That's my girl," she coos, "That's my good girl." She looks across at Jayne an' the Preacher and smiles. Gorram eatable, tha's what she is, Jayne thinks givin' her a sappy smile of his own. 's'only the pain from gettin' shot tha's makin' her sweat but a man can dream, can't he? Imagine it was his doin'. Jayne's gonna enjoy carryin' her back down to the infirmary. Although handin' her back over to that there Doctor's gonna be a sore trial.

Book nods with satisfaction. "Praise the Lord."

"Praise the gorram mechanic more like!" Jayne corrects him, making li'l Kaylee blush an' grin with pride.

Book winks at her. "Well, yes. Indeed."

* * * * *

Wash is already in bed when Zoe finally climbs down the ladder. He's wearing a knowing smile and very little else. Better not still have his socks on – she's warned him about that!

"Nice long chat with the Captain?" he asks lightly and she flicks him a defensive look. She knows he's got issues about her an' Mal an' she would dearly love to put his mind truly at rest and tell him why his jealousy's unfounded. But she can't. Would be betrayin' Mal's trust an' she'll never do that.

To her amazement Wash ain't sulkin'. He's grinnin' broadly at her, lookin' so gorram smug ... She pounces on him, pinning him to the bed and demands, "What you got to smile about, husband?"

The grin turns into a gaze of pure adoration. "Well, this to start with .." he says, glancing from side to side to where she has his wrists held firmly down against the pillow.

"Uh-huh," she purrs into his mouth, feeling him melt and harden against her at the same time. "An' what else?" she nips his lower lip gently, planning to tease it out of him.

"I've been trained to withstand this kind of thing," he laughs, wriggling closer. "Did a whole module on it a flight school."

"Really? How about this?"

"That? Oh, that," his pitch goes up a tone or two, "That not so much ... Think that was on the advanced ... Hey! What's with the stopping? I can take it, I tell you. Do your worst!"

Zoe rocks back on her heels and smiles slow and seductive. "Oh, I plan to. But I'm gonna need to concentrate. Can't do that wonderin' why you're lookin' so damn pleased with yourself."

Wash's eyebrows shoot up. Huh? Another thing about her precious Mal she hasn't noticed?

"What?" she asks again, wondering whether to resort to merciless tickling.

"Well – I'm guessing your little chat with Mal concerned a certain young doctor." He pauses and Zoe nods. "And how he's decided to let him stay."

"Let them stay," Zoe corrects him, pursing her lips and frowning slightly. "Him and his sister."

Wash overdoes it with the wide-eyed innocence and the nodding. "Mm. That's what I said – him and his sister. Now, where were we?"

* * * * *

Mal punches the lock switch with the side of his fist and toes off his boots. He flops down onto the bed without undressing. Too gorram shattered. When he closes his eyes, he sees Simon Tam looking at him, wary but grateful for the offer of a place on Serenity. Somethin' about that boy still unsettles him but Mal ain't too worried about his decision. He's man enough to admit his first impression was wrong. Doctor Tam ain't weak. Prissy an' tight-wound maybe, but not weak. An' you gotta admire his devotion to his sister. Even if you ain't ever gonna say so out loud.

Turned out not so bad in the end. Least they're still flyin'. Simon'll be useful as ship's medic an' – ren ci de Fozu – he ain't half so much of a kuang ren as Wash, though in fairness, his sister has the pilot beat hands down on that score. So, it evens out. Two Tams equal one Wash. Could be worse.

Four and a half years ago

There were tears streaming down Zoe's face and her mouth was doing this thing that made her look like she was in pain. Mighty disturbin' of itself, but she was makin' this noise too – like her airway was blocked. Mal stopped in the doorway, fightin' down the fear that she was dyin'.

"See, the problem was – they used a frozen chicken!" Wash laughed and the terrible noise started up again.

"That's not true!" Zoe manages to gasp. "You are such a liar!" And she dissolved into floods of laughter again.

Mal looks at her, her cheeks pink, eyes sparklin' and curls cascading down onto her shoulders, and not for the first time thinks how much he would have loved her. Does love her. Enough and more to let her float away from him and into the arms of this man who can make her laugh. Despite the ruttin' complications.

He walks away without them even noticing he was ever there.

* * * * *

River is already asleep when Simon looks in on her before retiring to his own room. He's physically and emotionally exhausted but his mind is buzzing. They're safe for now at least. This crew ... well, he misjudged them. Not Jayne, obviously, but the others. They're good people. And the Captain - well, he saved their lives twice today. Three times if you count the offer of a place to stay. And Simon does. Here comes that desire to hug the man again.

Simon wraps his arms tightly around himself and tries to sleep.

Chapter Text

Simon has ridden rollercoasters just often enough to know he hates them. He hates that feeling of falling, of being out of control. Hates the dizzying, short-lived highs and the headlong plummetting into the lows. The all-consuming fear of death. No, rollercoasters are definitely not his thing.

Which makes this all manner of ironic.

"Come on, Doctor," Kaylee pleads, tugging at his hand. "Just for me."

Kaylee loves rollercoasters. She loves the way her stomach drops away as the ride hurtles downwards. The way her heart thumps in her chest. The G-force that presses her back into her seat. And the feel of the wind in her hair. Rollercoasters make her feel vibrantly alive. The sky looks bluer and the grass greener. The only thing that feels better is being in love. Coming here was her idea. Mal was so relieved she survived Dobson's bullet he allowed her to talk him into letting Serenity's crew take a trip to the funfair on Sundown and, now they're here, Kaylee's determined to enjoy every minute of it. And part of her enjoyment depends on Simon sitting next to her.

"Ain't scared Doc, are ya?" Jayne jeers, jealous that Kaylee didn't ask him ride with her but all manner of smug that his rival for her affections is lettin' himself down by bein' all weak an' cowardly about gettin' into the carriage. Jayne can handle rollercoasters. Gotta get yourself in the right frame of mind is all. Imagine you're launchin' yourself into the fight of your life. Grit your teeth and clench your fists and just gorram well do it! Once that adrenalin gets flowin' you don't need to think about a damn thing.

Jayne barges Simon aside and takes a seat beside Wash and Zoe who are already strapped in. Zoe can take or leave fun rides, but Wash loves 'em. His eyes are round with anticipation and he's twitchin' in his seat.

"Learnt some of the finer points of flying on these babies," he tells his wife happily, patting the side of the carrige like he would a favourite horse.

River steps up beside Simon.

"Potential energy converted into kinetic energy," she says solemnly, craning her head back to look at the highest point of the ride. "One hundred miles per hour. 5 Gs. Medium level intensity." She smiles at her brother. "You won't die."

Simon blanches, looking like he might prefer to as Kaylee begins dragging him towards the car. He casts a desperate look at Mal who is doing his very best not to laugh. Simon feels the stiff collar of his shirt tighten round his neck as he swallows nervously. He wishes Mal would give him an excuse not to get on. Or order him to. Anything to put him out of this agony of indecision.

"Up to you, Doc," the Captain shrugs. "Just s'posed to be a bit of fun. Don't go gettin' it all out of proportion. Ain't like it's a matter of life an' death."

"Y-e-s," Simon says uncertainly. "But what about River ..."

"Yeah, River, come on," Kaylee urges, but her friend shakes her head.

"Sensory mismatch induces vomiting," she explains.

"Don't worry, Doctor," Inara smiles, putting an arm around River's shoulders. "I'll take care of her for you."

Inara tired of rollercoasters long ago. The thrills they offer aren't real. They depend on the suspension of disbelief, on believing that you really might crash to a bone-shattering death, whereas in fact everything has been carefully calculated to evoke maximal sensation at minimal risk. Not unlike her own profession.

"Hey, Shepherd!" Jayne shouts over the fairground music to Book, who is standing at some distance from the others. "You wanna ride? Looks like the Doc here might be in need of a preacher 'fore long!"

"No. Thank you. Think I'll just wait this one out," Book smiles. "Trust in the Lord, son," he calls to Simon with a wink.

Book used to ride rollercoasters long, long ago. But now they put him in mind of Our Lord in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil. He has no desire to put God to the test by throwing himself from a high place, because he's not convinced the angels would consider him worth the catching.

"What about you Cap'n?" Kaylee asks as Simon finally gets in beside her.

Mal shakes his head.

"Ain't lookin' to part with my lunch jus' yet, Kaylee."

Mal ain't never been on a rollercoaster and has no intention of ever doin' so. His life's already more excitin' than he'd like. Don't need no extra brushes with death. An' he can't see the fun in trustin' his life to some other fella's math.

Ten excruciating minutes later, Kaylee has to be help Simon off the ride. His pale features have turned a delicate shade of green and his hand is clamped against his mouth.

Jayne guffaws, giving him a hefty smack between the shoulder blades that makes him double over. "Now that was fun!" He slings an arm around Kaylee's shoulders and gives her a squeeze.

"That's enough, Jayne." Mal's voice is quiet and nearer than Simon had expected. "Doc jus' needs somethin' to settle his stomach. How about some fried eggs, son?" Simon's eyes widen in horror. "No? 'Course you'd probably prefer somethin' fancier what with comin' from the Core'n all. What about jellied eels? Think I saw a booth sellin' ..."

A thick gurgling sound bubbles up from Simon's throat and he takes off at speed for some nearby bushes where he wishes a painful and embarrassing disease on the Captain as he is violently and copiously sick.

"Captain," Kaylee scolds, hands on hips whilst Zoe fixes Mal with a disapproving stare and shakes her head. "Nice goin', Sir."

Mal just grins. "What? Oh come on – don't tell me it wa'n't funny!"

"You're psychotic," Wash tells him. "Definitely psychotic."

"Yeah. Maybe. OK, people. Time to be gettin' back. Got us a rendez-vous to make, remember?"

* * * * *

DOWN

Reluctantly Simon finally lets go of his white knight and, with a sigh of resignation, rubs his hands nervously up and down the thigh of his pants.

Inara raises an eyebrow as she surveys the chess board. "That's a bold move," she comments.

"I live on the edge," Simon replies with a bitter laugh. "Or at least, I do now."

Inara moves the red queen two squares to the side. "Check mate, Doctor."

Simon stares at the board, shaking his head in disbelief. "Then again, sometimes I feel the need to throw myself right over that edge."

River rolls her eyes at him. "Nice work, dumbass. You don't play a player."

"Would you like a rematch?" Inara asks. "Best of three?"

"No point," River says matter-of-factly. "You'll lose."

"Not necessarily," Simon protests. "I was chess champion three years running at medacad." The declaration hangs in the air like a ripped flag, a pathetic reminder of past glories. Simon clears his throat and stands up. "Thank you, Inara. But I think we'd better go. It's time for River's meds."

For a moment River looks like she might bolt but Simon catches her by the arm. "Fine. Let's do this," she sulks, as her brother steers her towards the door. She looks back over her shoulder at Inara. "I'm thinking we'll rise again. All of us."

* * * * *

DOWN

River accepts the injection with barely a murmur and pushes herself up onto the exam table where she stretches out quietly, watching as Simon tidies the already too neat infirmary. She closes her eyes, her head filling with numbers and latinized drug names as her brother counts and alphabetizes. His fingers move over syringes and needles and she feels metal. Sharp, cold metal. Hot penetration. An invasion. Her hands bunch into fists and she screws up her eyes, trying to push away the pictures rapidly overlayering each other in her mind. There's a voice in her head and it's not Simon's. She jolts upright, panicking. They want her back. She has to get away. Run... She scrabbles off the table, sending surgical implements clattering to the floor.

Simon drops a handful of wound dressings and moves tentatively towards his sister, who is now crouched against a cupboard, pulling at her hair in distress. He knows there's something dreadfully wrong and it isn't all the Captain's fault for opening the cryochamber too early, too abruptly – much as Simon would like to have someone to blame. It isn't even the after-effects of byphodine. Simon has taken bloods and found no trace of the drug.

"River, River ..." he says gently, holding out his hands to her. "It's okay. It's me ... You know who I ..?"

"Simon," she says wearily, making him feel like an idiot.

He doesn't like this at all. The way she goes from hysterical to lucid in a heartbeat. It's just not normal. "Were you dreaming?" he asks. "Did you dream about the academy?"

"It's not relevant," she mutters dismissively, making him feel like he's disappointed her in some way. And then she's talking about the ship, about Serenity, in the kind of detail that in anyone else he'd take as an indication of obsession or of some developmental disorder. "Midbulk transport. Standard radion accelerator core. Class code 03-K64. Firefly."

"Well, that's something. I can't even remember all that." Mal remarks with a touch of admiration as he enters the room, heading for the sink.

Simon bites back the urge to point out the enormous gulf between his IQ and River's and instead adopts a doctorly manner as Mal runs his knuckles under the cold water tap, "Need a weave on that?"

"It's nothing."

Simon smiles wryly, recalling being on the receiving end of a 'nothing' from Mal. "I expect there's someone's face feels differently."

For the briefest moment, Mal feels uncomfortable. Now why is that? What's done is done. Ain't no changing it now. And yet ... The Doc's givin' him this little smile, tryin' to make light of Mal havin' punched him, like he wants him know he don't bear a grudge. In the circumstances. Feelin' a pressin' need to concentrate on somethin' else, Mal thinks back to the bar room brawl. No regrets on that score at least.

"They tell you never to hit a man with a closed fist, but it is, on occasion, hilarious."

Simon manages to hide his revulsion at the Captain's casual attitude towards violence.

"I suppose so," he says, failing to sound like he means it. "The fight didn't draw any .. any attention?" he asks carefully, wary of saying something that might encourage the other man to seek out any more hilarity.

Mal gives him a look, then a cold smile. "No feds. Just an honest brawl between folk. Ain't none of us want the Alliance on us, Doctor. That's why you're here."

"I thought I was here because you needed a medic." Simon wants to insist upon the point. Make Captain Reynolds acknowledge his usefulness, his very essence. Because if Simon isn't ship's medic, he's nothing and he needs something to hold onto.

But Mal is either too insensitive to notice that need or simply doesn't care.

"Well, not today."

* * * * *

UP

Shepherd Book has seen it all. Nothing much surprises him anymore, although he suspects Captain Reynolds may well prove the exception to the rule. The man is, as Inara Serra remarked, a bit of a mystery. Very protective of his crew, even those new to it like the boy and his sister. He decides a little probing may be in order.

"That young man's very brave," he comments to the Captain, watching through the infirmary window as Simon Tam tries to contain another of his sister's sudden destructive outbursts.

Mal's pretty sure the preacher's no special friend of the Alliance, but there's somethin' not right about him. Ain't gonna be tellin' him anymore than he has to.

"Yeah, he's my hero," he replies in as unconvincin' a tone as he can muster. Cos - if he's truthsome about it - he does admire the boy for havin' had the balls to spring his sister from that Alliance camp.

Book presses the point.

"Give up everything to free his sister from that place. Go from being a doctor on the central planets to hiding on the fringes of the system. There's not many would do that ..."

"Suppose not," the Captain grudgingly agrees, although he'd prefer not to be thinkin' about the Doc at all. He starts making his way up the stairs, but the gorram preacher follows.

"There's not many would take him in either. Why did you?"

Mal's eyes narrow. What the diyu is the Shepherd suggestin'? That he got some kind of ulterior motive? He flashes the man a quick warning smile.

"Same reason I took you on board, Shepherd. I need the fare."

Book laughs.

"There's neither of us can pay a tenth of what your crew makes on one of your 'jobs'."

Mal tries to divert him into an argument about the morality of how he keeps flyin' cos the other man's gettin' mighty close to some raw nerves with this line of questionin'.

"Are you referring to your perfectly legitimate business enterprises?"

Damnit but don't Book neatly side-step it!

"I'm wondering why a man who's so anxious to fly under Alliance radar would house known fugitives. The Alliance had her in that institution for a purpose, whatever it was, and they will want her back. You're not overly fond of the boy, so why risk it?"

'Not overly fond of the boy'? What in the good gorram does that have to do with it?

She was the youngest of the ones who survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway ... and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it ... They made him watch ... She di'n't die ... She staggered out of that place ... and looked him cold in the eye. Did she blame him? Never did find out. Killed herself a few weeks later. Couldn't live with it, couldn't endure it ... damn well let them win.

Because ... Because this one I got a chance at savin', Preacher. An' maybe that'll stop the nightmares an' I can live like a person again.

He can feel Book's eyes boring into him, trying to excavate some deep truth. He turns round to look the Shepherd in the eye.

"Because it's the right thing to do."

* * * * *

"You got a thing ... here," Wash says indicating a place on his own jaw line.

Zoe's hand moves to the spot on her own face, noting how tender it feels and realizing she's going to bruise. "It's nothing."

"No, it's not nothing," her husband says, suddenly serious. "Can't say I much like the way Mal keeps getting you into pointless punch-ups. One of these days you could get seriously hurt, bao bei."

Zoe smiles. "It's usually Mal comes off worse." And her smile broadens as she remembers ....

Five years ago

Some instinct must've told Mal they were off-duty feds and ripe for a fight, Zoe thought, taking a well-aimed swing at the nearest of the four. He went down easy enough, but she decided right there and then they needed to get some fire power if they were going to be making a habit of this. Which doubtless they were, seein' as how Sarge wa'n't ready to admit the war was over an' done with. Lost.
Mal was caught between two of 'em, grinnin' from ear to ear as he landed a punch in one's stomach and another to the other's chin. The only one left standin' let out a roar of anger and threw himself at Mal's throat.

"Could do with some assis...." Mal managed to choke out before his assailant blocked his windpipe.

In a flash, Zoe drove her fist under the man's jaw, forcing his head up and back. His hands snapped away from Mal's neck and he dropped heavily to the floor. Mal laughed and flashed Zoe an ain't-this-fun smile only to have it knocked off his face as her fist finished its trajectory in his face.

Mal blinked, stunned for a second.

"Sorry, Sir. Heat of the moment."

"Sure," he nodded, wondering, but her face betrayed no emotion.

* * * * *

DOWN

River is resting, leaving Simon restless. Hearing activity in the cargo bay, he decides to investigate and finds Kaylee dragging heavy cables across the floor and attaching them to winches. He's glad it's Kaylee.

"Hey," he says, hoping she at least will be pleased to see him.

She smiles and he relaxes. "Oh, hey Doctor."

"You really should just call me Simon." Because that's who I am now. Simon. Just Simon. Not Doctor Tam.

Kaylee is delighted. "I'll do that then." She feels suddenly shy, like they've crossed a threshhold an' he's waitin' for somethin'.

"So what are we doing?"

"Oh! Crime."

Simon's mouth opens in surprise.

"Crime. Good. Okay. Crime."

He hardly hears Kaylee's explanation as his 'verse spins wildly out of control again. He should have expected as much. The Captain's a sadistic bastard and his crew are just a band of petty crooks after all. And yet he'd hoped ... he wanted them to be more than that. Stupid, really ...

"Easy as lyin'," Kaylee concludes and it's his cue to say something smart. Something not-upset-by-illegality.

"You've done this before?" is the best he can come up with.

Kaylee laughs.

"Oh, hell no! But I think it's gonna work. The captain's a zhen de shi tian cai when it comes to plans."

So – the Captain's plan. No point in trying to persuade yourself that, inspite of his cruel sense of humour, he's essentially a good person just because he's given you and your sister sanctuary. You've fallen among thieves, Simon Tam. Better get used to it.

"Is there anything I can ... something I should be doing?"

"Staying the hell out of everyone's way," a low voice growls.

Jayne.

Jayne ain't at all happy at what he's seein'. Li'l Kaylee simperin' at another man. If'n you can call him that. And gorramit if she don't defend him.

"No call to be snappy, Jayne."

Ni tamade tian xiao suo you de ren dou gai si! Jayne's about to do somethin' ruttin' heroic here.

"Are you about to jump onto a movin' train?" he demands, looking for a little credit. And to ensure the Doc comprehends the lay of the land, he continues, "Captain's not around – I'm in charge."

Kaylee tries to protest but Jayne's too mad at the injustice of her flirtin' with this ... this piece of gou shi.

"Jus' cos Mal says you're medic, don't make you part of the crew. You just play at figurin' what's wrong with that moon-brained sister of yours till we call for you, dong ma?"

Simon glares at the mercenary, angry on so many levels. Furious at being treated like a no-one. Livid at his sneering indifference towards the tragedy of River's condition. Seething at being humiliated in front of the one person on this boat who treats him with respect. But then he remembers his priorities. His priority. River. And Jayne has a point; he should be figuring out what's wrong with her.

"Right," he says, a little steel in his voice, as he turns to leave.

Simon's problem is this isn't his area of expertise. He's a trauma surgeon, not a psychiatrist. He fixes bodies, not minds and the workings of the psyche are a mystery to him. He returns to his bunk and sits down miserably on the bed, head in his hands and staring at the floor as he contemplates the enormity of his task. He doesn't even know where to start. He slams a fist down on the mattress in frustration. And his Universal Encylopedia bounces down onto the bedside rug.

Simon picks it up, shaking his head at his own stupidity. There's only one place for a doctor to start. Make a list of the patient's symptoms. Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, cure. Simple, really. He'd just been too lost in the woods to see the trees.

Simon smiles, inserts the medical data rod and waits for the screen to flash Voice.

"Psychiatric illness," he says resolutely.

* * * * *

"Don't start," Inara snaps, snatching back the trinkets and makeup Mal has picked up from her table.

She's standing so close he can smell the scent of her hair. Taste it almost. And empty-handed again, it'd be so easy for him to reach out an' touch her. He could just slide his hand under her jaw, tilt her face up and kiss her. Tamade! He let himself think this way just once and now the gorram thought won't leave him alone. He gotta fight this weakness. Forget this hopeless dream and concentrate on business.

Inara can feel the heat radiating off of him and chides herself for having got this close to him. She tries to focus on returning her things to their proper place instead of the way her pulse is racing. It wouldn't have happened if she'd maintained the proper distance between them. Standing this near to a man signals permission or intent to touch. She takes a little step back, reminding herself that she has a job to do. She's supposed to be getting under his skin, not the other way round. If she can't even do that, she might as well pack her bags and leave.

"We don't have a location yet," Mal is telling her. "We're docking on a skyplex in a bit. It's run by a fellow called Niska."

"Never heard of him."

"Well, I have and while we're there, you'll stay confined to the ship."

Inara smiles, grateful for the timely reminder that Malcolm Reynolds is overbearing, ill-mannered and prudish.

"Is the petty criminal perchance ashamed to be riding with a Companion?"

"Niska has a very unlovely rep. If he's got work for me, fine, but I don't ..." He hesitates and her gratitude evaporates. "I'm not sure you'd be safe." Because now she remembers Malcolm Reynolds is also fiercely protective and possessed of a ridiculous sense of chivalry. A gentleman in as many ways as not.

"Mal, if you're being a gentleman, I may die of shock," she warns, a teasing smile tweaking at her lips.

He blinks away the sting the remark inflicts and bows theatrically. At least they're on safer ground now, making him confident enough to return to their old bantering style.

"Have you got time to do my hair?" he asks innocently.

"Out!" she orders, like he knew she would.

* * * * *

"Still no word from Dobson. One must assume he's no longer actively engaged on the case."

"Did we get anything useful from him?"

"The girl is on a Firefly. No ID, as yet."

"That is unfortunate. Must be thousands of them out there."

"An aught three."

"Well, that narrows it down a little."

"Time is on our side. We just keep looking until we find her."

"How long before she is needed?"

"Eighteen months."

* * * * *

DOWN

"You doped him!" Kaylee exclaims with a grin.

Simon grimaces.

"It was supposed to kick in a good deal sooner. I just didn't feel comfortable with him in charge." He could add that he has a real problem with relinquishing control to anyone – let alone Jayne, but instead appeals for support. "I hope that's all right."

No-one is going to say it isn't.

"So how do we get the others?" Book asks.

Wash looks anxious.

"Jayne was right about them not making contact. Chances are they got pinched getting off that train."

Kaylee's face falls. "And we can't just waltz in and pull 'em out."

"Someone respectable enough might be able to."

For an instant Simon believes Book wants him to do it. Go and rescue the Captain and Zoe. His stomach flips at the prospect of facing up to the law. And then again as, even though he tries not to, he imagines Mal's face when he sees who's come to spring him from jail.

"Some like a Companion, you mean," Inara sighs.

And Simon remembers he's a wanted fugitive, with no power or influence. Forced to the ass-end of the galaxy and living on a piece of gou shi with people who refuse to take him seriously.

* * * * *

"Wha' ..."

Mal's surprise reaction to Inara's appearance shimmering in red satin is cut short by the stinging blow she lands on his cheek. He blinks as much to stop his eyes from watering as from the shock of it. Weak as he is, he's been catchin' himself imaginin' what her hands on him might feel like. An' it's never like this. In his dreams, they're always softly urgent.

"Don't you dare speak to me!" she hisses, trying to ignore the reddening imprint of her hand. She hurt him. She didn't mean to. She glances at Zoe behind whose eyes are glowing with something like satisfaction although her expression remains impassive.

Inside Zoe is smilin'. Smilin' broadly. She loves Mal beyond the tellin' of it, but wo de ma she enjoyed that! After all, they do say as how revenge is a dish best served cold. Inara jus' served her up another slice an' no mistake. She hardly hears the rest of what Inara is sayin' but promises herself, she'll congratulate the Companion on the nuances of her performance as outraged proprietor as soon as she gets the opportunity.

* * * * *

Inara is making herbal tea. Jasmine most like, Zoe judges by the scent coming down the hallway. She steps down into the kitchen and checks there's no-one else there.

"That was quite some blow you dealt the Captain," she remarks coolly, taking a sachet from one of the lockers.

Inara looks sheepish. "I didn't mean it to be so hard. Perhaps I shouldn't have ..."

"No – you did fine," Zoe assures her. "Captain was still complainin' about it to Wash when I came down here. Mighty annoyed about it, he is. So it looks like you killed two birds with one stone," she gives Inara a meaningful wink. "You know – our arrangement. Seems to me you got everythin' under control."

"Mmm," Inara murmurs doubtfully. Everything under control.

* * * * *

UP

"Where did the Captain go?" Simon asks Kaylee. "I thought he was injured."

She punches the switch that secures the cargo bay door and gives him a proud smile.

"Takin' back the medicine. Cap'n says those folks in Paradiso needs it more than Niska so ..." She shrugs happily. "He's a nice man, Simon," she explains as the doctor frowns with incomprehension. "A real nice man."

"He ... he took it back?" Simon repeats. "Won't that cause trouble with Niska?"

"Cap'n don't care 'bout that," Kaylee grins delightedly, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. "See? A real nice man."

Simon smiles, allowing her to take his arm and lead him upstairs.

"And there I was thinking he was arrogant and insufferable and rude ..."

"Oh yeah. Well he's that too. Ain't gotta let that put you off though."

Tamade and shit! Simon thinks, as yet another of his reasons for dimissing Malcolm Reynolds as a self-serving, ill-educated bully is whisked away. He really doesn't want his life to get any more complicated.

* * * * *

UP

Simon is just about to retire to his room when the infirmary door slides open and Mal enters. He pushes himself up onto the exam table and takes off his shirt.

"Wanna take a look, Doc?" he asks, pointing to the cut on his chest.

Simon takes a deep breath. It's worse than he feared. All of it. He snaps on his surgical gloves and palpates gently the area around the wound, testing for signs of infection. Mercifully there are none. Mal – the Captain's skin is more elastic than he'd been expecting. Which must mean, for all he continually addresses Simon as 'son', there's not such a big age gap between them after all. Zao cao! Good muscle tone, too. Very good muscle tone, damn it.

"You should have let me do this sooner," Simon scolds as he begins stitching.

The Captain give a soft snort.

"I've had plenty worse. This is just a ....OWW!"

Mal flinches at the sudden sharp pain, making Simon jump. Who'd have thought the Captain would be such a baby? It was only a little prick.

Simon swallows a smile.

"Sorry."

"Just be careful," Mal warns, a mite embarrassed. Why the hell'd he make such a fuss? "That was pretty fast thinkin' – dopin' up Jayne. Can't say you've made a lifetime friend."

"I'll deal with him," Simon replies coolly, knowing he will.

Mal nearly smiles.

"I'm not too worried about you. How's your sister?"

"The same. One moment she seems perfectly cogent – the next she speaks nonsense. Like a child ..."

She was seventeen. Just a kid.

"... It's so difficult to diagnose. I still don't know what ...."

They took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.

* * * * *

UP

The only way Simon can persuade River to calm down is to allow her to crawl into his bed. She curls up into a tight ball and gradually her agitated breathing slows. Simon carefully gets to his feet but her eyes fly open.

"Stay. Don't let them take me away again."

"Hush, mei-mei," he croons, stroking her hair. "We're safe here. No-one's taking you anywhere."

She sighs and relaxes again and Simon resigns himself to spending the night on the floor. He takes out his encyclopedia and begins studying it again. Some time later, there's a tap at the door.

"Captain!" he says with some surprise as he opens it to find Mal standing there, holding a tray of food.

"Missed you at dinner. Thought you might be hungry," Mal says, looking for somewhere to set the tray down.

Simon hastily clears a space. The room suddenly seems much smaller with Mal in it.

"Thank you. That's very ... uh .. thoughtful."

Mal shrugs.

"Kaylee's idea."

Simon nods.

"Of course. Was there ... I mean, is your shoulder ...?"

"It's fine. You just worry about your sis." His gaze falls on the encyclopedia. "Any idea what the trouble is?"

Simon hangs his head.

"Not really. She's suffered some kind of trauma, that much is obvious. Her sleep pattern is disturbed and she's having nightmares. Not just random ones but the same one over and over again. And some things – ordinary, everyday things – trigger an extreme response in her. She's having these terrible mood swings. One minute she's fine and the next she's beside herself. She gets so angry – has to lash out. Mostly at me. The worst thing is ..." he stops, afraid he won't be able to say it without crying.

"Go on, son," Mal says gently, without a hint of ridicule or pity. "Worst thing is ...?"

"Sometimes it seems like she's not my sister any more," Simon whispers, more to himself than Mal. "We were always so close. Shared everything. And now there's a part of her I can't reach her. A part she doesn't want me to reach. I don't know if I'll ..."

"No," Mal agrees. "But that ain't gonna stop you tryin', is it?"

Simon gives him a bleak smile.

"No, it isn't."

"OK then. Now why don't you eat that an' save me from gettin' an earful from Kaylee?"

Simon sits down on the edge of the bed and puts the tray on his lap.

"Thanks. I will."

"Good."

And then Mal does the strangest thing. He reaches out and ruffles Simon's hair, as if he were comforting a child. Simon can still feel the touch of his hand long after he's gone.

"Potential energy converted into kinetic energy," River mutters, without opening her eyes. Simon wonders if she's dreaming. "Speed of light. All the Gs you can take. High level intensity. On the rollercoaster now, Simon. Can't get off. Don't even want to. Don't worry – you won't die."

Chapter Text

Ridiculous as it may sound, Simon Tam is bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored. He knows a wanted fugitive like himself ought to be grateful for the luxury of boredom. Surely it's better than the excitement of getting caught in black-out zones, being this close to seeing Dobson take his sister or being punched by Mal? Well, no actually. Simon sighs and rinses out his mug. It's not like he isn't used to prolonged periods of inactivity. A trauma surgeon's life is as much about waiting to be needed as it is about frantic life-and-death, blood-and-guts urgency. But at least back in the hospital on Osiris he was always in the thick of the action, running the show. The one making the decisions, his every word unquestioningly obeyed. There he was important. Respected. On Serenity his job is to sit on the sidelines and clear up after the main event. He's a no-one with nothing to do most of the time and the nothing is threatening to swallow him whole.

River drifts out of the kitchen and he follows her on autopilot, vaguely heading towards the infirmary, wondering what the others do to cope with the endless tedium of the days between jobs. Out on the catwalk he finds one answer to his question. There's some kind of riotous game going on down in the cargo bay. He watches Mal tumble to his knees after an unsuccessful tackle on Jayne, leaving the mercenary free to throw the ball he's holding to Wash. Kaylee smiles up at Simon just as she catches the pilot's pass. Mal rushes to block her but loses his balance again and goes crashing to the floor. The mechanic takes aim and shoots the ball through a hoop hanging from the ceiling by a chain. A goal, Simon assumes. They're all breathing hard and perspiring and if Simon notices the sweat stains on Mal's shirt first it's only because they stand out more on the paler fabric. The game starts up again. Jayne gets possession of the ball but soon loses it to Zoe. Book tries to shake Wash but the pilot is too quick for him. Meanwhile Kaylee has clambered up onto Jayne's shoulders, clinging on with her legs wrapped around his neck. An arrangement the big man is quite happy with if his ear-to-ear grin is anything to go by. Kaylee is aiming for goal again but Simon's attention is diverted by Inara as she steps down onto the catwalk beside him.

"Hello," he greets her with a polite smile, not noticing that Kaylee's shot goes wide of the target.

Inara looks down at the others. "Who's winning?"

Simon grimaces. "I can't really tell. They don't seem to be playing by any civilized rules that I know ..."

"Well, we're pretty far from civilization," Inara points out. Unnecessarily. Because Simon is all too aware of the fact. Aware that he can't really help his sister with the limited facilities available on this boat and painfully conscious that neither of them can go home. He can't understand why Inara remains on Serenity - why she chooses this. Her life before must have been much like his – every desire anticipated and satisfied, often even before the wanting made itself felt. Then again, Simon's noticed a certain tension in the air between Inara and the Captain.

Kaylee looks back up at the two of them standing side by side. They look so good together – so right - that she feels a mean little tug of jealousy. The proximity alert sounds and she takes shameless advantage of Wash having to leave the game to try to draw Simon into it. "Come on down. Play for our side. Inara won't mind."

If he weren't so bored, Simon might have refused but as it is ... And besides, everyone else is in the game. Mal, Zoe and Book are on one side – so he'd be with Jayne and Kaylee, right? He really shouldn't remain aloof. Should show them he's not the stuffed shirt they think him but as ready as the next man to have fun and get a little mussed up. He's not afraid of getting tackled by the opposition. Might even put up a bit of a fight.

However it is not to be. Suddenly Serenity shudders under what feels like an impact and everyone goes rushing to the bridge.

* * * * *

When he was wishing for something interesting to do, this was not what he had in mind. This isn't interesting; it's terrifying. The space suit makes walking surprisingly difficult and the helmet weighs heavily on his neck and shoulders. Yet these are the only things protecting him from the ravenous vacuum of space. The sound of his breathing echoes off the mylar faceplate, the rapid pace of it exacerbating his growing trepidation. He's in what must be the other ship's mess now, judging from the tables and chairs picked out by his torch beam. It's dark, eerie and horribly empty. Where is the Captain? The others? Simon turns a corner and suddenly they're in front of him. The first thing he notices is their lack of space suits. The second is that he can't hear a word they're saying.

Try as he might, he can't get the helmet off by himself and needs help from Kaylee. Mal is staring at him, wide-eyed. "Uh – what are you doin' here an' what's with the suit?" he asks, clearly surprised to see him at all.

Jayne bursts into fits of laughter and a hot tide of anger and humiliation rises up in Simon. He glares at the mercenary. "Oh, you're hilarious. Sadist," he spits.

"All right. That's enough," Mal tells the still guffawing Jayne almost, but not quite, managing to hide his own amusement. He turns to Simon, forcing his features into a serious mask of Captainly command, "Long as you're here, you might as well lend a hand. You can run with Kaylee."

Simon meets his gaze with a cold stare as he catches the canvas bag Mal lobs in his direction. He was mad at Jayne but he's furious with Mal. He expects Jayne to act like a barbarian. Mal, on the other hand ... well, he ought to be more supportive, that's for sure. For a moment he considers hurling the bag back in his face but thinks better of it. This derelict gives him the creeps. The sooner he's off it and back on Serenity the better.

* * * * *

In the event, getting back on Serenity is not such a simple business, what with there being a survivor aboard the derelict. Simon watches with a mix of fascination and horror as Mal promises the man mercy and then knocks him unconscious. Between them they get him back to infirmary where at last Simon is back in control. This is his territory after all and finally he has something to do. Something no-one else can do better. After patching up the wound on the man's arm, he runs the standard series of tests on his patient. Mal hovers nearby, not exactly getting in the way but not giving the doctor a lot of space either. Simon isn't sure whether he likes his being so close or not. "Pulse is rapid, blood pressure's the high side of normal. That's to be expected." Exactly.

The injured man is muttering nonsense as Simon continues, "Other than the bullet wound, there doesn't seem to be any other exterior trauma. Though," he pauses, remembering – remembering that other day too - "that crack to the head you gave him probably didn't do him any good." But Mal is too focused on what the man is saying to register the layers in Simon's remark.

"Cattle. Cattle for the slaughter."

Mal sees Kaylee and Inara through the infirmary window and his blood runs cold. "Dope him," he orders abruptly.

Simon is taken aback. After all, he's the doctor here, not Mal. "I don't think ..."

"Just do it."

And Simon's back to feeling like nothing. A no-one. He grits his teeth and reaches for a syringe.

* * * * *

Simon is as baffled by Mal's order as Jayne. They've only just finished stowing the haul.

"I got no notion to argue this," Mal snaps, hurrying down the stairs. "In about two minutes time this boat's gonna be crawling with Alliance."

A-lli-ance. At first the word doesn't even make sense. But then the meaningless assemblage of sounds takes shape. Alliance. "No ..." Other people are talking but the only voice Simon hears is the one in his head, screaming at him to get away. "We've got to run ..." he says desperately.

Mal continues pulling out crates from the hold. "Can't run. They're pullin' us in."

Simon's face is a study in agony. "If they find us, they'll send River back to that place. To be tortured. I'd never see her again."

Is Mal even listening to him? "Stack everything right here in plain sight. Wouldn't want it to seem as if we're hiding anything. Might give them Alliance boys the wrong impression."

"Or the right one," Wash points out.

"That too," Mal agrees. He turns to Simon who's hoping against hope that the Captain will have a way out of this. "Now run fetch your sister."

Fetch his sister? How will that help? Won't that mean ....? "What?" Simon asks, suddenly suspicious and angry. Angry at the situation, angry at the Captain but mostly angry at himself. For wanting to believe in Mal. For letting himself want at all. "Why? Are you going to put her in 'plain sight' too?"

If the Doc could be any more gorram irritatin', Mal can't see how. Boy's always gotta be questionin', contradictin'. Don't seem to realize they ain't got time for this. "Don't get tetchy," he says evenly, tryin' not to yell at him. "Jus' do as I say."

Anyone else on this damn crew would know well enough to be shuttin' the hell up right about now. But not Simon Tam. "Is that why you let us stay? So you could use us a bargaining chips?"

"I knew there was a reason!" Jayne chips in helpfully.

Simon is glaring at Mal. So this is what happens when Simon has no hold over him? When Kaylee's life doesn't depend on his surgical skills? The man's worse than Jayne. At least with Jayne there's no pretence. "They're not taking her ...," Simon declares, "and you're not giving her to them."

Mal glares back. The gap between them seems to have closed. Tempers are raised and the blood is rising. Mal is a heartbeat away from grabbin' the medic by the throat and shakin' some sense into him. Simon is struggling with a powerful urge to punch the Captain right in the middle of his smug face.

And then Book steps between them. "Don't be a fool, son. Do as the man says."

* * * * *

"Not of the living, nor of the dead," River intones as she and Simon follow Mal and Zoe to the airlock. "Spirits of the interregnum."

"What?" Simon asks distractedly. He's too preoccupied with worrying about Mal's crazy solution to their dilemma to be paying his sister much attention.

"Two glasses – one half empty, one half full."

"Come on, xiao mei-mei – helmet on," Mal interrupts her briskly. "Wanna keep you breathin'."

Zoe places it over her head, smiling at the way the girl is beaming excitedly, chattering eagerly about being able to "listen to the stars sing".

Simon is not so keen. It's only the embarrassment at having misjudged Mal yet again that makes him put on the suit at all. "I'm not sure about this ..." he mutters, looking up at Mal imploringly.

Mal lifts the helmet from the floor. "I got exactly no time for arguin' this. You got a better idea, I'd be all kinds of happy to hear it. Otherwise, jus' do as I say an' bizui for a gorram change." He snaps the clips shut and fastens the seal. "Now, out. Ma shang," he orders, pointing to the hatch.

River climbs out first, looking back at her brother who is casting a last glance at Mal, hoping for a reprieve. "The emptiness is worse when you find something you want to fill it with," she crackles through the suit radio.

* * * * *

Harken sniffs. "Can't imagine how many times men in my position hear that excuse. 'Reavers did it'."

Mal would like to smack the officious self-satisfaction of his face, but that ain't hardly an option. "It's the truth."

"You saw them did you?"

"Wouldn't be sitting here talkin' to you if I had." Idiot.

Harken gives him a nasty half-smile. "No. Of course not."

"But I'll tell you who did – that poor bastard you took off my ship." ... To punish him for his chivalry, they dragged him in too ...

They're outside now. Tiny, insignificant specks of nothing out in the void.

Although they're firmly secured with safety ropes,

Simon is clinging on tightly to Serenity with his hands

So tightly his fingers ache.

"He looked right into the face of it. Was made to stare."... They made him watch. He tried to look away but they wouldn't let him ...They held her down and ignored the way she sobbed and pleaded ...

"It?"

"The darkness. Kinda darkness you can't even imagine." ...One of them brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her, but he could still hear the muffled whimpering ... "Blacker than the space it moves in."

The Black is vast, horrific. Simon risks a glance over his shoulder, and

the nauseating emptiness bares its teeth at him.

River smiles, eyes reflecting the sparkle of the stars. "Dancing," she laughs.

"Very poetic."

"They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away – they wouldn't let him." ...powerless to stop it, he prayed to the God he no longer believed it that they would hurry up and finish. All five of them. Get it over with... "You call him a 'survivor'? He's not. A man comes up against that kind of will, only way to deal with it, I suspect ... is to become it." ... Happened to me. Became something ugly and dangerous.

Harken feels a chill of recognition, of certainty that it isn't just the injured man they're talking about.

" ... he'll cut on himself, desecrate his own flesh ... then he'll start acting like one." ... I did. When all I wanted was to still be me.

The Commander suddenly thinks his prisoner may require more than the standard number of guards. "Let's have two MPs up here to escort Sergeant Reynolds to the brig," he tells his underling.

* * * * *

Mal scans the dining room quickly, taking in the scattered cutlery and trying not to react when he spots the space suit helmet on the table. It can only mean one thing ... Simon and River are back on board and in two kinds of danger.

Harken follows close on his heels as he moves up into the foredeck hall. Mal turns a corner and there they are - Simon and River, hidden by no more than a lip of metal. Tamade. Mal breathes out slowly, steadying himself as Harken catches up with him. Even handcuffed, he can take the Commander if he has too. The two armed guards might be more problematical ... Shame Zoe ain't here.

All of a sudden there's a noise, an arm lunges out of nowhere and an arc of red lands a dripping streak of blood across Harken's forehead. The droplets trickle down into his brows for a moment before he pulls himself together and goes for his gun, fingers thick with terror, hand hardly his own.

He's too gorram slow – all thought an' no instinct. Weapon's out of his hand before his grip's tight on it an' then that thing that used to be a man is on him. Only one way to handle this now ...

Simon hears the bone break. Probably the third or fourth cervical vertebrae, he guesses by the way the man instantly stops breathing. Retreating into the abstract realm of text book anatomy affords the doctor some refuge from the ragged emotions warring inside him. Fear of being caught, horror at the Reaver victim's sudden bloody attack, shock at Mal's business-like approach to killing and astonishment at his own reaction to it. This is the second time he's seen Mal kill a man, and far from disgusting him, it fills him with relief. And more than a little admiration. He knows what it is to make difficult decisions about a man's life and he respects the courage it takes. Malcolm Reynolds really is an extraordinary man.

* * * * *

Mal is sitting at the head of the dining table with Zoe at his side, nursing a half-mug of coffee when Simon finds him. The doctor clears his throat and takes an awkward step forward. "I think I owe you an apology."

Mal looks at him, head to one side, considering. He takes a slow sip of his drink. "Reckon you do at that," he nods and Zoe quickly feigns intense interest in the inside of her cup.

Simon pulls a face and shrugs.

"That it?" Mal asks, eyes wide with mock disbelief, unable to stop himself from tormentin' the boy. Thing is, this is a new experience for him. He an' Kaylee got a way of makin' up that don't need words an' Wash hardly even speaks the same language as Mal. Wou'n't know if he was apologizin' or not. Apologies from Jayne don't mean a damn thing an' Zoe - well, Zoe don't ever apologize. Mainly cos she's never wrong. Which makes this all kinds of entertainin'. "That all you got?" he presses.

A spot of pink appears on Simon's cheeks. "I ... uh ...well, if you'd just explained the plan ..."

"Whoa there! This ain't soundin' so much like an apology as you complainin'."

Simon realizes Mal's right and checks himself. "I'm sorry. Really, I am. I should have trusted you."

Mal fixes him with a serious look but suddenly flashes the nearest thing to a genuine smile Simon has ever had from him. "Yeah. Least we can agree on that."

He's so handsome when he smiles. Those too-blue eyes fill with warmth and humour. His mouth ... Stop that right now, Simon tells himself firmly. Just be grateful. "You saved our lives today. Twice. Again. Thank you, Captain, really ..."

Mal looks uncomfortable. "Forget it. Wa'n't nothin'."

Simon smiles at the Captain's inadvertently appropriate use of the double negative. "No, it wasn't," he agrees. "So – thank you."

"Think you're fast becomin' that boy's hero, Sir," Zoe remarks, watching him go. "He remind you of anyone?"

"No."

"Hmmm."

"What?"

"Nothing," she lies.

* * * * *

"Persephone?" Inara repeats. "Are you sure?"

"Just told Wash to set course," Zoe replies. "Take it the destination suits."

Inara smiles. "Well, I do have several clients there. Generous clients," she adds. "And to be honest it will be a treat to spend time in the company of civilized gentlemen for a change."

Zoe grins. "Best not let the Doctor hear you say that."

Inara's smile widens. "But it might be helpful if the Captain did?"

* * * * *

Atherton ruttin' Wing. Smarmy lookin' hun dan. Rich an' plum full of stamina apparently. Well, good luck to him. Ain't no concern of Mal's. He's jus' gorram glad he don't have to goin' to no ball his own self. Don't much like the idea of prancin' about like a loon amongst a load of Core folk and their whores. Bought and sold all of 'em, like cattle. Asses branded by the Alliance. Mal wants none of it. A man who ain't free ain't a man at all. Won't catch him at a shindig like that, no sir.

* * * * *

"Post traumatic stress disorder – symptoms of," the disjointed electronic voice declaims, "can include some or all of the following: sleep problems, appetite change, irritability, anger, depression and excess arousal. The patient may feel emotionally numb or disconnected from others. They may also be extremely protective of loved ones and fearful for their safety. The patient may suffer recurrent nightmares or flashbacks leading him or her to adopt a coping strategy of avoiding situations, places or people which remind him or her of the traumatic event."

Simon frowns. It all sounds horribly familiar. He gets to his feet and begins pacing the room. Far from easing his mind, reaching a diagnosis has only increased his sense of helplessness. This is completely outwith his area of expertise. Back at the hospital he would have been able to consult with colleagues more qualified in the field. Here it's all down to him. No-one else. River's life is in his hands. Her mind. Her future. He can't. He has to. He takes a deep breath and speaks into the encyclopedia again.

"Post traumatic stress disorder – treatments."

A blip and the screen changes colour. "Antidepressants, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may provide short term relief from the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. However specialists consider the most effective treatments to be cognitive, behavioural and exposure therapies. Assisting the patient to relive the traumatic experience under controlled conditions can help him or her work through their anxieties.

"Two by two," River says quietly, making Simon jump. "Each one a mate. Wants you. Mal. In the cargo bay. Needs your help."

* * * * *

"Gosh, Kaylee!" Simon exclaims, his smile widening as he takes in the details of her ballgown. "You look amazing! Really amazing."

She blushes almost as pink as her dress and grins, wrinkling up her nose. "Pretty?" she fishes. "Do I look pretty?"

"Very." And Kaylee curtsies in acknowledgment of the compliment.

"What about me? 'm'I pretty too?"

Simon turns round and it's like he's been winded. All the air seems to rush out of his lungs as he looks at Mal. Everything about him is perfect. The dark formal suit emphasizes his height and lean, muscular build. It makes him stand more erect and enhances his aura of authority. Against the white of his shirt his skin is golden and his eyes bluer than ever. But the best thing about the outfit is Mal's obvious desire to get out of it. Simon finally gives up pretending to himself that he doesn't find the Captain attractive. He looks him up and down and says, "Yes, Captain. Pretty. Definitely."

Mal grins and curtsies too. Simon presses his lips together hard, trying to stop the corners from curving upwards. "What? Wha's so funny?"

"A gentleman bows," Simon explains, demonstrating.

"Right," Mal copies, a little sulkily. "Knew you'd know all about this fei hua. Need you to teach me an' Kaylee some dancin'. Somethin' simple, mind. Nothin' fancy."

Simon is taken aback at the request. He thought everyone knew how to dance. "Uh ... well, the basic steps of the waltz aren't too hard to remember. If you have to dance, try to stick to that."

"OK," Mal agrees, all determination. "Let's do this thing."

First Simon gets Kaylee and the Captain to stand at his side and copy him. "Forward, side, close. Back, side, close. No, Captain– the other foot. OK, again." He watches Mal out of the corner of his eye and sees he's knitting his brows together with concentration as he stares down at his feet. Absent-mindedly poking out his tongue, like a kid working on a particularly difficult math problem. Eager and serious. Cute.

When Simon's confident they've picked up the rudiments, he puts them together. "Take her right hand like this" - he closes Mal's hand around the mechanic's - "and put your other hand on her back." A slight adjustment. "OK – now do the steps we've been practicing. Only Kaylee – remember you're doing them backwards. When the Captain goes forward, you go back. Dong ma?"

Kaylee grins and they set off. It isn't pretty and it isn't graceful. And it certainly isn't dancing. More like wrestling.

"This ain't workin'. I'm goin' one way an' she's goin' some place else."

"It's because you're not letting her know which way you plan to go," Simon explains.

"She need a map? Or do I got to keep up a runnin' commentary?"

"Don't be ridiculous. You let her know with your body. Watch." To Kaylee's immense delight Simon takes her in his arms and starts waltzing her around the floor. She follows effortlessly, but when Mal tries again, they end up treading on each other's toes and bickering.

Simon steps in to break it up. "Captain. If I may ...? Let me show you. I'll do what you should be doing. Show you how it feels." He takes Mal's right hand with his left and keeping him carefully at arm's length, puts his own right hand on Mal's back. Mal rolls his eyes a little but forces himself to concentrate. Their movements are a bit stiff, but neither tramples the other. A few more steps and Mal thinks he gets it. "You see, Captain" Simon says, "The gentleman has to take charge. Don't be afraid to lead."

Mal's eyes narrow. "You tryin' to be funny?"

"No. I ... oh!" Simon can't help but gasp because Mal has suddenly pulled him up close against his body and is holding him there, hand splayed out over the small of the doctor's back. He takes a step forward, pushing his thigh against Simon's and propelling him backwards.

"Like this, you mean?" he smirks at the surprise on his medic's face.

"Uh-huh," Simon manages to answer before Mal starts forcing the pace. Forward, side, close. Back, side, close. Spin. Another spin jus' to show who's boss. Already a bit breathless, Simon begins to feel uncomfortably hot as well. This is too much. It's too hard ... Damn. It is. Wo de tian he hopes Mal doesn't notice. But Mal's havin' a few problems of his own in that department. Discoverin' he ain't utterly hopeless at this stuff is makin' him think maybe the ball won't be so bad after all. He imagines himself askin' Inara to dance, wonderin' what she might feel like in his arms, how their bodies would fit together. Will it feel like this? Her body supple against his, respondin' to his slightest move? Gorramit if the thought ain't all manner of stimulatin'. In a bloodflow divertin' kinda way. He's just decidin' now might be a pretty damn perfect time to let go of the Doc when Jayne comes bounding down the stairs.

The mercenary hits the bottom step and his jaw falls open at the sight that greets him. He can't quite wrap his brain around it. Mal an' Simon Tam are holdin' each other like they was lovers. Jayne shakes his head and slants a look at Kaylee, doubly astonished now since she ain't at all unsettled by this queer turn of events.

"Doc ain't turned Mal sly has he?" he stage-whispers loudly in a clumsy attempt to uncomfortable the medic without gettin' on the wrong side of the Captain.

It doesn't work. Mal releases Simon, stalks over to the mercenary and snatches his face between thumb and fingers. There's a long painful silence as his gaze slides from the Jayne's eyes to his mouth and back again. Jayne swallows with an odd little grunt. "In your dreams, Jayne," Mal says soft an' low an' jus' this side of menacin', "In your dreams."

* * * * *

Swatting Mal on the backside with her sword relieves some of the frustration Inara is feeling. He is so infuriatingly intransigent, so pointlessly implacable. She risked a lot in bribing the desk clerk and in coming here to his room. And does he appreciate it? Not a bit of it. No, big brave boneheaded Mal wants to stay and fight. He's going to get himself killed ... Inara focuses on a point somewhere on the far wall and tries to clear her mind. It wasn't supposed to be like this. She wasn't supposed to care. He's just a client – even if he doesn't know it. She went aboard Serenity to help him, not herself, and when she's done that, she'll move on. She will.

She looks at him again and the hopeless determination in his eyes makes her heart ache. He won't run. All she can do is try to help him stay alive. "You have to thrust with the point sometimes, or swing from the elbow."

"Swingin' from the shoulder feels stronger," he objects. Renci de Fozu! - does he always have to know best?

She comes up behind him, adjusting his hold on the sword. The touch is like an embrace and they both feel it, scary and comforting. "It's also slower, Mal. You don't need strength, so much as speed. We're fragile creatures. It takes less than a pound of pressure to cut skin."

He don't like her touchin' him – or rather he does. Likes it so damn much he starts to feel things that might burst the dam. Things that might let that, that ... thing out. He scrambles for safety, pushing her away. "You know that? They teach you that at whore academy?"

And they're back from the edge. The danger of falling has gone. Inara continues the lesson. They go back to fighting both with their weapons and with words and nothing is resolved.

* * * * *

"Atherton – wait!" Even to her own ears, Inara's voice is strained, desperate. "I'll stay here, exclusive to you. Just let him live."

A flicker of triumph crosses Atherton Wing's face and Inara marvels at the man's stupidity. Didn't he just hear her declare she'd give up everything for the man at his feet. How can he possibly construe that as winning?

Then Mal is striking out at him, all pretence at fighting like a gentleman gone. Inara should have known he wouldn't follow the rules for long. Should have known too that he wouldn't let buy his life with her freedom. And known that he'd be too blind to realize her desire for freedom was dwindling.

* * * * *

"Been a wacky coupla days, huh?" Wash asks, pushing a ringlet of hair off Zoe's cheek. "What with the dancing, the duelling and now the incontinent cattle. Hey – who's on clean-up duty this trip? Can I bribe the rota-drawer-upper in any way ...."

"I'd say you could at that," Zoe purrs as he traces his tongue up under her earlobe. "But you don't need to be tradin' your body, bao bei. Job's already Simon's."

Wash chuckles. "Oh, he'll love that! Have you seen his shoes?"

Zoe arches a brow. "You noticed his shoes?"

"Well ... they are gorgeous. Noticed some other things too."

"Like?"

"Like how crowded the Mal fan club's getting. Might not be room in it for you much longer, lamby-toes. Might be appointing a new chairman."

Zoe stops smiling. "You got somethin' you wanna say, husband?"

Wash goes over to the sink and squeezes toothpaste onto a brush. He scrubs away for a while, then splutters through a mouthful of foam, "Simon was a revelation, huh?" like he's changing the subject. "All that 'we need to figure out how to get him out of there' and 'since we're unarmed, we should take them by surprise, all at once'. Very gung-ho, eh? And there was me thinking he was all 'Oh my God! You people are all barbarians'. Guess Mal's rubbing off on him too."

"Rubbing off on him?"

"You know – turning him into a leader, a man of action. Someone who sees what needs doing and gets it done. A bit like you." He meets her eyes, the blandness of his tone at odds with the challenge in his words.

Zoe's nostrils flare slightly as she inhales. She forces her shoulders back down and exhales slowly, smiling a bitter little smile. "Be nice to have someone else share the burden."

* * * * *

He ought to be used to disappointment, pain. Why does it hurt this bad when nothing has changed? Maybe because he hadn't expected to be having these feelings. They shouldn't even be here, after all. He should have found them a safe place by now - should have started helping his sister - instead of playing ship's medic to a gang of outlaws. What was he thinking? It's time to find somewhere he and River can settle. Leave this boat and find somewhere safe.

It wasn't so bad when they came back, Mal leaning on Inara for support. Then it was a matter of practicality. Simon's delight at seeing the Captain alive just about wiped out everything else anyway. Then he realized Mal had been injured quite badly and had taken over. Helped Mal to the infirmary, tended his wound. Offered up a silent prayer of thanks that the sword had missed his vital organs. Ordered him to rest. And Mal has been quietly compliant, grateful.

But now he's sitting down there with her, drinking wine. Their voices drift up to the catwalk above.

"I wasn't going to stay, you know."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Oh – someone needs to keep Kaylee out of trouble. And all of my things are here ... Besides, why would I want to leave Serenity?"

"Can't think of a reason."

Nothing has really changed. Except that now Simon knows. Knows that in his heart, Mal is Inara's. He turns back into the corridor, not wanting to go to his bunk because it will mean walking past them. He's afraid that the hurt he's feeling will show on his face.

He doesn't know where he's going, he just needs some space. Head down, he hurries back along the hallway and doesn't see the Shepherd until he crashes into him.

"You all right son?"

"Uh ... yes. Thank you. I'm ... fine."

Book studies his face. "Don't look fine. What's the matter? Is it your sister?"

"No," Simon says, brushing past him. "It's nothing. Nothing."

Impressive – what 'nothing' can do to a man.

Chapter Text

This is the sixth day in a gorram row that the doc ain't sat down to dinner with the rest of 'em an' it's beginnin' to tick Mal off. He's sick of everyone waitin' politely only for the doctor not to show an' fed up with havin' to watch the hopeful look on li'l Kaylee's face turn to disappointment. Not to mention pissed as hell that Book's been delayin' that silent prayer of his that Kaylee, Inara an' even Jayne close their eyes for. Every ruttin' night since that damn shindig on Persephone it's been the same thing - Simon Tam an' his moonbrain sister don't sit to table an' instead take their meal in their bunk. Delivered by soft-hearted Kaylee.

Boy can lock hisself away all day for all Mal cares, but Serenity's Captain sets a lot of store by his people sharing at least one meal a day. Builds a sense of belonging – team spirit. Learnt that from Momma. She always used to have as many as she could of the senior ranch hands round the dinner table to eat together. Mealtimes at the ranch was always lively occasions. People tellin' stories, jokes. Some of Mal's happiest memories ...

Jayne watches resentfully as Kaylee takes the plate in front of Simon's empty chair and starts piling food onto it. If'n he wa'n't sure the medic won't be with 'em much longer he'd be sayin' somethin' about it. As it is, he contents himself with grindin' his teeth and fantasizin' about the day Mal cashes the Tams in for some hard coin. He's pretty sure Mal ain't got no more time for the doc than he has. Won't be long till he makes his move.

Kaylee reaches across for River's plate and Mal's patience finally snaps. Room service, tha's what that boy's gettin'! Well it's gonna stop. Right now. Mal ain't gonna put up with whatever the hell fei hua Simon Tam is up to not one more day. He ain't ill. Mal's seen him in the infirmary. Even seen him in the cargo bay, makin' a half-assed job of clearin' up after the beasts.

"You put those plates back down, mei-mei," he tells Kaylee gently but firmly.

"Cap'n?" she asks uncertainly, as Mal pushes back his chair with an angry scrape and stands up. She can see he's mad about somethin' but ain't real sure what. "I was jus' ..."

"I know. But it ain't your job," he replies, a touch more kindly. "Think I'd better go find out wha's ailin' the doc. You all go ahead."

He indicates the meal with a wave of his hand then, as an afterthought, leans across towards Jayne. "I'm comin' back – better be somethin' left when I do."

Jayne pulls an indignant face at Mal's retreating back. "No call to be takin' it out on me," he mutters loudly, looking for sympathy from the others.

Zoe and Wash exchange a look, although it's not one of agreement.

* * * * *

This is the sixth day in a row that Simon has avoided eating with the rest of the crew. No – that's not exactly true. It's the sixth day he's avoided sitting down at the same table as Mal. This infatuation he's developed for the Captain is as ridiculous as it is intense. The more time he spends in the man's presence, the more he wants to and the less he thinks about leaving this junker and finding some place safe where River can get better. His stomach twists guiltily at the admission and he looks sadly across at his sister who's sitting cross-legged on his bed, waiting for him to play a card. "Not what you think," she smiles as his eyes meet hers.

"Stop trying to put me off," he replies, forcing a grin and telling himself that this is what matters. So long as he and River are together, he doesn't need anything else. Which is just as well. Mal's only interested in Inara. And who can blame him? Even Simon can see she's perfect, with her luxuriant dark hair and flawless skin. Her slim form and graceful movements. The clever things she says. Her sharp intelligence. No wonder Mal wants her. So Simon will stay out of the Captain's way until they land on some out-of-the-way rock far from Alliance control where he and River can make a home, where River can begin to heal.

There's a soft knock at the door. Seven- thirty – right on cue. Dear, sweet Kaylee.

"Come in," Simon calls out to her. He's trying hard to remember how many queens have been played so far in the game and doesn't immediately look up, doesn't realize ...

"You sick?" Mal demands brusquely, folding his arms across his chest as he leans against the door frame.

"Hurt," River answers before a surprised and discomfited Simon can say a thing. "Needles everywhere. Fire. Fire and ice."

"Uh-huh," Mal grunts, not looking at her. "Asked you a question boy – you sick? Cos to be truthsome, I ain't entirely happy about you usin' Kaylee as your very own personal servant. You ain't on O-sir-is now."

He chews on the planet name like it tastes bad in his mouth and spits it out.

Simon gets to his feet, bristling at the other man's tone despite the lurch of desire the sight of him provokes. "I'm well aware of that, Captain. And in reply to your question – no, I am not sick. In fact, I'm quite well," he says formally, a little angry himself now. "But thank you for your concern."

Mal gives him a quick impatient smile and closes the gap between them. "Well Doc," he says, laying a hand on both of Simon's shoulders, "You ain't sick, you don't get meals in your room, dong ma? You an' li'l sis wanna eat tonight, best you be gettin' up to the mess ma shang."

For a moment or two they glare at each other, Mal furious at his medic's Core-world better-than assumption that he don't have to live by Mal's rule and Simon seething at Mal's domineering manner. Then Simon pulls back and reaches for River's hand. "Come on, mei-mei. Let's go upstairs to eat. Since the Captain asked us so nicely."

Mal bows theatrically and indicates the open door. "After you."

River glances back at him over her shoulder. "It's hard for him," she says solemnly. "Hard for you."

"You ain't wrong," Mal agrees under his breath, misapprehending. "Hard for every damn one of us out here in the Black."

* * * * *

Simon tugs absent-mindedly at his left lobe as he tries to absorb this new piece of information. In the absence of another doctor from whom to seek a second opinion, he's double-checking his diagnosis by feeding River's symptoms back through the encyclopedia. And now he finds they are not only indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder but also of other conditions, including paranoid schizophrenia. The discovery scares him. Particularly when he spots the footnote: 'Left untreated, patients may fall victim to severe hallucinations and delusions, making them a danger to themselves and others'. It's clear that River may need more than the smoothers and antidepressants he's being giving her so far, but medical supplies on Serenity are limited both in range and quantity.

"Good morning, Simon. I've brought that book you wanted," Inara says as she enters the infirmary. Then she notices his frown. "Is there a problem?"

He nods, still staring at the screen. "River. She needs better treatment than I can offer her. The infirmary has only the most basic of drugs in stock ..."

Inara smiles kindly. "Perhaps I can be of help. I have some supplies of my own in my shuttle and I may be able to pick up more for you next time we're somewhere civilized. If we're *ever* anywhere civilized again," she amends casting an eye in the direction of the cargo bay. "The Captain is somewhat predictably drawn to the more rustic planets ..."

"Gorramit! Zao cao!" The sound of Jayne cursing out in the cargo bay is nothing usual but the heavy thud followed by the alarmed bellowing of the cattle is. "Damn it, Mal!"

There's a slight delay and then the rumble of what sounds like an angry exchange between mercenary and Captain.

"Wonder what he's done this time," Simon's laughs but the laugh soon dies in his throat as Mal appears in the doorway, propping up a limping and snarling Jayne. The Captain looks from Inara to the doctor and back again. Hah! Might've known these two'd be cosyin' up to each other. Probably swap fashion tips an' do each other's hair every time his back's turned. "What's your business here?" he snaps at the Companion.

She raises her chin a fraction. "None of yours," she tells him haughtily before turning back to Simon. "I'll see what I can find, Doctor. If you'd like to come to my shuttle later?" Simon nods and she gives him an extra-warm smile, in sharp contrast to the icy glare she shoots Mal before leaving.

"Shou'n't have thought you could afford her rates," Mal says, treating Simon to the overflow of the bitterness he's feeling towards Inara right now.

"It's not ..." Simon fumbles. "I mean ... I .."

"Stow it, son. I ain't interested in what you do in your free time. Which, in case you hadn't noticed, ain't now. What you doin' in here? There a medical emergency?" His mouth sets in a tight line and his eyes bore into Simon's. Jayne grins evilly as he pushes himself up onto the exam table.

"No. I - I was studying Riv..."

"Told you he was useless," Jayne says triumphantly.

"Not so useless I can't step round niu shi rather than in it," Simon snaps.

Jayne growls and makes a lunge for him but Mal steps in between them. He glares at Simon. "Wanna watch that mouth of yours, boy. Kinda gets a man's dander up. Now, let me make this abundantly clear - I ain't payin' you for studyin'. You can do that later instead of goin' visitin'. Workin' hours, you're on clean-up duty. Which you clearly ain't done. There's so much shi out there, it's like a gorram Alliance news bulletin. As a result of which, Jayne's gone an' fallen an' twisted his ankle."

"I'm very sorry," Simon replies in a tone that says he isn't. "I just happen to think keeping my medical skills up to date is more important than house-keeping. I'm a doctor not a cleaner."

"On this boat, you're both," Mal tells him flatly. "First you see to Jayne. Then you see to that mess out there, dong ma?"

A 'please' wouldn't go amiss, Simon thinks to himself as he opens a drawer and looks for an ankle support. Why does everything have to be an order with Mal? It's insulting. Simon's not some ruffian who needs to be bullied into submission. He's a professional, used to respect and to making his own decisions, defining his own priorities. He doesn't need Mal telling him what to do and when to do it.

Jayne grumbles as he pulls on the support and complains some more when Simon administers a shot of painkiller, still under Mal's watchful eye. Once he's finished with his patient, Mal holds out the large shovel and bucket which have been Simon's unwanted companions for the past two weeks. The medic yanks them out of Mal's hands and marches out into the cargo bay, swearing to himself he'll stop serving under the twenty-sixth century's answer to Earth-that-was' Captain Bligh the very first opportunity he gets.

* * * * * *

Simon don't know he ain't alone. No need for him to know just yet. Leaves time for watchin'.

"Oh, bother!" he exclaims, bending over to rub at yet another niu shi stain on bottom of his pants. The position shows off his backside. Sure is a sight to see. Don't matter what angle you look at him from, Simon Tam is real shuai.

He looks up and sees Kaylee staring at him, a strange expression in her eyes. She blushes and smiles. "Hey. How ya doin'?"

"Not well. I think the Captain must hate me."

Kaylee pulls a sympathetic face. "He been yellin' at you again? You don't wanna take that personal. He yells at everyone."

Simon shakes his head. "No, it's not that. It's this. This endless cleaning up of ... excrement. Three weeks of it. I tell you – he doesn't like me."

"Wasn't him that gave you the job," Wash informs him, struggling down the stairs with large pail of water for the cattle. "It was my wife." He pauses. "And she thinks you're swell. So don't you be worrying about people not liking you."

"Jayne doesn't like me."

"I said people."

* * * * *

"And the beauty of it is – she's just seventeen. Little more than a kid. Who would suspect her?"

"And that face. So innocent. Like a China doll."

"Absolutely. It's genius – that's what it is. Pure genius. So meek and child-like on the outside, but on the inside ... A wolf in sheep's clothing."

"Which is why we have to get her back. The search must be extended. Deploy more agents if you have to. Before she becomes contaminated."

"What do you mean?"

"Before our she-wolf finds herself a cub."

* * * * *

"Stupid son of a bitch. Dress me up like a gorram doll."

"No tests, no shots," Simon bargains. I'm just going to give you a smoother that'll ..." But River will not be appeased. She makes a grab for his medical bag and hurls it and its contents across the room. "River!"

River looks up and sees a man descending the stairs into the infirmary. She freezes. Is it him? The man with the fire and needles? But then she thinks she recognizes him and gives herself up to the tide of warmth flowing through her, a warmth almost maternal in the way it makes her forget herself completely. He needs her. She has to save him ... Then the light shifts and the picture changes. Who is this? An imposter? "You're not him," she says slowly, anger building at the cruel deception. "Liu kou shui de biaozi he houzi de ben erzi!"

Mal looks unimpressed. "So – she's added cussin' an' hurlin' about of things to her repertoire. She really is a prodigy."

Simon clenches his jaw. "It's just a bad day."

And then Captain Malcolm Reynolds, the outlaw prince, starts delivering one of his you-Core-folk-don't-understand-the-realities-of-life lectures, expecting Simon to just stand there and take it. One of these days ... If he didn't have to concentrate on not reaching out for Mal - on not pressing himself up against him and offering to do anything - Simon would be stomping out of here. He drags his eyes away from Mal's and looks at his sister.

"This is paranoid schizophrenia, Captain. Hand-crafted by government scientists who thought my sister's brain was a rutting playground. I have no idea what will set her off. If you have some kind of expertise-"

Mal blinks, stung by the thinly veiled accusation of ignorance.

"I'm not a doctor." No gorram reason why I should understand any of this. I ain't had your fancy education, boy. Don't mean I ain't as smart as you. In fact – I'm probably smarter. Yup – top two percent, most like. "And I'm not your gorram baby-sitter, either. Gag her if you have to. We got trade to be done."

He heads back up the stairs, still smarting at the implication of Simon's remark. He don't need tellin' he ain't got much learnin'. Oh sure - he ain't as dumb as Jayne but he don't know all that historical cultural stuff Simon does. Kinda stuff Inara knows. Simon an' Inara. Oh shit.

* * * * *

In the morning sunlight Jiangyin looks fresh and green and pretty. A nice planet to call home. Although Simon wishes River hadn't decided to follow the cattle out here. He can see the tension in Mal's shoulders, the wariness in his eyes and he knows it isn't just the deal that's making him nervous.

"Come on now, let's move you clear of the work," he hears him saying to River, who's backing away a little fearfully. If Mal would just leave her alone she'd be fine, no trouble to anyone. But no, he's always got to be controlling people, bending them to his will.

"What's going on? What are you doing?" Simon asks sharply.

Mal looks at him like he's an idiot. "I was fixin' to do some business. Buyers'll be along soon. I can't be herding these steers an' your sister too."

"I'll keep her out of the way," Simon tells him, although he can't leave it at that. Mal ought to show a little sensitivity. Some of the things he says are so hurtful and River's been hurt enough already. "But you don't need to be saying things like that in front of her."

Mal glances across at River, who's the picture of unoffended calm. "Yes. I've clearly upset her."

There's a laugh and Simon notices Jayne, sitting on the fencing and sniggering. He turns back to Mal who's wearing a "What did I do?" expression of innocence. "She understands more than you think. She didn't mean any harm."

"Never figured she did," Mal replies delighting in the way he's making Simon uncomfortable. It's all kinds of funny watchin' him tryin' to stand up for his sis without goin' too far. Mal wonders how far the boy might go if he really pushed him. "But when a man's engaged in clandestine dealings, he has this preference for things bein' smooth. She makes things not be smooth."

"Right," Simon answers, a note of sarcasm creeping into his voice. "I'm sorry if she tipped off anyone about your carefully concealed herd of cows."

Mal nearly laughs. The doc's got a dry sense of humour an' no mistake. Ain't much cowed by Mal's usual tricks neither. Boy could prove a mite more difficult to keep in line than Jayne if he took the notion to mutiny. Which is why Mal doesn't laugh. Instead he slips an arm around Simon's shoulders - using the contact to underline his physical advantage in term of weight and height, not to mention meanness - and starts walking him away from the cattle.

The arm around him is warm and heavy, just as Simon imagined it would be. What he hadn't imagined is how natural it would feel nor how easily the two of them would fall into step. Oh, Simon knows perfectly well that Mal's aiming for subtle intimidation but there's something protective about his hold too.

From his position on the fence, Jayne watches, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He scratches his head and reminds himself that Mal's got all manner of ways of keepin' folk compliant. The words "I'm not sure it's such a good suggestion" are carried over to him on the breeze, followed by "Might not wanna mistake it for a suggestion" and he smiles knowingly. Mal ain't gone soft. This is just his way of puttin' a man in his place.

* * * * *

He should never have taken his eyes off her – not even for a second. This is all his fault. Simon castigates himself as he searches the town, wild with panic. River's the most precious thing in his life - how could he just lose her? Selfishness – that's what did it. Thinking about his own needs rather than hers. He stumbles down a dark alleyway, all but sure he'll never see her again and suddenly the sunlight's dazzling. He squints and shields his eyes, realizing he's in an open field and that there's some kind of fair going on. In front of him there's a platform, with a canvas roof, on which people are dancing in time to a folk tune. And there amongst them is River. In her element. Dancing. Still free in her heart. Still River.

She doesn't see him, nor for the moment does he want her to. He wants to simply stand and drink in her beauty. Watch her shine. Then a cloud passes in front of the sun and River's smile dissolves. Her eyes widen and she reels backwards as though in pain. The dance goes on, people milling all around her and Simon loses her again. He rushes forwards through the thickening crowd, feet obstinately heavy and earthbound.

Funny how quickly darkness falls, how soon flying ends in a fall.

* * * * *

"It's going to be okay," Simon tries to convince River – and himself - as they are half-dragged, half-pushed through the woods. "Once the Captain realizes what happened, they'll come."

From somewhere ahead comes the sound of engines firing. They look up and are horrified to see Serenity rising above the trees. Simon can hardly believe it. This is his worst nightmare realized. Mal is abandoning them. And not even for money. Simply because it's the easiest thing to do. Simon feels each connection he has made with the Captain and his crew stretch to breaking point and snap painfully like tendons. Somewhere deep inside he's sure he must be bleeding.

"See that? No-one's coming for you." A hand grips him by the shoulder. "You just keep moving." Desolate, Simon stumbles forward, not knowing where he's going or why and wishing desperately that River wasn't here.

* * * * *

"Knew it," Jayne declares. "Probably saw them cops, turned tail."

For some strange reason Mal feels the need to defend his medic's honour. "Doctor could be called a lot of things," he tells the mercenary, "Coward wouldn't be one of 'em though."

Inara's beautiful face looks drawn. "You don't think there were arrested, do you?"

Wash's eyes are bleak. "Worse than that. Looks like maybe they got snatched."

"Kidnapped?" Inara gasps.

"I went by the Sheriff's office...."

The Sheriff's office? Don't Wash ever think? Wha' d'he do? Report the Tams missin'? 'See here, Officer – those fugitives you lost? Well - we lost 'em too'.

"... Settlers up in the hills take people sometimes. Usually tradesmen and the like."

Out of the gorram fryin' pan into the ruttin' fire!

"And now they got themselves a doctor," Mal deduces. "And we don't."

Trust that damn yu ben de boy to get hisself snatched at the precise moment Mal needs him. And it's more'n a mite ironical that Mal only realizes how much he's come to rely on havin' a medic aboard the day he loses him. Tamade – he was gonna do it right this time. Save her. Save them both. But there ain't no time for gettin' sentimental and thinkin' about what they don't got. What they do got is a Preacher who's probably already shakin' hands with St Peter an' enquirin' as to the size of his heavenly bunk.

"We're goin'." Mal punches a button decisively. He's lost men before. Sometimes you gotta think numbers.

Kaylee makes a strangled noise. "What are you doin'? What about Simon and River?"

"Forget them," he tells her, knowin' he's gonna do enough rememberin' for you the both of them. Expects he'll be seein' the Doc's earnest blue eyes every time he closes his own. Rememberin' the way he tried but never quite managed to trust Mal to take care of him an' his sis. Looks like he wa'n't wrong after all. "We lost two people today. If I can help it, we won't lose a third. Wash – get us in the air."

* * * * *

"You know where you can find what you need," Inara points out.

Mal rounds on her angrily. It ain't his fault the doc's gone. He di'n't lose her playmate on purpose.

"Don't recall invitin' you onto the bridge."

"You didn't. Mal," she softens her tone even as she starts wheedlin' an' resortin' to wiles. "You know where you can find a doctor." Then that flinty edge is back. "You know exactly."

"Inara ..." Mal's got enough trouble dealin' with his own conscience here, let alone hers as well. "...He was dumb enough to get himself grabbed in broad daylight. Don't have time to be beating the trees lookin' for him now. No assurance we'd find him or that he wou'n't need a doctor himself."

She reels a little at that, surprised. "I – I'm not talking about Simon. I'm talking about medical facilities."

Mal does a double-take. "That's not an option. Nor is it a discussion I much wanna have at the moment."

"It doesn't matter what you want," she says, tongue so sharp she could cut out a man's heart with it. "He's dying. We need a doctor now."

* * * * * *

Mal descends the ladder into his bunk. He needs some time to think this through and come up with a plan, without helpful advice from his crew. All that jabberin' ain't exactly conducive to thinkin' straight. He got Inara fancyin' herself the voice of reason, Kaylee pleadin' with him to go back for the Tams an' Jayne sayin' how this is a good thing. Ruttin' Jayne! He got no comprehension of what they just lost! Thinks the boy weak an' cowardly jus' cos he ain't always spoilin' for a fight. Too dumb to see the steel in the boy's eyes an' too self-servin' to understand the strength that comes from lookin' out for others.

Mal; shrugs off his suspenders and rolls his shoulders. The joints protest against the movement with a loud creak. He sits down on the edge of his bunk, rubbing at tight neck muscles and staring into the distance ...

They'll get Book treated first. Ain't no option there. He haunts Mal bad enough in the livin' and breathin' flesh – dead, he'd be downright insufferable. So – save Book's life first, then rescue the Tams. Always assumin' they' ain't dead yet. Or worse. Mal shudders.

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.

Well this time he can.

And he will.

* * * * * *

"Place like this might be good for your sister. Quiet, safe," Doralee suggests. "A place where folks take care of each other."

Simon gives a short, bitter laugh – as much at his own doomed plans for River as at the teacher's words. "Yes. Seems like a lovely little community of kidnappers."

"The Lord says 'Judge not'," she replies calmly. He wonders how long she's been here, to have been able to resign herself so totally to her fate.

"They took us off the street." Simon isn't resigned. He's angry.

There's something wrong about Doralee's smile. It's too still. Blank somehow. "Sometimes life takes you places you weren't expecting to go."

"Life didn't bring us here – those men did."

"You were on a transport ship, right? Taking a journey?" Simon nods. "It's the way of life in my findings that journeys end when and where they want to and that's where you make your home."

Oh, spare me your homespun philosophy, Simon thinks. Facile crap! "This isn't our home."

"If it isn't here – where is it?"

That takes the wind out of his sails. He could tell her about Osiris and risk getting handed over to the Alliance for the reward. Or he could tell her about Serenity and the way he and River never really belonged. But what would be the point? He's lost two homes in less than a year. How's that for carelessness?

* * * * *

"You go to bed now." Doralee is saying to Ruby and suddenly Simon realizes he's exhausted. So tired he could curl up under this table and sleep for a month.

"We should probably think about doing the same," he says to River, who's tilted one ear towards the mute little girl as if trying to catch words she isn't saying. "It's been a big day. What with the abduction and all."

"Well – y'all don't have to sleep here. There's a house set aside for you. We've been looking for a doctor for a good while. So things are ready."

A house? They'd have a house? Somewhere River could rest and heal, far from Alliance reach? Simon could be useful here too – help these people in so many ways. It might be just what he was hoping for. A rock on which to build a new life. Renci Fozu be praised!

"Her sister got killed," River murmurs gazing at Ruby. And the rock begins to crack. No safety here. Just quicksand ...

"Witch! She's witch!"

* * * * * *

One corner of Zoe's mouth curves minutely upwards as she looks across at Mal. Their timing is impeccable. As is their coordination. Wash has Serenity hovering noisily overhead and Jayne is hanging over the hatch like some malevolent fruit ready to burst and scatter its deadly metal seeds over the ground beneath, just as she and Mal stride into the village, leading with their guns.

The crowds parts easily to let them through. That's when they see them. River's tied to that gorram stake but Simon's there of his own accord. Arms wrapped round his sis like his being there could halve the ferocity of the flames. Mal's breath catches in his throat. Now he remembers. Sees what Zoe was tryin' to tell him. Simon does remind him of someone after all. Ha'n't thought about it for years. Had it all locked away somewhere quiet and safe. But now Mal remembers - remembers the last time he shared a bed without it all goin' straight to hell. Remembers someone stupidly devoted - someone who put hisself in so much danger on someone else's account they posted him to another unit. 'Course, the doc's a mite smarter an' a darn sight more sharp-tongued, but the similarity's there all right.

Mal bites his lip, fighting the memories back. Everybody burns alone, in their own way. But not today. He yells at the crowd.

"Y'all got somethin' that belongs to us and we'd like it back."

River smiles at the word, astonished that her brother doesn't hear it. But he's too stunned that Mal came back. At some point he must have let go of his sister because his arms feel empty. He's standing open-mouthed, not yet daring to believe. Mal mounts the platform and turns his gun on the crowd. Feet squarely on the ground, Zoe's in perfect synch with him.

"Gotta say Doc, your talent for alienatin' folk's near miraculous," Mal says in an aside, because jokin' is easier than anythin' else he might have to say.

Simon is grateful. Joking is just what he needs right now. It lends realism to this skin-of-the-teeth rescue and chases away the nightmare narrowly escaped death.

"Yes," he says slowly. "I'm very proud."

Always got an answer, that boy. Mal guesses tha's why he likes him. Why he came back.

* * * * *

"You're on my crew."

"Yes. But why did you come back for us. You don't even like me."

Mal keeps his face carefully blank. "You're on my crew," he repeats, trying to stare the medic down. It doesn't work. Simon's eyes are reaching out to him for explanation. Mal pushes him gently away with "Why we still talkin' about this?" and turns his back before the boy sees the echo of somethin' that was once there. "Chow's in ten. No need to dress."

Simon smiles to himself, happier than he's been in months.

That night, Simon happily takes his place at the dining table with the others. He doesn't have to be special. He's on Mal's crew. It's not a lot, but it's enough.

Chapter Text

Simon recognizes the sound of Mal's footsteps coming down the hallway - there's a slight unevenness to his footfall that's probably indicative of minor but chronic lower back pain - so he's somewhat surprised to hear Jayne say, "Ah! Here she comes now – my lovely wife."

"There you are, husband. Been looking for you everywhere." Mal exclaims, making Simon jerk his head round, wondering what game the two of them are playing. His jaw drops. No, that wasn't surprise before. This is surprise. His eyes widen and then widen some more as he looks the Captain up and down. He's wearing a dress. A soft, cotton dress. Complete with matching floral bonnet. The doctor claps a hand to the back of his neck and gapes.

Mal meets his gaze, grins and does a little twirl. "Like it?"

"No," Simon says firmly. It's all manner of unsettling, wrong in so many ways.

Jayne laughs and takes Mal by the arm. "He ain't exactly the prettiest creature I've ever seen, but I've bedded worse," he declares.

Mal slaps his arm. "You, sir, are no gentleman!"

"Stop it!" Simon can't help but snap. His cheeks start to burn when Mal and Jayne stare at him in amazement, and he pushes quickly past them and escapes to the infirmary.

"Wha's up with him?" Jayne asks.

"No idea."

* * * * *

Neither their hasty leave-taking of Elder Gommen nor the slight hangover he's suffering is enough to dampen Mal's spirits this morning. Not often a job goes that smooth. And there's that whole having done folks some real good thing to warm his heart. Yup - that went well. Jayne's ridiculously proud of his rain stick and they got themselves some decent provisions for the larder. Plus these flagons of real cider. Mal's stomach heaves in protest at the prospect of taking a mouthful right now and he decides the alcohol had best go into storage for a day or two.

He opens the wire safe and places the stoneware flagons inside. Good to have a little extra, a little luxury set aside. Reminds him of Momma's ranch – they always had a goodly supply of cider and beer in case of visitors. He finds himself smiling at the memory and then jumps back with a startled yell.

Because on the other side of the safe there's a girl, all pale skin and big eyes, staring at him in terror like he's gonna eat her.

"Who the hell are you?"

Her look of terror changes to one of hurt incomprehension. "What do you mean?" she asks hesitantly, and he notices how very young she is. Little more than a kid.

Mal feels like he's been caught in something damp and sticky and clinging. It makes him a mite panicky. "I think I was pretty clear," he says defensively. "What are you doin' on my boat?"

"But ... you know ... I'm to cleave to you?"

Mal gives his head a little shake as if his ears aren't working right. "To wabba hoo?" No - this is a load of fei hua an' he ain't havin' it. "You can't be here."

The girl looks stung, lost. "Did Elder Gommen not tell you ...?" she asks slowly, realization dawning.

"Tell me what?" Mal's impatient now. "Who are you?"

"Mr Reynolds, sir ... I am your wife."

 

* * * * *

2505

"You're in here," Private Alleyne announced, finally coming to a halt outside of a small tent. A very small tent. Mal was used to a lot of space, both indoors an' out. He began to wonder if he ha'n't done a damn foolish thing, swappin' his home comforts for this when he realized he was getting' an amused an' ever so slightly disdainful look from the woman beside him. "Not what you're used to?" she asked lightly, not bothering to hide her scorn.

He stood up straighter and huffed. "I'll get used to it. Anyhow – don't s'pose we'll be here long. Soon we see some action against those hun dan Alliance ..."

"Six weeks' basic," she said, like she had to say the same gorram thing to every new recruit and was pretty much bored with it. "Then .. who knows?" She tilted her head towards the tent. "Get unpacked, then report to the quartermaster for your kit."

Mal looked at the tent again. How in the name of Buddha was he gonna fit himself, his belongings an' whatever kit he got issued in there?

He grinned at Private Alleyne "We ain't gonna be sharin' then?"

She gave him a withering look, turned and walked away without deigning to reply. Mal watched her go - part relieved cos she looked like the kinda girl his Momma reckoned ate farm boys for breakfast and part regretful for the exact same reason. Then he pulled the door flap aside and entered the tent.

"Hey."

"Ahh!" Mal jerked upright, head scraping the underside of the roof. "Tamade – who the hell are you?"

"Cody – Cody Bain," the blond young man replied, getting to his feet and extending a hand. "Nice to see you again, Mal."

"Huh? I know you?"

Cody Bain smiled a little shyly and looked down at his feet. "You don't remember? Well, no reason you should, I guess. I'm Clayton Bain's son. My Daddy's farm is about ten miles downstream from your Momma's ranch. We met once ... a cattle drive ... your first, I think?" He glanced up again, raising his eyebrows hopefully and willing Mal to remember.

"Right," Mal nodded slowly, trawling through his memory and coming up with nothing. "Yeah. So – what ya doin' here?"

"Same as you. I heard you were joining up and ... well, I thought maybe I should do the same. Make a stand ..."

"Uh-huh," Mal interrupted. "But what ya doin' in here?"

For a moment Bain looked confused, then he grinned. "It's a two-man tent, Mal."

* * * * *

"The marriage ceremony of the Triumph settlers. Has been for over eighty years," Book says with a barely concealed smirk. "You, sir, are a newly wed."

Simon finds himself fervently wishing that he'd left his rutting encyclopedia back at home on Osiris. Because this is not the kind of information he wants or needs. The space that thing occupied in his bag would have been better filled by another vest. Or a few more pairs of socks.

Mal is clearly no happier. "So what's in say in there about divorce," he asks, practical even in extremis. Simon hides a smile and even feels a little pity for the girl when she runs off, sobbing. As well as a fresh rush of tenderness towards Mal and the way he forces himself to go after her.

"You really think you're the one to talk to her, Sir?" Zoe tries to stop him.

"Way I see it," Mal growls, "Me and her got a thing in common. We're the only ones who don't think this is funny."

In fact Inara doesn't think it's funny either, although she isn't surprised Mal's oblivious to the fact. Of all the many things that annoy her about him, the one that infuriates her most is the way that his obsession with keeping his own emotions in check blinds him to the feelings of people around him. They can be having these huge, all-consuming, passionate feelings of love, hate, despair - and he doesn't notice. All he's worried about is that no-one can see into the heart of him. And he's not even very good at it – at hiding his feelings. No – Mal's talent lies elsewhere. In pushing people away, in shutting them out. His eyes can be crying out for contact, for warmth but offer it to him and he'll freeze you out with a sharp word or a nasty jibe, so petrified is he that a little love will dissolve him.

And the thing that makes it even more annoying is that Inara knows she does the same thing. For the very same reason. She catches Simon's eye and just for once she decides not to be like Mal, to let someone really see her.

It's not what he was expecting – all that raw jealousy and pain, underlain by endless, hopeless regret. They stare into each other's eyes, understanding. Knowing. Simon smiles weakly – touched, saddened – and Inara acknowledges him with a nod.

"Thief in the night," River says, breaking into her brother's thoughts with a tug on his arm. "Not hers to take."

He turns to her, confused. "Inara?" he asks hopefully. Guiltily, too.

"No."

* * * * *

"If you take sexual advantage of her," Book says conversationally, "you're going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre."

Not for the first time, Mal wishes he hadn't told Book he was welcome on his boat. He stares at the Shepherd, dumbfounded at both his assumption and his audacity in saying it out loud. "Wha'? I'm not -" he starts to explain but then his astonishment turns to indignation. "Preacher, you got a smutty mind."

Book is unperturbed. "Perhaps I spoke out of turn."

"Per maybe haps I thinking," Mal replies wishing he had more sentence modifiers at his disposal, because somehow that don't sound nearly emphatic enough..

"I apologize," Book answers mildly in exactly the same unconvincing tone the Doc uses for his apologies. "I'll make her up a room in the passenger dorm," he offers, retreating.

"Good." Mal guesses he's won this confrontation.

Wrong again. Book's head reappears around the corner to deliver a reminder. "The special hell."

Mal sighs. The special hell. He don't need no warnin' about that. Been there an' burned more than once. Twice to be precise. First Zoe. Then Jia ...

Four and a half years ago

"Could get used this, Zoe," Mal said, dropping the pitchfork and wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "Good honest work. Good honest folk. Live simple."

"If you say so, Sir. And Ru Wei's daughter's got nothin' to do with it."

He thought about denyin' it but he cou'n't stop the corners of his mouth from curvin' upwards. Had to admit he'd been thinkin' about it. About a future with Jia. Ha'n't know her long, but she was funny an' smart an' cute. An' there was somethin' else. Somethin' that got to him. He wa'n't sure he wanted to confess to that, he opted for practicality. "She's a hell of a farmer. A real hard worker."

"Sure she has many exciting qualities, Sir. Probably hell of a cook too."

Mal shot Zoe a searching glance. Not jealous was she? No. Why would she be? After ... well, some things were best forgot. "Maybe we're soul mates," he joked cos neither him nor Zoe believed in such gou shi.

Zoe said nothing. Just looked at him - a touch sadly, he fancied.

Same way she looked at him later than night after they got run off the farm. Lucky those woods were as thick as they were. Gave 'em some place to hide. Somehow they managed to shake off their pursuers. Mal had been certain Ru Wei was gonna kill him. Still cou'n't piece it all together his own self. One minute he was kissin' her an' slidin' a hand under the soft fabric of her shirt an' the next she was screamin', blood beadin' from a cut on her lip.

* * * * *

"Could you leave me along for five minutes?" Inara spits at last and Mal slinks out of her shuttle.

Why do they always end up angry with each other, she asks herself. She shouldn't get angry at all. She's not supposed to care what he says or does. He's just a job to her.

With a heavy sigh, she switches her cortex screen off. Now is not a good time to think about making appointments with other clients. She's not in the mood.

It was his talking about children that did it. Suddenly there was a whole future, full of endless possibilities in front of them both. All the things she wanted - and didn't want to want. Damn him! Damn Malcolm Reynolds to hell!

* * * * *

"The Vice Consul knows," the Director announces.

Gaunt and Ginger exchange a look. "How much?" Gaunt ventures.

"That we've 'lost' her," the Director replies, gazing up at the ceiling, tapping his fingertips against each other. "He's not best pleased."

"And the programming? Does he know it's not complete?" Ginger asks grimly.

"Fortunately not. I have assured him that we have a very solid lead and that we will have her back under our control in the very near future."

"Is that possible?"

"I have every faith in you, gentlemen," the Director smiles icily. "Who understands better than yourselves the penalties of failure?"

"And if she's contaminated?"

"We shall be faced with a problem of enormous magnitude. A problem, however, with which you will not be concerned. You will have more pressing concerns of your own."

 

* * * * *

Two parts sedative to one part antipsychotic worked well enough yesterday, Simon tells himself and a couple of clear drops fall from the pipette in his hand into the flask on the counter. Of course, the day before that this recipe had River emptying toothpaste tube after toothpaste tube in the hunt for 'the little blue one'. Whatever she meant by that.

"Two by two," she whispers, staring into the distance, her mouth contorting with fear. "Two by two."

Every time she says those words, a chill goes through Simon. He can't begin to guess what they mean, but he knows they're an expression of a deep, relentless fear. Part of the trauma she's buried. He's been doing more research and has a label for this behaviour. Obsessive compulsive disorder. The need to repeat the pattern over and over again. Two by two, hands of blue. She's lost in this particular wood, compelled to retrace her steps over and over again. If only he could help her find a way out.

"Don't always have to leave by the door. Not if there's a window," River announces suddenly, slipping from her seat and marching determinedly out of the infirmary. Simon lets her go and returns to mixing her medicine.

Book is in the empty passenger dorm. Approval and a sense of victory radiate out from him. Foolish little soldier doesn't know what lies over the hill. River's eyes fall on the red pillow. Wrong, all wrong. She snatches it up, yanks the bedsheets back and leaves the room. Cushion, comfort – the task falls to her brother now, not her. Soft on the outside, poison-tipped spines within.

Simon is stoppering up the vial containing River's medication when through the infirmary window he sees her heading back his way, followed by a slightly disgruntled looking Book.

"What's going on?" he asks the Shepherd warily.

"Seems River doesn't want me making up a bed for our young guest," Book smiles benignly. "Or she's starting a pillow collection. I'm still collating data."

Simon's heart sinks. Will she never get better? "I'm sorry. I'll take care of the room ..."

He's going to give her the pillow! Doesn't he care? River thought it was love ... "It's not important," she lies. "Tell him," she urges Simon. Tell him you love him. Before it's too late.

Her brother looks at her blankly. "Tell him what?"

Momma wanted to see him happily married, settled with someone to care for him. Someone to care for. "We want you to marry us," she tells him. Isn't it obvious?

"What?" Simon splutters. "We – no! What?"

They're so close, sometimes it's hard to know where she ends and he begins. His thoughts seep into her, his feelings course through her veins. "Two by two. Each one a mate, a doppel." The two of them are so alike too. Brothers under the skin. More than brothers. If he won't say it, she will. "I love you."

Simon is horrified. She's much worse than even he had realized. Maybe Jayne's right after all, and she really is a moonbrain now. "No, River, mei-mei. Of course, I love you too. But we can't be married." Her eyes shine, alight with some distant notion. He knows he's not getting through to her. "She's ... really crazy," he admits. That gets through to her. She delivers a vicious kick to his ankle."Ow! I don't mean crazy ... that's just not something brothers and sister do. I mean, on some planets – but only pretty bad ones."

Her brother is a boob. Save him, she implores but the words won't come out. Simon has to save him. He's walking on quicksand and she'll pull him under if she can. "The captain took a wife ..."

"Well, that's also complicated," Book says gently.

"I don't know where this is coming from," Simon says helplessly.

River stares at him. Was Simon lying to her? Didn't he tell her he was the one? Theirs? To look after? She thought he was going to fill the emptiness. Simon's her brother and he's hollow and she can't bear it. She'll try to fill the void. Keep him warm. "We'll take care of each other. I'll knit." Something's wrong. Not what he needs. "You don't love me."

The footsteps overhead provide a welcome distraction as far as Simon is concerned. Mal descends the stair, followed by the girl. He senses something is amiss, but is glad no-one is rushing to explain what or to demand he resolve it. Whole gorram trip's more than complicated enough already.

'Not love, not love' she keeps hearing him say. Respect, admiration. Wanting. But not love. Not love. She understands the words but she doesn't comprehend. Trying to make sense of it makes her dizzy. If the meaning of words disintegrates, she'll be trapped forever. Everything must have its own name, not something else's, or the 'verse has no logic, no form. In the beginning was the word ... And now other voices are speaking too, making it very crowded in here. Gorram complications. Special hell. Just a kid. Gullible fool. Fool.

"You're a thief," River suddenly accuses Saffron out of the blue, making her steal closer to Mal. Taking what's not hers – his hand, reassuring on her back.

"Well, ho! Let's play nice here," Mal warns and turns to Simon. "Your sister's got some funny notions."

Simon has to agree but Saffron reaches into the waistband of her skirt and pulls out a sachet of food. "I'm sorry. I didn't know when I was to be fed, and I was afraid ..."

Rage starts to bubble within Mal. He's angry now. Angry with River for sayin' such stupid things. Angry with Simon for not stoppin' her. Angry with Saffron – for, well, bein' so damn pathetic.

Little more than a kid...They held her down...It's haunted his nightmares for years, filling his nights with impotent rage as the horror replays over and over again. And always there's the serpent's voice telling him that maybe it wasn't like that. Insinuating that she didn't fight because, well ... hiss, hiss ... And sometimes his anger turns on her, on her vulnerability and her inability to save herself. She should have fought them, gorramit!

It's Book that tips him over the edge, with his well-meaning "Well, there's certainly no harm done."

"And I say there is," Mal snaps. "Good deal a'harm an' it's startin' to tick me off." He glares at Saffron, infuriated by her downcast eyes and submissive manner. It makes him want to slap her. Hold her down and slap her. "Now I got no use for people sneakin' around, takin' what ain't theirs," he says slowly, steadying himself. He doesn't see River smile as she hugs the pillow she's tucked against her belly. "But what I got even less use for is a woman won't stand up for herself. Five days hence we're puttin' you in the world, and you won't last a day by bowing and sniffing for handouts. You want something, you take it, or ask for it."

He swallows a little of his anger back down. They've all gone silent. Even Simon Tam is remarkably quiet and looks quickly away when Mal catches his eye. Got nothin' smart to say? Mus' be some kinda miracle!

Mal continues with his lecture.

"You don't wait to be told when to breathe, you don't take orders from anyone. Except me – and that's just cos I'm the captain, and people take orders from captains - even in the world. But for the rest, damnit, be like a woman is. Not no petrified child. There's more'n seventy little earth's spinning about the galaxy, and the meek have inherited not a one. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"

Saffron says that she does and Mal decides he'd better go. The way she looks at him unsettles him. So pale, so small ... Little more than a girl ... She staggered out of that place ... and looked him cold in the eye ... When he closes his eyes to sleep, he never knows which one of them will take that girl's place as he takes her and holds her down. Never knows whose eyes will be staring into the darkness in his soul. "Shepherd, will you show Saffron her room, please."

They leave, taking their jangling thoughts with them and suddenly everything is very clear to River. But how to simplify it so that Simon understands? She smiles at him. "Now we have to be married," she explains, glancing down at her pillow-belly. "I'm in the family way."

* * * * *

Mal is hanging on by a thread. He's so afraid he'll hurt her. Like Zoe. And Jia. But then she gets up, allowing the sheet to fall away, dragging more of his self-control with it. She's naked. Her voice is like honeydew. And he's stuck. No good struggling. Wings just get held faster.

"If I'm wed, I'm a woman and I'll take your leave to be bold. I want this." Her soft words are hypnotic and have him swaying, drifting. "I swell to think of you in me – and I see that you do too."

"Well, that's jus' ..." His protest holds no conviction.

"Leave me at the nearest port, never look on me again. I'll make my way with the strength you've taught me ... " How did he let her get this close? One breath and they'll be touchin'. "Only let me have my wedding night."

He should tell her. Explain. But there's skin and heat and he can't think straight. "Oh, I'm gonna go to the special hell..." He knows that for sure. If he gives in to the screamin' inside. If he doesn't. What does it matter? It's all the same because she's kissing him, slow and sweet and he's OK. Perhaps this time ... Somehow he has just enough strength to pull away. He looks down at her sadly. Can't take the chance. "I really wish it was that simple, girl. But I just ..."

Her mouth is on his, warm and insistent, and he can't fight anymore. Sometimes you jus' have to surrender cos it's your only option. He takes her face between his hands and kisses her back, long and hard and desperate. Arms circling her, tongue swirling against tongue, head spinnin'.

Spinnin'. Huh? Mal takes a step away from her. "Son of a ..."

 

* * * * *

Having settled a now fully conscious Inara on Mal's bed, Simon returns his attention to the Captain, who's still sprawled out on the floor of his bunk. Zoe is crouched at his side, her eyes never leaving his face.

Mal's eyelids flutter and Zoe becomes even more focused on him. He lets out a long sigh. "Bain..." he mutters, grabbing Simon by the arm. Zoe's eyebrows pull together a fraction as a little moan esacpes Mal's lips. "Don't ... stop," he breathes.

Zoe freezes mid-blink. Simon raises an eyebrow but her expression is immediately deliberately blank again. Mal's fingers tightening into his bicep distract the doctor. He puts a hand on Mal's shoulder. "Can you hear me, Captain?"

Mal's head wobbles from side to side and he opens his eyes blearily. "Is it Christmas?"

 

December 2506

It was late December – leastways, it was on Ermine – and their batallion was coming under heavy fire from Alliance forces massed on the other side of the river. It it hadn't been for that river, the Independents would've been food for worms by now seeing as how they'd run out of ammunition two days ago. But God, in His infinite wisdom, had thoughtfully arranged it so that the river was too wide and the current too fast flowing to cross safely without amphibious vehicles. He'd also seen to it that amphibious vehicles was the one thing the enemy didn't have.

"What d'ya mean, they didn't bring any?" Mal demanded angrily, his face illuminated by an explosion off to their right.

"Said there's a second unit comin' in tomorrow, Sir," Zoe responded mildly. "Bringin' rifles and rocket launchers too."

Mal cursed under his breath. "So what the diyu are we supposed to do till then?" Another explosion sent a shower of stars up into the night sky.

"Private Bain might have a plan, Sir," she answered. "Told me to tell you he's holed up by that bombed out church tower."

Well, that was somethin' at least, Mal thought. All that fancy education Bain had had – most like he knew some way of making a grenade out of a can of beans an' a firelighter. "OK," Mal decided. "I'll go on up there now."

"Zhen ta ma yao ming. Ju yi," Zoe urged, a flicker of something indefinable in her eyes.

"Dang ran," Mal grinned, impatient to be away.

He turned and followed the cemetery wall, keeping low to keep out of sniper range and out of sight of his own side - di'n't want gettin' put on a charge. Where the wall ended, he turned downhill, in the shadow of the ruined tower.

"Psst! Mal! Over here."

Cody Bain was sitting on the ground, leaning back against a tree. Mal scrambled over and sat down next to him. "Shen me?"

Bain glanced around and then slowly opened his jacket to reveal a bottle of what looked suspiciously like brandy. "Want to get into the Christmas spirit, Sarge?" he asked with a wink.

"Where in the good gorram did you get that?" Mal hissed.

Bain shook his head sadly. "Terrible thing, Sir. The Colonel's drink problem. Thought I'd better take precautions ..." He broke off laughing and handed the bottle to Mal who uncorked it and took a large mouthful.

"He finds out an' we get court-martialled," he warned, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

"We'd better ensure he doesn't find out then," Bain answered, taking another swig from the bottle himself. "Better dispose of the evidence."

"Can't argue with that," Mal agreed sagely.

And so they sat there – an hour - maybe two - drinking, laughing and talking about mutual acquaintances back on Shadow.

"And that," Bain declared proudly, slurring his words a fraction, "is how I pershuaded Daddy to let me go away to school."

Mal threw his head back and laughed. "Cody Bain," he began, finding himself a mite slurred too, "You are a sly one an' no missh.." he stopped and rushed to clarify, "I mean ... I didn't mean..."

"Mal- " Bain interrupted.

"What?"

"Shut up." Bain leant over him and pressed his lips gently against Mal's. Mal's mouth fell open with surprise and then Bain was kissing him properly, his tongue hot and brandy-sweet.

"I ain't sly, Bain," Mal said when he'd recovered enough from his shock to pull away. "An' - by the way - since when've you been?"

Bain smiled and wagged a finger at him. "You aren't very observant, are you Mal? I'm sorry. I shouldn't have ... Should've known you wouldn't like it."

"Never said that."

The words were out before Mal had time to weigh them and for a moment the two of them sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb quite what he'd meant.

"So ... you did like it?" Bain asked at last.

Mal scratched his head, thoughtful.

"Better than kissin' Josie Fletcher," he admitted with a grin, before jabbing a forefinger into Bain's chest, "But not as much as kissin' her big sister."

"Permission to do it again, Sarge?" Bain asked quietly and when Mal hesitated a second too long, he took his face between his hands. "Only this time, you've got to reciprocate."

"Huh?"

"You've got to kiss me back."

Maybe it was the brandy. Or the boredom. Or the thought that he really shouldn't be doin' this that made it seem so damn excitin'. Whatever, Mal found he did quite like the feel of his lips on Bain's after all. And the warmth of his body. He liked Cody Bain too. They were young - jus' larkin' about – he told himself, tryin' not to recall his Momma's warnin's about the special kind of hell you went to for special kinds of sins.

There was a soft thud in the air overhead and then a deafening crash. "Tamade!" Mal exclaimed. "That's mag drops they're usin' now an' we've got nothin' ..." It was so ruttin' frustratin' this damn havin' to wait.

Bain took his hand and pressed the back of it to his mouth.

"Not wanting to be overly dramatic about it, but we could die here. Tonight. Which is why I'm going to ask you-"

"Look-"

"We won't do anything you don't want to," Cody said softly, blue eyes utterly sincere. He ran a hand up Mal's arm and touched his cheek.

"I ain't sly," Mal repeated, wondering if he could sound any lamer.

"So you keep saying."

Cody kissed him again.

He was right, a voice in the back of Mal's head insisted. They really could die here. Tonight.

"Nothin' I don't want?"

"Mal – you're a head taller than me and you must be at least twenty pounds heavier! What am I going to do? Force you?"

"Guess not." Mal muttered. "OK then."

"Just one thing you should know, Mal ..."

"Yeah?"

"If you feel the earth move, it's probably because we're being bombed."

* * * * *

The seat shudders a little as the shuttle comes to rest back on Serenity.

"All aboard," Mal reports into the comms.

"Aye, aye Cap'n," Wash crackles back. "Glad you made it back safe. Take it you didn't kiss her goodbye."

Mal hears the laughter in his pilot's voice and grinds his teeth. He don't appreciate feelin' like a fool. Shoulda seen through that schemin' whore but she played him real good. How come he was the only one who fell for her act? Even Jayne – Jayne, whose brain resides somewhere far south of most folks' – woulda been safe from her wiles, bein' as he don't kiss 'em on the lips. He wou'n't've been knocked out cold on the floor of his bunk. Hey, wait a minute ...

Like all Companions, Inara is good at reading people so she knows Mal has an ulterior reason for being here. She's just not sure what that reason is.

"You're a very graceful woman, Inara," he tells her.

Where did that comes from? "I ... thank you."

His brow furrows a little as he approaches her. "So, here's where I'm fuzzy: you got by that girl, came and found me, and then you just happened to trip and fall?"

He knows! How can he know? How can he know? This is Mal – Mal who never notices anything. "Wh.. what do you mean?"

He's very close now. Another of his annoying ways – the always getting too close, invading her space, touching her things. She longs to pull him closer.

"Come on, Inara, how's about we don't play. You didn't just trip, did you?"

She could tell him now. Confess everything. And then all the games would be over and life would be simpler. "No."

He smiles and nods as if he understands. "Well, isn't that somethin'." He's gazing deep into her eyes as if he might be about to kiss her, but then the smile becomes a grin, a triumphant and smug grin. "I knew you let her kiss you."

And off he goes, hands tucked into the back pockets of his pants and shoulders thrown back. She even thinks she hears him whistle. Stupid son of a ....

* * * * *

Di'n't turn out too bad in the end, Mal decides, helping himself to a glass of cider in the quiet of the empty kitchen. Got the shuttle back. Found out he wa'n't the only dumbass on board.

"Is that alcohol you're drinking?"

Mal glares darkly at Simon as he comes into the kitchen. "You know, I do believe it is. An' if you're thinkin' of tellin' me not to on account of my havin' been only recently pois ..."

"Would you pour me one? Please?" the medic asks, rubbing his temples and taking a seat at the table.

"Sure. There a problem? With li'l sis?" Mal places a glass in his hand and sits down next to him.

"No. Well, nothing new. Sometimes I think that's the problem. It's like she's stuck in one place and can't move forward. Keeps saying the same nonsensical things over and over again."

Mal shrugs. "Maybe they jus' sound that way," he suggests. "Words got a way of sounding nonsensical when you don't understand what's behind 'em. Don't worry son – you'll figure it out." And he gives Simon a brief reassuring pat on the arm.

Simon looks down at his hand. "Captain ... who's Bain?"

Chapter Text

"Captain ... who's Bain?"

Mal doesn't jump. He's too stunned for that. Instead he just stares blankly at Simon. Where the hell'd the boy get that name from? Zoe? Don't hardly seem likely ... He swallows hard. "Huh? What?"

One corner of Simon's mouth lifts. The Captain seems distinctly uncomfortable. "It's something you said," he explains. "When you were coming round from the Goodnight Kiss."

Mal forgets to blink. "I – uh- say anythin' else?"

"Nothin' sensible, Sir," Zoe states crisply from behind them as she steps down into the galley. Mal glances up and a look passes between them. She's got this one. He nods.

"Cody Bain was from Shadow. Enlisted with the Independent forces same time as the Captain," Zoe tells the medic, placing the empty mugs she's carrying down on the counter. "The three of us fought together for a couple of years."

"I see." Simon stands up. He senses that neither Zoe nor Mal want to talk about this. Then a terrible thought occurs to him. "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't think. Was ... was he killed?"

Zoe presses her lips together and shakes her head. "No. Nothin' like that. Though not for the want of tryin'." She really shou'n't elaborate but the whole thing still rankles with her. "Nearly got the Captain killed too."

"It wa'n't like that Zoe," Mal can't help but interrupt before clamping his mouth tightly shut again under the fearsome glare she's directing at him.

"Anyhow -" she turns back to Simon. "Bain got posted some place else. An' we got posted to Hera. So it turned out real shiny for all of us." She folds her arms over her chest, indicating this conversation is At. An. End.

Simon rinses out his glass and leaves.

"Thanks," Mal says quietly.

"Just doin' my job, Sir." A beat. "Savin' your ass again."

"That supposed to be funny?"

"Don't know what you mean, Sir."

* * * * *

Kaylee is working on the engine. Talking – no, cooing- to it. "That's my good girl. Know it's hard, but you keep turnin' dong ma? Cap'n'll get you a new catalyzer real soon. Maybe even a whole new compression if'n this job on Higgins' Moon pays as well as he reckons it should. Then you'll be the prettiest, shiniest engine in the whole gorram 'verse. So you keep ..."

"Broken."

"Hey, River," Kaylee smiles up at her friend. "Wanna give me a hand?"

"Broken," River repeats, trailing a hand along the engine casing.

"No it ain't. 's'just a bit old, is all."

"Just a kid."

Kaylee rubs her cheek, smearing it with grease and dirt. "I'm older than you, genius!" she laughs but stops abruptly when she sees a tear spill from River's eye. "What is it?"

"Gave up everything."

"Simon? You talkin' about you an' Simon?" Kaylee wraps an arm around River's shoulders. "Don't cry sweetie. It wa'n't your fault an' he wou'n't've done it if you ha'n't been real special to him."

River tips her head to one side, her eyes distant. "Gave up everything. Should've fought them, gorramit!" Her hands ball into tight fists. "Damn well let them win. Stupid bitch!"

"River? River, mei-mei – are you up here?" It's Simon, calling from down the hallway.

"In here Simon," Kaylee shouts to him, mighty relieved he's on his way cos she don't know how to handle this. When River goes all feng le, it scares her.

"She wasn't bothering you, was she?" Simon asks anxiously as Kaylee passes River gently on to him. "I'm sorry ..."

Kaylee tuts. "No, she wa'n't botherin' me. An' it wou'n't've been your fault even so. Shou'n't always be apologizin' to folk, Simon. Gives some men out here in the Black the wrong impression. Makes 'em think you're weak."

There's a derisive snort from the doorway. Jayne is standing there, all but filling it. "Sounds like the right impression to me," he sneers.

Kaylee puts her hands on her hips and glares at him. "Think you better leave if you're jus' ..."

"Mal wants you," Jayne interrupts. Then decidin' he'd better make it clear, he turns to Simon. "Her. Not you. Don't get your hopes up."

"Jayne!"

"What? The Doc here's been makin' googly eyes at Mal ever since he came aboard."

Simon opens and closes his mouth, uncharacteristically at a loss for a reply. Jayne bares his teeth at him before marching back the way he came, grinning with satisfaction.

* * * * *

Inara is looking forward to her time with Fess Higgins. Not because he's rich or handsome or because she expects to derive any physical pleasure from their love-making, but because she knows she can give him something he desperately needs – if the manner of his father's proposal is anything to go by and that is self-respect. Inara likes to think she does that for all her clients. She is never judgmental, no matter how peculiar their appearance or needs. Always accepting, she sees beyond the surface to the person within. To Inara being a Companion is not about sex or status or even money. Mal may assume that she charges exorbitant rates for her services but in truth her fees are very reasonable. Just high enough to ensure the relationship remains a purely business one in her client's mind. She can't work her magic if the client feels he owes her something. His needs must be paramount. They must be the only needs. Inara's satisfaction lies in knowing she has made one person perfectly happy, if only for a little while. She enjoys giving and wants nothing in return. Or at least, she used to. Before she let Malcolm Reynolds get under her skin. But she's afraid of exclusive relationships. A man can feel it his duty to make his partner happy and if he fails can become jealous and possessive, destroying her ability to enhance his life. And a woman can come to resent their partner's inability to be all things to her. Inara reminds herself of these cold hard facts every time the spark between her and Mal threatens to burst into flame. It's better to remain as she is - free.

Kaylee breaks off from the conversation she's having with Simon as the Companion passes by. 'Nara is always so beautiful. "Hey there, 'Nara. Headin' off for a glamourous romance."

Inara smiles. Kaylee's head is so full of dreams. Glamour and romance are just two of them. "Let's hope so," she answers, noticing the way Simon's eyes are taking her in, bright with delight in her beauty but clouding over with envy. She knows he's comparing himself with her. Poor, dear boy. The desire to squeeze his hand surprises her. But she won't indulge it. Her pity might make him to lose that fragile shell of control and self-respect is all he has left – that and his sister. It's better to pretend she doesn't know he envies her or why. "Don't let Mal get you into trouble while I'm gone," she laughs, half in jest, half serious.

Her words trigger an insistent fantasy and a delicious frisson travels the full length of Simon's spine. A spot of pink appears on his cheek but quickly, firmly, he pushes the idea of getting into trouble with Mal to the back of his mind and returns Inara's smile. How does she do it? Sleep with men she has no feeling for? Simon has never been able to do that.

"Bye now," Kaylee tinkles, all unaware of the undercurrents between the other two. "Have good sex."

It takes a few seconds for the cheerful exortation to register with Simon. Inara is able to pinpoint the exact moment he processes the sounds into meaning. Have. Good. Sex. . His expression kaleidescopes rapidly through shock to embarrassment to mild distaste and finally to grudging admiration at the mechanic's lack of inhibition. Inara's eyes turn a little sad. Poor Kaylee! Her crush on the young doctor is doomed to end in disappointment. Even if his inclindation didn't lie elsewhere, they really have nothing in common – except perhaps for a gentle disposition and an overwhelming urge to fix things. Inara hopes Simon won't shatter Kaylee's illusions just yet. A girl needs her dreams. Kaylee thought life aboard a spaceship would bring her excitement by taking her to exotic parts of the 'verse. Instead she spends most of her time in the grease and heat of the engine room. Not that she doesn't love this ship – far from it! - but Inara knows she has a deep yearning for something beyond it. And for the time being that yearning has become focussed on the tragi-heroic young man beside her.

 

* * * * * *

Nine years ago

Cursing Mal for being all manner of stupid, Zoe took a deep breath, glanced swiftly about her – calculating the location of the enemy positions one last time – and then ran at full pelt across the open field. Guns rattled and spat at her from all directions but her assessment held good and she made it to the relative shelter of the rubble surrounding the half-demolished grain store without injury. Picking her way more cautiously now, she advanced over broken planks and shattered stone until at last she found him.

"You ain't dead yet then?" she observed coolly, crouching down on the ground next to where he knelt trying to stem the flow of blood that was turning Cody Bain's jacket dark and sticky.

"Still livin' an breathin'," Mal replied. "What're you doin' here?"

Zoe skewered him with a sharp look. "Savin' your ass, by the looks of it. Sir." She stared pointedly at the blood dripping from his temple but he dismissed her concern with a little snort. "A graze ain't gonna kill me Zoe."

"Most like you're right, Sir." Her gaze dropped to Bain as she unhooked half a dozen grenades and a smoke cannister from her belt. "And him? How bad's he hurt?"

"Clean shot right through his shoulder," Mal answered briskly. "Nothin' serious."

Zoe raised a disbelieving eyebrow. The amount of blood stainin' that boy's jacket wa'n't what she'd call nothin' serious, but she caught Mal's meaning and nodded. "You ain't got enough orifices already, Bain, that you need to be gettin' yourself a new one? This one for keepin' your spare hanky in?"

Bain groaned quietly and his blond head lolled back against Mal's arm.

"What the hell's he doin' here anyway?" she hissed. "Di'n't the Captain put you on reconnaissance?"

"It was ... too ... dangerous," Bain managed to gasp. "I'm smaller ... less ... less likely to be seen."

"Right," Zoe agreed sarcastically. "So much safer for you to be out here than the Sarge in his flak jacket. Not dangerous for you at all. Them as is equipped for it do the job. You not got that into that supposedly enormous brain of yours yet?"

"Zoe ..." Mal's tone held a warning but Zoe was too angry to hear it.

"She me? If this yu ben de sha gua had followed orders you'da been in an' out of here in thirty minutes. But no, he gotta make a grand gesture for his lo- for you - an' damn near get hisself killed. Only he cou'n't even do that right an' now we gotta rescue him!"

She was glaring at Mal by now and he was glaring right back. "Bizui," he hissed because – damn it! - she was right again. "This ain't helpin' none. Now – you gonna create a diversion so I can get him out of here?"

"That's the plan, Sir," she answered through gritted teeth. "Looks like he's gonna need carryin'."

Mal grinned, hoping to defuse the tension between them. "Well, he sure ain't up to crawlin'. It's all right Zoe, I'll manage. He ain't heavy."

"Guess you'd know, Sir."

* * * * *

"Cap'n ... Don't you think Simon should come with us?" Kaylee suggests hopefully.

Jayne glowers. Only good thing about havin' to set foot on this gorram rock again was gettin' a few hours away from Simon ruttin' Tam.

"What?" Simon is horrified. He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to leave his sister. "Kaylee – I don't think that's such a good idea ..."

Book reads his concern and assures him he will take care of River. The Doctor should have some time to himself. Time to integrate himself into the gang.

But Simon is not convinced he should go. He hesitates, searching River's face for any sign of distress at the prospect of his deserting her. There is none. River can be wilfully unhelpful some days!

"We're not going far, doctor," Mal says reassuringly. "And you might maybe make yourself useful."

Jayne reckons the ear flaps on his hat must be too thick cos it sounded like Mal just asked Simon to be a part of the job. "Come again?"

Mal knows he oughta take a firm hand with Jayne on this one, given the ill-feelin' that's brewin' between him an' the Doc, but the sight of him in his hat an' goggles makes him forget to remind the big man who's Captain. Instead he explains. "The management here don't take so kind to sight-seein'. Which is why we'll be posin' as buyers. And there ain't a one of us looks more the part than the good Doctor...."

Mal isn't joking. He really does want him to come and that makes Simon absurdly happy. If Mal wants it, then of course he'll go. If it weren't for River, he thinks he'd go anywhere with Mal. What about into battle? The rational part of his brain scoffs. Would you have done that? Could you have followed him into Serenity Valley? Zoe did. Simon doesn't understand much about Zoe Washburn but he does understand her devotion to Mal. He isn't as brave as her, would probably be useless on the battlefield and is almost certainly deluding himself, but yes – had things been different, he thinks he could have endured even that bloodbath if he'd been with Mal. Maybe ...

"The pretty fits," Mal is saying as Simon's thoughts return to the present. He begins circling the doctor, eyeing him in a way that, whilst not entirely unpleasant, is distinctly unsettling. Unexpectedly he catches hold of Simon's wrist and runs exploratory fingers over his palm. "The soft hands," he muses. "Definitely a moneyed individual. All rich and fancible. Lily-white and pasty all over."

There's something about his tone, the rise and fall of his voice ... If Simon has to listen to much more of this, his knees will give way. "Fine," he says, a little breathlessly and swallowing hard. "I'll go. Just ... stop describing me."

Describin'? Suddenly Mal's regrettin' startin' off down this road. Cos now he's picturin' Simon naked an' findin' it all manner of pleasin'. In his mind's eye he sees him pale and muscled like a classical statue, the whiteness of his skin underscored by throbbing blue veins and in start contrast to the darkness of his hair. Mal stiffens, surprised by a hot pulse of blood urgin' him to throw the boy down onto the dirt an' himself on top. What in the name of suo you de dou shidang is this? Mal ain't sly. Otherwise why's he spent most of the past year dreamin' of beddin' Inara? And then, as quickly as it came, the madness passes. Relieved, Mal manages to smile at Simon and pushes him to the front of the group. "You're the boss. Boss."
.
* * * * * *

Mal's got no idea what's makin' Jayne so jumpy. Maybe he's overheating. He's surely ain't dressed for the swelterin' weather they get on Higgins' Moon.

"Boy's gonna get us killed," the mercenary mutters, shooting a black look at Simon. "Let's jus' do the deal an' git."

Could be he's right. Simon ain't exactly takin' to crime like a duck to water. But then again at least he looks normal. "His disguise ain't half so funny as yours," Mal points out. "What are you supposed to be, anyway?"

Wash, never one to let a chance to bait Jayne pass him by, laughs. "You haven't been here in years, Jayne. You really think you need that get-up? No-one's gonna remember you ..."

Mal stops dead in his tracks. "Think it's possible they might."

Simon looks up. "Son of a bitch!" he exclaims.

It's an ugly great lump, rough hewn and massive, which is the only unsurprising thing about it. Why in the name of wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de wai sheng dou is Wash staring at a statue of Jayne? It's not the big man's being famous on the God-forsaken stinking rock part of it that strains the mind – it's the him being well thought of part. Admired enough – loved? no, surely not! - to merit the erection of a statue in his honour. Maybe everybody on this planet is crazy. Some people juggle geese.

If Wash had been asked to lay money on who amongst Serenity's crew had had a statue made of them, he'd've opted for Mal. Born leaders get statues, not followers. Which is why he wouldn't've picked Zoe as a candidate for statuary. His wife isn't a leader any more than he is. She's a second-in-command. A deadly, beautiful, amazing, kill-you-with-her-pinky second-in-command but a second-in-command nonetheless. Jayne – for all his bravado and tough guy antics - is a follower too. Kinda fella whose needs are simple but urgent. Kinda fella who'll fall into line behind anyone smart enough to get the coin to meet them. Jayne's not one for planning or coaxing or playing the diplomat. In fact, he's a lot like Vera – you just crank him up and point him at the bad guy. Just don't expect him to work out which one's the bad guy all by himself. So Wash's first guess to the who's-got-a-statue question would've been Mal. His second guess? Simon. It's that born leader thing. Sure, Simon hasn't had much occasion for revealing that side of his character yet, but it's there. Wash heard it in the way he ordered Mal to run from the Alliance, not once but twice. Even after getting punched in the face. They've got a lot in common, Mal and Simon. Maybe that's what pulls them together. And what pushes them apart.

* * * * *

The pages rustle like dry leaves and meaning bleeds from the vital words they bear. All power lost. Just paper now. River clasps their lifeless forms and hopes for a miracle. "I'm ... I tore these out of your symbol and they turned into paper ... but I want to put them back, so ..."

Her meek apology might have been washed clean away by the sound of running water had Book not had years of practice at listening for things barely there. "Sorry?" he asks, patting his face dry with a towel. "What's that?" He pops his head around the door frame and River screams.

The power hasn't gone away, it's merely been restrained, tied back. The Shepherd doesn't need to lean on his Bible. It's not his support, it's his burden – willingly assumed. Too much power is bad for a man. It destroys him – destroys temples and kings.

Book is bewildered. "River ..? River, come back!" he pleads.

Alerted by the screaming, Zoe comes to investigate but River races past her. "Book? What happened ...?" Zoe asks, turning to look at him. "Aaah!" she gasps, starting despite herself. Regaining her composure, she assumes a serious face. "We'd better find your lost lamb, Preacher, before she does something crazy."

They eventually track River down to the secret compartment in the cargo bay, where she's crouched in a tight ball, nonsense spilling from her lips."They say the snow on the roof is too heavy ... they say the ceiling will cave in ... his brains are in terrible danger ..."

"River ...?" Book says softly. "Please, why don't you come on out?"

"No. Can't." Seen it. Seen you. Samson hasn't been shorn. " Too much hair." Too much power.

* * * * *

Long ago and far away you were sunshine in the making. Sunshine, not shadow. But not every egg hatches and not every bud comes into bloom. For you the darkness came quickly. There was a starburst of pain as sharp metal penetrated tender flesh and thoughts. It ripped and tore you, body and soul, leaving you empty and yet too full. Apple bits that won't stay down. Were you standing still whilst everything around you shifted? Or was it you that moved? Were you too weak to withstand the hurricane? Or simply too strong?

Some of it's real and some of it's made up and all of it's painful. No power in the 'verse can change that. All you can do is bind your wounds up tightly and hang on to what's left.

You know they have their scars too. You don't need to see the marks to believe it. You only have to look into their eyes. And you know they see it in you. Often that makes you uneasy, but sometimes – just sometimes – it brings you hope.

* * * * *

Jayne slings an arm around the whore's shoulders. Girl smells real good and the way she smiles – slow an' lazy – is downright dirty. The mercenary glances across to the table where Kaylee is flutterin' her lashes at the Doc and clenches his teeth. Damn it, but he cares for that girl! She must feel his eyes on her cos she looks over, smiles an' then frowns when she sees the company he's keepin'. Tamade! It ain't like he's betrayin' her. She might hold his dumb old heart in the palm of her hand but she ain't put no down payment on his body yet. Which, to his way of thinkin', means he's more than entitled to get sexed up tonight. 'Course what's sauce for the gander ... He snorts a soft hot puff of air down his nostrils, dismissing the notion as soon as it forms. Kaylee ain't gonna get no play of her own. Simon Tam ain't interested in girl folk. Amazes Jaynes that not a one of the others has grasped the fact yet. An' they all think he's dumb!

Mudder's milk – apart from being liquid bread – may very well contain psychoactive compounds, Simon decides, feeling happier and more relaxed that he has in a very long time. Of course, that could also be due to the very pleasant company. Kaylee is always a joy to be with - and from here he has a clear view of Mal as he talks business with their contract. Simon likes that shirt he's wearing. The colour emphasizes the blue of his eyes and the age-worn softness of it begs to be touched.

Mal looks up and Simon hurriedly averts his gaze, turning back to Kaylee, the warmth of whose smile is enough to melt bones let alone his cool veneer of reserved politeness. "You know ..." Simon muses, as if it's only just occurred to him, "You're pretty." No - not as if – it has only just occurred to him. His attention has been somewhere else entirely. "Pretty."

Kaylee ain't real sure she heard right. "What? What did you say?" An' it's not that she's fishin' for compliments. She jus' thinks she must've drifted off an' missed the point of what Simon was sayin'.

"Nothing." The doctor gives her a fuzzy, affectionate smile. River used to be like this – so accustomed to the bantering insults between brother and sister that saying something nice always took her aback. "Just that you're pretty ... Even when you're covered with engine grease, you're ..." He pauses, considering. "Maybe 'specially when you're covered with engine grease, you're ..."

Mal cuts him off mid-sentence. "It's time we got out of this nuthouse," he announces, leaning over the seat back behind them. Simon smiles, tasting the word still on the tip of his tongue. Pretty.

 

"Got some plannin' to work out," Mal continues, scannin' the bar a mite warily. He can turn Jayne's unexpected celebrity to their advantage but it don't come without risks of its own.

Kaylee is crestfallen. "Now, Captain?!" she wails. "But things are goin' so well."

Not so well Mal can afford to let his guard down. Mobs is volatile. Liable to turn quicker that a fella can draw his gun. "Um. I suppose." Don't wanna frighten her. "Jayne's certainly feelin' better about life." On the other hand ... "But we ..." Why's she lookin' at him like that? Like she'd slap him if he weren't the Captain? He turns to Simon wonderin' if the Doc can furnish him with an explanation but the boy's wearin' a drunken sappy smile. Oh! Dang rahn! He grins broadly. Buddha knows, the girl's a trier. Ain't nothin' like to happen between her an' the Doc. Any fool can see that. It ain't that the boy's frightened of incurrin' his displeasure – wou'n't always be answerin' him back were that the case – no, it's that the two of 'em's from different worlds. Nothin' in common. Which don't stop it bein' all manner of funny watchin' Simon Tam squirm as he tries to deflect Kaylee's advances ever so politely. Mal's grin turns into a smirk. "Oh. Well." He leans on the word like its a secret code between him an' Kaylee. Like they're ge-ge an' mei-mei playin' a game. "Well, I tell you what. Jayne's stuck here with his adorin' masses – how about you an' Simon hang around, keep an eye on him for me?"

Simon. Mal used his name. Not Doc, not 'boy' – Simon. He likes the way he says it. Imagines it in his mouth, full and warm on his tongue, the ends neatly trimmed by a sharp, precise bite of teeth. The doctor raises his glass contentedly and his smiles widens.

* * * * *

Kaylee is having the sweetest of sweet dreams. The kind of dream that makes you smile every time it comes back to you, making the day that follows it brighter – warmer- somehow. She's dreaming that last night she went to a bar and sat talking with Simon. He told her about clever stuff, historical stuff, like he knew she'd be interested. She likes that about him – the way he assumes she's just as smart as him. She knows she ain't, but she likes that he imagines she is. He smiled at her suddenly, all shy like and without any promptin' at all told her she was pretty. Ha! She knew Jayne was wrong about him. Simon ain't sly – he's jus' educated an' appropriate. She inched closer and somehow she was leaning against him and his arm was round her shoulders. The silk of his vest is cool under her cheek as she lays it on his chest. She can hear his heart beating into her ear. Did they kiss? They must have but she can't remember. It don't matter none. They're curled up together on the brink of a great adventure. On the brink of fallin' in love.

Simon is dreaming too but his dream is a bitter-sweet one. Sweet because it's rich with fantasies come true but bitter because, even in sleep, he knows it can't be real. There's no way Mal would have taken him to a bar and sat talking with him like they were friends. And it's simply not possible that Mal would have taken his hand and remarked on its softness. No more than it's possible that Mal would have thought Simon pretty and said so out loud. No – it's just a silly dream. Wishful thinking. Mal couldn't possibly have looked him up and down as though he were naked. And there's no way he'd be standing over him, staring at him with such heat it raised goosebumps ...

Meanwhile Mal is havin' a gorram ruttin' nightmare. 'Cept he ain't, cos he's stone cold awake in a crappy bar in a crappy town on one of the crappiest rocks in the 'verse. And Kaylee is lyin' in Simon's arms. Despite his express orders to the contrary – which he's pretty damn certain were clear enough for even folks not in the top three per cent of their class to comprehend – they seem to have embarked on a relationship. His mechanic and his medic. Kaylee and Simon. The realization he's grindin' his teeth comes as a surprise even though he knows why he's doin' it. Mal's felt his throat contract like this and his stomach sink like he's swallowed lead before. It's the certainty that he's too late that does it. The knowing he's lost something precious. It don't feel no better this time round.

He's not laughin' this mornin'. Nor smirkin'. There's nothin' funny about this and no cause for feelin' superior. Things have changed when all he wanted was for them to stay the same. The same he can deal with. And if he don't actively like it, at least it's familiar. The 'verse is full enough of unpleasant surprises at it is, without his crew addin' to them. He took Simon an' River in – no, River and Simon in – because they were fleein' the Alliance. They were victims, bein' hunted down an' in need of protection. Now Simon has shape-shifted into ship's medic and an irritatin', smart-mouthed one at that. His sister – well, Mal has an eerie feelin' she knows him like no-one ever has. Girl's turned into a ruttin' sybil. Just as well she speaks in riddles. Only wishes he wa'n't startin' to understand 'em.

And now there's this. Simon an' Kaylee. These people belong to him, not each other. They're on his crew, essential parts of a whole. They can't go off and form a team of their own. He won't let them. He stares down at them, angry now. Another gorram complication to deal with.

Kaylee stirs under the weight of his disapproval and the rhythm of her breathing changes. Her eyes flutter open and meet his. She smiles dreamily up at him, so pleased to see him he could almost forgive her betrayal. "Hiya, Captain..." She's sinking back down into contented unconsciousness but some part of her brain must be piecing events together, because suddenly her eyes snap open again and she looks aghast. Guilty. "Captain!"

Kaylee's hand pushing into his breast bone as she raises herself into a sitting position awakens the doctor. His head is throbbing and his mouth tastes sour. "Wha'..?" he croaks. "Kay...?" Kaylee? What the ...? The warm comfort of his dream recedes rapidly as his eyes start to focus. He looks up and blinks. Then blinks again. Because Mal's still there. Still looking down at him with the same fiery intensity. "Mal!" Oh shit, he used his name, not his rank. Simon is always so careful to say 'Captain'. "Mal..." Great, he's done it again! "I, uh ..."

Boy's awful flustered for someone who's done nothin' more than drink too much an' fall asleep in a bar, Mal thinks to himself. Never called me by my name before. Wonder what brought that on? Must be hopin' to convince me we're friends an' that, even if he has humped my mechanic, everythin' between us is peachy.

Well, it ain't.

Mal hasn't broken eye contact once but his expression is unreadable. Simon decides to play safe and assume he's mad. He casts a sideways glance at Kaylee whose unease is palpable, meaning it's up to him to clear up any possible misunderstanding. "Captain.." Good, he remembered - Captain, not Mal. "Nothing happened. There was some drinking but ..." Why the diyu doesn't Mal say something - do something – other than keep looking at him like that. "We certainly didn't ..."

Didn't what, son? Better not have. Possessiveness grabs at Mal's gut and gives it a big old twist. Better not have touched Kaylee in any wrong way. Even the notion of it makes him jealous. Or does he mean envious? Always did mix those two words up.

Simon's voice has taken on a pleading quality. "I mean, I would never – not with Kaylee."

Never? Or never with Kaylee? Speak plain, boy!

"I... I assure you, nothing inappropriate took place."

He's spoken plain enough for Kaylee. Spoken downright ugly. She bristles at the slight. "What do you mean, not with me?" She plants her hands down on her hips and looks like she might spit in his face.

Somehow Mal manages not to laugh as the tension eases slowly out of him. "Uh-huh." He feigns disinterest. "Where's my hero?"

Right on cue, Jayne appears. A word from Mal convinces him that taking his leave of the whore in his arms in order to go play the hero is exactly what he was plannin' to do his own self and he heads resolutely for the exist with Kaylee and Mal in tow. Simon starts to follow but Kaylee rounds on him. "Where you goin'?" she demands.

"With you ...?" Hesitancy turns stating the obvious into a question.

Her mouth is tight and her eyes hard. "I don't think so." Behind her Mal rolls his eyes and Jayne sneers. "No, maybe you oughta stay here. It's about time for a civilized person to have his breakfast. That's the sorta thing would be appropriate, don't you think?"

Simon's appeal for Mal to over-rule his mechanic dies on his lips as the Captain shrugs. Truth is, boy'd be safer out of the way. And now he knows for certain nothin' happened, with Kaylee Mal wants Simon safe.

"Mal?" There's that use of his name again. Almost makes him weaken. But not quite. No more than allowin' himself to imagine all the ways Simon Tam might say his name does. How he might laugh it or sigh it. Zao cao! Now who's thinkin' about ignorin' his policy against shipboard romances? An' with a boy who'd like as not bust somethin' at the thought of ruttin' with another man! This is all Zoe's fault. The idea wou'n't even have crossed him mind if she hadn't put it there with her 'He remind you of anyone?'

"Guys?" Simon makes a last desperate appeal for inclusion in the group.

Mal turns, feelin' a mite sorry for the boy an' his near miraculous ability for alienatin' folk even as kind-spirited as Kaylee. "See you back on the ship, Doc."

* * * * *

"Far as I see it," Jayne is saying, "You people have been given the shortest end of the stick ever offered a human soul in this crap-heel 'verse." He pauses as much to let the truth of that sink into his own mind as his audience's. "But, you know, you took that end. And you, you know ..." How is them acceptin' their sorry lot a good thing? He looks down at the expectant faces an' realizes he can't criticize 'em. They need him to say somethin' to make it right. "Well, you took it." His tone firms up, conveying a confidence he don't rightly feel. "And that's ... I guess that's somethin'."

"Wow! That di'n't sound half bad!" Kaylee exclaims to Mal.

He agrees. Jayne the orator! Who'd've thought it? "I'm shocked my own self."

Jayne is mighty pleased at the way the crowd bursts into a round of applause. He enjoys admiration an' respect as much as the next man. Maybe more, seein' as how he don't get much of either as a general rule. Unless, of course, he's got a gun in someone's face. He beams down at the mudders, fit to burst with pride.

Suddenly a shot rings out and the crowd parts. The shooter appears – a grisly lookin' individual with one eye, a scraggy beard an' wild hair – draggin' Simon along by the scruff of his neck. Kaylee gasps and Mal's heart stops as the half-conscious medic is flung to the ground. He's bleeding from a wound on his arm and there's the mark of yet another punch on his cheekbone. But worse than that – he has a gun trained on him.

Jayne is staring at the gunman like he's seen a ghost. "Stitch Hessian ..."

"Hey there Jayne," the other replies with a sneer. "Thought I'd make ya watch while I butcher me one o' your boys."

Everythin' depends on Jayne now. Not a situation Mal ever likes findin' himself in. But the big man steps up to the plate and makes like he don't care. "He ain't a one of mine," he declares flatly. Then again, could be he's convincin' cos he really don't care. Mal starts doin' some rapid calculations. How many steps to get into position? How fast can he draw his gun?

 

Whilst Jayne and Stitch Hessian prowl around each other trading insults, Kaylee stoops down to help Simon to his feet, her earlier indignation totally forgotten. Out of the corner of his eye, Mal sees the tender way she scoops him up, the gratitude in his eyes. Maybe they do have a connection after all. Perhaps they could make it work. If'n he needs anyone at all, the boy needs someone gentle ... an', well ... No. He ain't even gonna think on it no more.

"So what's this 'bout the hero of Canton?" Hessian scoffs. "Was I hearin' that right? Four years' lock-down can play tricks on the ears..."

The game's up an' Jayne knows it. He ain't the man these people think he is. "Ain't no hero, Stitch. Just a workin' stiff like yourself ..."

Hessian bursts into a cackle of bitter laughter and starts relating how Jayne done him wrong. Mal hopes he's so absorbed by his need for revenge he won't notice ... Wrong! Finds himself lookin' down the barrel of a gun.

"Now you let ol' Stitch say his piece."

Mal raises his hands and backs off. "Well, go on then."

And he does. Lays into Jayne's character, lashing him with his tongue. Most of the mudders fall silent, not knowing what to think, but one keeps arguing, defending the Hero of Canton. It's all too much for Jayne. "You gonna talk me to death, buddy? That the plan?"

Hessian sneers and takes aim. "This is the plan." His finger squeezes the trigger an' it looks certain Jayne's on his way to his own special hell when a body flies through the air in front of him. Meadows, his great defender, is dead before he hits the ground.

It's instinct now that makes Jayne hurl his knife with such force an' accuracy into Hessian's chest. It don't kill him but does slow him down some. Takes a lot of batterin' his skull off the foot of the statue to finish him off.

Without so much as a backward glance at his former partner, Jayne stumbles towards Meadows.

"Get up, you stupid piece a ... Get up!" He shakes the inert body like he could shake some sense into it. Mal knows the kinda anguish he's goin' through. Been through it his own self. "What'd you do that for? What's wrong with you? Di'n't you hear a word he said? I'm a mean, dumb sumbitch!" Jayne's anger deserts him as pain and shame flood in to replace it. "You don't take no bullet for a dumb sumbitch – you dumb sumbitch!" An anxious murmur reminds him there wa'n't jus' one yu ben de mudder – there's scores of 'em. "All of you!" he yells. "You think someone's jus' gonna drop money on ya? Money they could use? There ain't people like that!" His body sags a little under the humiliating truth. "There's jus' people like me."

* * * * *

Back on Serenity, Jayne's still honin' his blade an' starin' into space the second time Mal passes by. If'n Mal di'n't know him better he'd think the big man was about to burst into tears. He ascends the stairs and leans on the railing next to him. He wants to talk 'bout this, he will. If not – well, talkin' won't changed what happened anyhow.

A few long minutes pass in silence before Jayne finally speaks. "Don't make no sense." He's confused, angry and wretched. "Why the hell'd that mudder go an' do that, Mal? Jumpin' in fronta that shotgun blast? Weren't a one of them understood what happened out there – hell, they're probably stickin' that statue right back up."

Mal stares bleakly ahead too. Remembering. "Most like," he agrees.

"Don't know why that eats at me so ..." Guilt, responsibility – they're powerful new emotions to Jayne an' they're hittin' him hard.

Mal'd like to tell him they get easier to deal with over time but he'd be lyin'. "It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kinda sumbitch or another." He takes a deep breath to steady himself and quell the memories. "Ain't about you, Jayne. 'Bout what they need."

Jayne frowns with the effort of tryin' to understand Mal's words but he jus' can't do it. "Don't make no sense," he repeats in miserable defeat.

* * * * *

Nine years ago

Mal was pacing back and forth outside the hospital tent when Zoe passed by on her way back to her own quarters. She stepped in front of him, arms folded and blocking his way, forcing him to stand still for a moment.

"He'll be OK, Sir," she said, briefly resting her hand on his arm. "You got him back before he lost too much blood. He'll be OK."

Mal stared at her, his eyes bleaker than she'd ever seen them. Puffy, almost. "Doc says he won't be able to handle a rifle for a long while. Maybe not never again."

Zoe nodded. She'd thought as much. "Least that means he'll get sent back from the front," she offered by way of consolation. "Probably just as well."

Mal chewed the inside of his cheek and stared at the canvas tent wall. "Why the hell'd he go an' do that, Zoe? Why'd he go out there? Don't make no sense."

"You really got no idea?" she asked, amazed. Sometimes Mal could be indescribably dim.

"No."

"Because he fell in love, Sir," she said simply. Then added, with a feeble grin, "With you – if you were goin' to ask."

Mal rocked back on his heels like a shell had exploded in front of him. For a moment he couldn't think at all, let alone gorram straight, and then his mind started filling up with all the reasons Zoe had to be wrong – they were only foolin' around; they were friends; they were both men for God's sake; it was jus' a distraction from the gorram war; it was only sex – but he knew, deep down, that she was right. How the diyu ha'n't he seen it before? Tamade, what kind of an unfeelin' hun dan was he? "Shit," he whispered and then asked again, "Why the hell'd he go an' do that? I thought ... I thought he understood ..." He looked down and saw his hands were clutching at the empty air. "I never said nothin' about ..."

Zoe sighed. "Perhaps it wa'n't about you, Sir," she suggested. "Well, not just about you. Some people got a need to love. 's'more about them than the folk they fall in love with. Maybe he needed to love you.."

Looking back at the tent again in total bewilderment, Mal shook his head. "Don't make no sense..."

* * * * *

Gorram pep talk di'n't do Mal no more good than it did Jayne. It's left him feelin' dog-tired an' cravin' his bunk, but the light's still on in the infirmary an' he won't get no rest till he knows everthin's taken care of.

Zoe is neatly tying off a final suture on Simon's arm as Mal enters. He scrutinizes the patient's face and wishes to diyu it wa'n't always gettin' battered. "Best put a coupla those plastic doodads on this cut too," he advises, pointing to Simon's cheek.

Simon shakes his head. "It's not necessary, Captain." He gets to his feet as if to prove the point. "There's no risk of infection and I'd rather not waste our scant medical supplies on trivial injuries. There's no need - ."

Mal cuts him off with a glare and pushes him firmly back down onto the exam table. "Well, I say there is." Damn – it's the tiredness that makes him over-react. His tones softens. "Don't wanna be uglifyin' that pretty face ..." Simon is no longer resisting but Mal seems to have forgotten to remove his hand from the medic's shoulder.

Zoe coughs and raises an eyebrow.

"Never know when we might have to trade you in," Mal adds with a sudden wicked grin as he hastily withdraws his hand. "Don't wanna be barterin' with damaged goods."

A month or two back, Mal's words would have scared Simon, but not now. "Well, I certainly wouldn't want to lose any of my market value," he smiles, allowing Zoe to apply the stitches. When she's finished, he thanks her sincerely and retires to his bunk.

Mal watches him go without a word. Zoe's seen that expression – pensive, wistful – before and knows beyond any doubt that Wash has been right all along.

"Ain't none of my business, Sir," she says quietly. "Jus' don't think it'd be a good idea." Even with his supposedly enormous brain, Simon Tam ain't equipped for this job, Sir. Case like yours needs a professional. Someone who's probably seen a whole lot worse. Someone who knows how to remain emotionally detached. Someone like Inara Serra.

"What? What wou'n't be a good idea?"

"You an' him, Sir."

"What?!"

"Maybe I spoke out of turn, Sir."

"Per maybe haps you did, I'm thinkin'."

"Then I apologize."

"Good." But she's still got that look on her face. "What?"

"He's a good doctor, Sir. A very good doctor. Our line of work, that comes in mighty handy. You ... well, could end badly ..." She falls silent, not needing to spell it out. The sorrow behind her eyes says more'n enough.

Ain't a day goes by Mal don't regret what happened between the two of them. He loves Zoe more than anthin' – would never've ... an' yet, he did. Don't understand the why of it, but he remembers it like it happened yesterday ...

She was little more than a kid... took her anyway ... She moved closer and lay her hand on his chest ... her lips on his ... breasts an' slender thighs ... then his hand was on the back of her head, pullin' her down onto his mouth. Teeth, lips and tongues fit together like they'd been made for each other. Every connection felt right .... Mal felt the room spin an' himself with it. It was like he was divin' into a boiling sea ... he felt his teeth sink into skin .... Zoe arched into it, a soft whimper escapin' her lips ... She sobbed ... pleaded ... Damn well let them win, the stupid bitch! ...He holds her down ...the whimperin' ... needed to make it stop. Make her stop. He brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her ... His head throbbed an' the room felt unbearably hot ... It was Zoe he had pinned down ... Sweat trickled down his forehead and dripped from his brow... Hurry up ... get it over with ... His gut twisted like somethin' savage was trying to claw it's way out of him. Somethin' savage and ugly that he couldn't fight. Or perhaps it was something he di'n't want to fight. Because it was him. The Real Him ... He knows what lives in the heart of men. Has to live with the knowing. Find a way somehow to bear it.

They say a symptom of madness is doin' the same thing and expectin' different results. If that's so, Mal must be real sane. Cos he expects the pattern to repeat itself over an' over an' over again. Which is why he keeps himself to himself. Can't risk it. Better to be a mean old man an' push folk away rather than end up hurtin' people he cares for. Which is why he ain't acted on his attraction to Inara before now. An' why he won't act on these feelin's for Simon. He sighs. "Ain't gonna end badly, Zoe. Ain't even gonna start."

Chapter Text

A man can be held accountable for his actions but not his dreams, Mal reminds the accusing face that stares back at him from the mirror. He splashes his face with cold water even though there ain't enough water in the 'verse to wash his mind clean of these images. He swills his mouth out and spits into the little sink, almost angry. He ain't to blame for what his mind is drawn to durin' sleep. It ain't nowhere he'd willingly go.

A glance at the clock tells him it's early, but too late to go back to sleep so he decides to get breakfast now. Least that way he won't have to sit down with Inara. Or Simon. Which, considerin' what his subconscious has had him doin' to them, will be a real blessin'. Don't know why he has to keep dreamin' such things ...

He ain't right, that much is certain. There's somethin' broke deep down inside him an' he can't fix it.

* * * * *

Scratching the back of his head, Jayne grunts and start counting once again, moving the pile of banknotes on his left, bill by bill, to form a new pile on his right. When he's finished he glares at the new stack like it's pulled some fancy scam on him. "Gorramit!" he spits, "Kaylee – what d'ya make fifteen hundred divided by five?"

"Three hundred," Kaylee replies, crumbling dried protein into a pan of meat stock of some unspecified variety.

"Tha's what I reckoned!" Jayne slaps a hand down hard on the dining room table. "That hundan Mal's cheated me!"

Kaylee frowns. "Cap'n wou'n't do that, Jayne. You mus' be countin' wrong."

The mercenary snatches up the wad of notes in his fist and shakes it angrily. "There's only two-fifty here. Thought Bernoulli agreed thirty-five hundred platinum for the Higgins' Moon job? Mal took twenty for the ship, that leaves fifteen. Split five ways tha's ..."

The penny drops and Kaylee laughs. "There's your problem, right there! You shoulda been dividin' by six, not five. Cap'n cut Simon a share."

"What?!" Jayne splutters indignantly. "Why the diyu he wanna do a thing like that? Doc di'n't help none. Jus' nearly got his self killed." He pauses, reflecting. "Now – he'da succeeded, that mighta been worth a share. Hell, I'da given him mine!"

"That ain't funny, Jayne," Kaylee scolds. "Anyhow – it was your fault Stitch Hessian was in a killin' mood, not Simon's."

It's damn well true an' Jayne knows it. Don't make him no happier about the notion of losing percentage to that yu ben de pigu Simon Tam though. Plain fact is, Kaylee defendin' him makes Jayne hate the Doc even more. The big man stands up, knocking his chair to the floor. "I'll be in my bunk," he growls, aiming a vicious kick at it as he leaves.

* * * * *

The Director's face is grim, the lines around his mouth deeper than ever and his skin a whitish grey. "Time to bait the hook, gentleman," he announces firmly. "And not with some stinking maggot either. If you want to catch big fish, you've got to use an appetizing lure. Would someone like to suggest a number?"

"Fifty thousand credits," Gaunt offers reluctantly.

"Credits will only attract upstanding citizens, and I think we've established that wherever Dr Tam may be hiding his sister, it's unlikely to be amongst the law-abiding."

"Fifty thousand platinum," Ginger says immediately, understanding only part of the Director's point.

"Think of it like an auction, gentlemen. Bid like you plan to win your chosen lot."

"Two hundred and fifty thousand platinum."

"Now that is more like it."

"If she's been activated, she won't be worth that much to us."

"On the contrary. Activated, she could be a bigger threat than any of us imagine. Certainly too dangerous to leave at large. Can you imagine what that girl would be capable of with a gun in her hand?"

 

* * * * *

"Could maybe try via Prospero an' ...." Mal squints at the Cortex scene over Wash's shoulder, wonderin' if he might be in need of glasses for readin' these days. Makes him feel real old. "An' - uh – Augustus?"

"Mmm," Wash's agreement is plainly not whole-hearted. "Certainly got the benefits of bein' a circuitous route to Greenleaf. But I thought you wanted to avoid Alliance patrols?"

"I most surely do," Mal says emphatically. Gettin' landlocked on Higgins' Moon means Serenity's details will've been automatically passed onto the Feds. Best they fly under the radar for a spell. "But they ain't got no patrols on Prospero. Hell, they ain't got no nothin' on Prospero. What kind of a sick joker gives a barren rock a name like that?"

"Guess they thought it was ironic," Wash shrugs. "Meanwhile, on Augustus they've got themselves a whole battalion of Feds now. Look – came up on the bulletin this morning." He presses a button and another screen lights up. Mal leans in closer to get a better look.

Jayne appears at the top of the stairs. "I ain't happy Mal," he declares, stomping over to the consul. "We never discussed cuttin' the Doc in on that Higgins' Moon job."

Mal straightens up and steps in a little too close to the mercenary for comfort and Jayne backs off as if by reflex. "Di'n't discuss it Jayne, cos this here's my boat, dong ma?"

The big man tries to stare him down but in a few seconds he's lookin' away, grumblin' under his breath. Mal returns his attention to the screen. "A gorram uprisin'? Damn fools. Whoa – wha's this?" he says suddenly as a familiar face fills the screen. Despite himself, Jayne looks up and sees the pale face of Simon Tam lookin' back at him. That panty-waist idjit's hauntin' him!

"New arrest warrant," Wash informs them. He whistles softly. "Wow! Looks like the bounty on our doctor's gone up some."

"How much?" His interest piqued, Jayne cranes his neck to read the figure pasted across the bottom of the screen.

"Not enough." Mal flicks the screen off quickly. "You got nothin' to do, Jayne? Cos that septic vat ..." Jayne absents himself from the bridge remarkably quickly for a man of his size.

Wash consults his calendar. Out in the Black, one day's pretty much like another when you're not being shot at or swindled or hunted by the law. Aha! Just as he thought. "Twenty-fifth's today, Mal."

"So?"

"It's the Doc's birthday. He's twenty-seven. Today."

Mal feels his skin prickle uncomfortably. "An' I'd be interested in that because ...?"

Wash puts on his most serious face. "I'm sure Kaylee would like to make him a cake. Have a bit of a party. Maybe some dancin' – some kissin'..." His eyes twinkle.

"No!" Mal says, too fast. "No party," he amends more calmly. "We ain't on shore leave."

"Kewu de lao baojun," Wash mutters and returns to his course-plotting.

"All right, all right," Mal relents. "The boy can have a cake. But I ain't dancin'." Danced with him before. Held him in his arms. Tianna! – the way he moved ... Di'n't even appreciate it at the time an' might appreciate too much were it to happen again. "You keep workin' on that. I'd better go ... captain."

* * * * *

Back in his bunk Jayne takes Binky down from the wall an' starts polishin' but he ain't really lookin' at the knife. No, what keeps flashin' before his eyes is that mighty big number. Two hundred and fifty thousand platinum. Now that's what he calls interestin'!

* * * * * *

Gales of laughter sweep through the mess. Simon's sides hurt from laughing so much. Whoever would have thought Shepherd Book such an amusing raconteur? Or that he would tell such risque stories? Simon decides this really is a very pleasant way to be spending his birthday evening, all things considered. Kaylee starts clearing the table and, ever the gentleman, he rises to assist. "Let me help you with that ..."

"Not a bit," she says firmly but with a smile. "In fact – it's your turn."

He looks puzzled. "My turn?" The others are grinning at him expectantly.

"Shepherd told us a funny story 'bout bein' a preacher," Kaylee explains. "Now you tell us a funny story 'bout bein' a doctor."

A multitude of images spring to Simon's mind, ranging from the excruciatingly embarrassing to the downright unrepeatable. "Funny story ..." He has so many he could tell them. This will be fun ...

"Yeah, cos sick people are hi-larious," Jayne sneers, picking his teeth with a knife. Barbarian!

"Well they can be ..."

Simon laughs, remembering. Mal watches in fascination as a little of the doctor's starch dissolves, confidence replacing his usual diffidence. He wonders what the boy was like back on Osiris in his white coat an' at the top of his profession. Gets a flash of someone to be reckoned with, someone in charge. "There was this one I was working in the E.R and this fellow, very upright ..." His soft hands move expressively, almost passionately and the next flash Mal gets is of a different kind entirely.

But all that is promptly swept aside by Jayne. "Now Inara – she's gotta have some funny whorin' stories, I'd wager."

Something cold settles in the pit of Mal's stomach. Whorin'. Nothin' in the 'verse will ever make that right in his eyes.

The Companion is serene. She chuckles, throaty and low. Kinda sound to make a man all manner of sweaty. "Oh, do I ever! Funny and sexy! You have no idea." Then, unexpectedly coldly, she adds, "And you never will. I don't discuss my clients."

"Aww, come on, Inara," Jayne whines. "Who'd know?"

"You," she answers flatly. "Anyway, a Companion doesn't kiss and tell."

Mal can't resist the temptation to tease her. "So, there is kissin'?"

Reluctantly she acknowledges he's scored a point and smiles. Mal smiles back. It's so rare, this comfortable feelin' between them. He's tempted to touch her, but instead takes a sip of wine from his glass. Lust's a deadly sin, he reminds himself. Kinda sin you burn for. Greed too. An' what's wantin' not one but two of his crew if not greed? How long before he wants 'em all, at this rate? Or maybe it's the denial, the build-up of hunger? How long can he pretend it's not there?

Zoe's voice breaks his train of thought. "Hey, Doc. I think our Kaylee could use your help after all."

Simon turns and his mouth falls open at the sight. A cake. Candles. "Care to make the first incision, Doctor Tam?" Kaylee asks, grinning from ear to ear.

All around him people are wishing Simon happy birthday. How did they know? "Well ... this is ..."

So cute like this. Speechless, slightly breathless. All fumblin' an' pleased an' grateful.

"How did you know? River – did you ..?"

River denies it, her defence an odd mixture of sisterly defiance and astrophysics.

"It was me ratted you out," Wash admits without a hint of regret.

"Seems a fresh warrant for your arrest came up on the Cortex. Had your birth date attached right to it," Mal continues, looking really pleased with himself. He treats Simon to a warm smile, a gift in itself. Mal has the most beautiful smile when he means it. His eyes go soft and dark and his mouth ... Simon tries hard not to think about his mouth. He wonders if he's blushing. Despite the anxiety caused by being reminded of his status as a wanted fugitive, he's ridiculously happy to think Mal may have been talking about him without necessarily putting the words jingchang meiyong de before his name. And he must have sanctioned the cake-making ...

When Simon first set eyes on Mal, all those months ago, striding up the cargo bay ramp, he never imagined he'd keep wanting to hug him. The way Mal looked at him back then – well, Simon thought they were destined to hate one another and was thankful the trip to Boros would be measured in days rather than weeks. The fact that within hours Mal had punched him in the face not once but twice seemed to confirm his expectation. And yet it started this fire too.

Kaylee holds the cake out in front of him. "Come on, Doc. Give a good blow."

Simon is extremely glad he isn't making eye contact with Mal at this precise moment. Because sometimes, in his weaker moments, when the boredom or despair get too much for him, Simon allows himself to imagine what he might do with Mal if he were free to lead his own life. Which he's not. If the Captain were interested. Which he's not. But Simon still daydreams. He lets himself wonder what kind of lover Mal would be. In daily life he's uncompromisin, demanding and yet – how does Shepherd Book put it? - 'extraordinarily protective'. Extrapolating from those characteristics, 'overwhelming' is the conclusion Simon reaches most often.

Perhaps that's just wishful thinking because Simon would quite like to be overwhelmed. He'd like all the pain and frustration he feels at what's been done to River and his inability to put it right, all the terror he feels every time he sees a man in uniform, to be blotted out – if only for a short while. He'd like to be wholly in the here and now, not constantly worrying about the future or pining for the past. So, yes - 'overwhelming' would certainly be his preferred option.

On the other hand with Inara – to whom Simon knows he's attracted - Mal's very hesitant, unsure. Over and over again, Simon has seen him retreat from situations where their relationship might have progressed. Could it be he's shy when it comes to intimacy? Would Simon have to seduce him? He smiles to himself at the very idea of it, even as a warm wave of tenderness washes over him.

Shy would be good too.... He would hold him close, turn out the lights...

The kitchen lights flicker and dim and a visceral, metallic moan of pain rather than pleasure grinds through the ship.

"What the hell was that?" Jayne asks, alarm written all over his face.

People start jumping up from the table, the easy content of just minutes before giving way to worry.

"Fire," River answers, eyes fixed on the birthday cake.

At first Simon doesn't understand, thinks she means the candles. "Right. Okay, okay."

The last thing Mal sees before heaven becomes hell is Simon puckerin' up his lips, gettin' ready to blow out the flames. It only fans them higher and now everyone's gonna burn.

It's like thunder and lightenin' multiplied a hundred-fold. Noise and light rip through Serenity like weapons. Kaylee is right in their path. Acting on instinct sharpened on the battlefields of New Kasmir, DuKhang and Serenity Valley, Zoe hurls herself into the mechanic, knocking her to safety but taking the full force of the explosion herself. It flings her hard into a wall. She slides down and into consciousness.

"Zoe!" Wash is in agony. "Zoe," he pleads, "Honey, talk to me ... You gotta talk to me, baby..."

"Seal off everything that leads below decks. Do it now!" Mal's mind is racin', his thoughts scrabblin' over one another in a jumble of imperatives. Find out what's caused this an' fix it. See to Zoe. Keep everyone calm. Keep them safe. Keep flyin'.

For some reason his eyes meet Book's. They're deep an' solemn an' Mal fancies he sees judgment in them, as though the Shepherd can see into the darkness within him. Read his selfishness and the black thoughts he harbours. The dark fantasies he has about Inara. About Simon. Bless me, father, for I have sinned. In thought, an' word an' deed. Especially in thought. I'm a bad man, an' there ain't no fixin' it. Probably deserve to burn. But not my crew. Please – not them!

* * * * *

The sight of Kaylee hunched miserably over that gorram treacherous engine part could rip Mal's heart out if he let it. Would be a simple thing to lie down and wait for eternity to take them. But he ain't ready to give up yet and he can't let Kaylee give up neither. "Kaylee, what are you doin'?"

"I'm sorry, Cap'n. I'm real sorry. I shoulda taken better care of her. Usually she lets me know when somethin's wrong. Maybe she did, an' I wa'n't payin' attention." She turns desolate eyes on him, seekin' forgiveness.

How can he be mad at her? When he knows the comfort in ignorin' the warnin's that's somethin's wrong? "I cannot be havin' this from you right now." Nor me, neither. "We got work to do, dong ma?"

"Catalyzer's broke," Kaylee tries to explain. "Gonna need a new one."

"There is no new one. You gotta make do with what you got." Everybody gotta do that. Cope with all the fei hua as best they can.

"It's broke," Kaylee repeats, defeated.

"Come on." He takes her hand. "This the part? Well that don't hardly seem nothin' at all." Amazin' what nothin' can do to a man. "Where does it go?"

"Here." She points to a gap in the engine, its edges dark and charred. "But it won't fit."

Mal stares at the hole, then the part. "Then you gotta figure a way to make it fit," he says grimly. Same way he gotta make himself fit, broken and damaged though he is.

Kaylee shakes her head sadly. "Tried. Sometimes a thing gets broke – can't be fixed."

He don't wanna hear this. Don't want his own fears spoke out loud. He needs someone to reassure him everythin' will work out in the end. "Engine don't turn without this? Engine don't turn, life support won't function, we won't breathe. You wanna keep breathin', don't ya?"

Kaylee nods.

"So do I," he replies, meanin' it. His hearts already beatin' faster than usual, compensatin' for the fallin' oxygen levels. Mal might yearn for rest, for escape, but his body will resist to the last. That's gotta mean somethin', right?

* * * * *

They're all wrapped up, fighting back against the advancing cold, breath hanging in the air around them. Mal is cold, beyond cold. He folds his arms across his chest, tucking his hands into his armpits. Across the room, Simon mirrors the movement. Cold now, the heat at bay.

"Truth is ..." Mal says and pats an overhead pipe affectionately, "Ain't got a lot of options at this juncture. So, instead of lookin' at what we don't got, time to talk about what it is we do. An' what we got are two shuttles. Short-range. Won't go far. But they each got heat. An' they each got air. Last longer than what's left on Serenity."

"Long enough to reach someplace?" Simon asks, aiming with laser accuracy at the flaw in Mal's plan.

"No."

"So," Book presses, "Where will we go, then?"

"Far as you can get. We send both shuttles off in exact opposite directions. Betters the chance of somebody bein' seen - maybe getting' picked up. Shepherd Book, Kaylee an' Jayne'll ride with Inara in her shuttle. Doc – you an' your sister will go with Wash an' Zoe ... seein' as how Zoe still needs some doctorin'."

"What about you?" Kaylee asks the question Simon wants answered. Who will he choose to die with? What will that choice mean?

"Four people to a shuttle. Four. That's the arrangement. Evens the odds." He gives his crew a stern don't-argue-with-me look. "I'm stayin' with Serenity."

Inappropriately, Simon feels grateful. Inappropriately - because what does it matter at this stage? They're all going to die. But at least Mal hasn't chosen someone else to spend his last hours in this 'verse with. And, Buddha be praised! - he hasn't chosen to spend them with Simon either. It may be shallow of him but the medic's glad Mal won't be there to see him fall apart, see how weak he is. And - oh God – and he's so very grateful he won't have to watch Mal die.

He swallows and nods. Mal needs to hold onto this – the idea that he's done the very best for his crew. Simon reaches for River's hand and leads her towards the spare shuttle.

* * * * *

Take a deep breath, Inara tells herself before the irony of the instruction hits her. She pastes on a smile to hide her irritation. Even now, when neither of them has anything to lose, Mal is still being evasive. He really is the most annoying, the most exasperating ...

"Keep everythin' set as low as possible," he advises, fiddlin' redundantly with the shuttle controls an wishin' he'd heeded his own counsel years back. "Don't waste what you got."

Frustrated, Inara pushes him out of the way. "Let me do that," she snaps. Let me do something, Mal, please."You never could operate this thing." Because you were too afraid to try.

He steps back and lets her set the controls. For a moment they gaze wordlessly at each other. No, it's more like they have too many words and if they started they wouldn't know where to stop. Inara doesn't care about being able to stop anymore. She opens her mouth to tell him that -

"And try not to talk. Talkin' uses up air. There ain't no need for it."

"Mal ..." Useless to debate with a man who won't argue back. "Come with us."

"Can't. Four to a shuttle, Inara. Four."

"One more person? You know it can't make a difference. Not now."

But Mal don't agree. One more person makes it even more complicated, even more impossible. He can't give into the wantin'. Not now. Not never.

"I'm not leavin' Serenity," he says firmly. He craves serenity. Mayhaps death won't be so bad after all. Might be like fallin' asleep. Or drownin'.

Inara feels him slipping away. "Mal..." She offers him the only lifeline she has. "You don't have to die alone."

He stares at her and briefly considers taking her hand before deciding against it. No need to drag her down with him. "Everybody dies alone."

* * * * *

"When your miracle gets here, you just pound this button once. It'll call back both shuttles."

After their bitter words up on the bridge earlier, Wash's last minute gesture of reconciliation touches Mal. "Go see to your wife," he answers, returning the gesture with the acknowledgment that that is what Zoe is – Wash's wife.

Jayne approaches. "I went ahead and closed off all below deck vents," he says. "Diverted what there is to the bridge. It ain't much. So my advice, seal off everything tight behind you when you go back up. Might buy you some time."

Seal off everything tight. Mal nods. Seems like everybody's full of good advice today. Only he's been doin' that for years. An' if he had kept better care of those seals – stopped 'em from workin' lose - might be they wouldn't be in this here predicament. Things might've gone smooth ....

From his solitary position down in the cargo bay, Mal gazes up at the catwalk above and watches his people leave. Stays there, listenin' for the shuttle engines to fire and the docking equipment to disengage. The noise builds to a peak and abruptly stops.

They've gone.

The walk to the bridge is a long one but Mal remembers to close each door behind him. He shuts the door to the infirmary and tries to let go of the ache for Simon. He secures the door to the aftdeck and says a silent goodbye to Inara. Fastening the kitchen door, he admits his dreams of havin' a family, a home, will never be. And when he enters the bridge and punches the autolock, he finally relinquishes Zoe to her husband.

Alone at last, the chill air around him enters his bones. He reaches for the old army blanket he could never bring himself to throw away and wraps it tightly around him.

A million million stars twinkle through the viewports. He scans the Black automatically out of habit. So much to see and yet so little. And none of it means a damn thing. He settles down in the pilot's chair and waits to cross the bar.

* * * * *

Never expected that ship to loom into view. Unsettlin' – that's what it was. The havin' it all start up again jus' when he thought it was endin'. Like there's unfinished business he still has to deal with.

Sweetest breath of air he ever took when the door opened and fresh, clean oxygen filled the cargo bay. Filled him with hope only to have it dashed by the sight of so many guns, all pointin' his way. Life an' death were only toyin' with him, battin' him back an' forth like so much fei hua. Don't matter none which of 'em wins.

But in the split second before the pirate captain fires his gun, Mal suddenly sees everything differently. He don't wanna go silently into the night, he wants to rage. Rage against every injustice in the whole gorram 'verse! Don't wanna sleep now, nor never. He wants complicated. He wants not-smooth. He wants life, gorramit!

And then the bullet leaves the barrel and knocks him off his feet whilst Death leans back against a crate an' licks its lips.

"Billy, get this plugged in," the other ship's captain is saying. "Jesse, call Stern over here. You an' him'll pilot this pile of goushi out of here."

It's hard to breathe, every intake of air is an agony and yet somehow he manages to do it. His eyelids are gettin' heavier with each heartbeat, but he fights to keep them open. And is rewarded by the sight of a gun, taped to the underside of Jayne's workout bench. Within his reach. Kinda thing the Preacher might say was a sign from God. Kinda thing Mal expects to be an illusion but when his fingers meet cold, hard metal he knows it's real. And that knowledge gives him the strength to pull himself to his feet and fight back.

"We'll get as far as ..."

Ain't nothin' like the sound of a gun bein' cocked to shut a fella up, Mal thinks grimly as the captain stops mid-sentence. "Jesse," he says, not takin' his eyes from the shocked ones starin' back at him in disbelief. "Don't call Stern. Billy – leave the catalyzer."

The men look to their captain, expecting a counter-order but the man's seen something he recognizes in Mal's eyes and it fills him with an urgent desire to get clear of this ship. "Do as he says," he tells them.

"Take your people and go." Easier to be merciful with a pistol in your hand an' your enemy out-manoeuvred.

"You would've done the same," the other man says as he retreats, needin' some kinda absolution from Mal.

He ain't that forgivin'. "We can already see I haven't. Now - get the hell off my ship."

* * * * *

So gorram weak, so utterly gorram weak. Damn body won't do what he wants. Why does he feel so hot when the heatin's out? Sweat trickles down his forehead and drips from his brow. Hurry up. Finish. Get it over with, so he can rest.

Everythin's spinnin' out of control an' he's spinnin' with it. He forces himself to take another step. There's a strange scent fillin' his nostrils an' he can taste blood. Then the gratin' rises up painfully to meet him and somehow he's lyin' down, starin' through it into the darkness below.

2511

Mal's was clutching the iron grating that served as both window and cage and shaking it violently. Seated on the bare floor, Zoe watched with quiet amusement. Which was odd, given their situation.

"It ain't gonna give. You been at that for near on an hour now an' all you've done it shake a few bugs outa their hidey-holes," she reminded him. "In the name of suoyou de dou shidang, sarge – stop!"

He gave the grating a final useless yank and dropped to the ground beside her, cursing colourfully. They sat in silence for a minute or two and then he asked conversationally "Reckon they're gonna shoot us in the mornin'?"

"Most like. Could be some torture involved. Whatever," she replied straight-faced.

"Meanwhile we're stuck here. Cao!" He snapped his fingers and shook his head regretfully. "I was hopin' to get laid on my last night in this 'verse."

"Me too."

He shuffled his ass closer and looked up at the ceiling. "So – say you were gonna get laid by anyone – who'd it be? Anyone, mind."

Zoe laughed. "Well, ain't that a question! Let's see ... mmm, what about Captain Powell?" She considered for moment then changed her mind. "No, no! Major Andersen! You seen that man's arms?"

Mal grunted. "Di'n't think you approved of officers sleepin' with the men," he remarked, a touch bitterly.

She shot him a look. "I don't. But this is jus' funnin'." Ignoring his scowl, she smiled sweetly. "Your turn."

Still dwellin' on past arguments between them, he di'n't feel much like answerin'.

"What about an old girlfriend?" she suggested, elbowing him sharply in the ribs. "Or di'n't you have none? An' old boyfriend, maybe?"

That did it! "How many times do I gotta tell you – I ain't sly! That thing with Bain ... oh, wa cao, Zoe – I don't know ..."

"Okay, sarge," she soothed. "Forget it."

"No." He grinned suddenly. "You got me thinkin' on it now. Think I'll go for ... uh ... girl name of Nadine." He flushed a little as memories came floodin' back. "Never could say 'no', that one. Or Lucille Hepworth. Hopkins? Hawkins? Somethin' like that – tianna, but that girl had stamina!"

Zoe smiled at the far-away look in his eyes. "Sounds like you're plannin' quite a party, Sir. Any more names to add to the list? Someone locked up here maybe?"

Mal chewed a thumbnail thoughtfully. "Mmmm. What about that li'l girl they brought in after us. You know – that real pale one. Dark hair."

Zoe's eyes flew open wide and she slapped his arm. "You evil, lecherous hump! She's just a kid!"

 

Next morning

They had the prisoners all lined up. Men on one side, women on the other. Waiting. Dreading. The Alliance commander marched along the lines, looking each prisoner up and down, taking his time. Drawing it out. Torture of a kind that left no marks. Then he turned and pointed his baton. "Her!"

A scream rang out and then she was being dragged away towards a tent.

She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it. He'd tried and earned a crack to the skull with a rifle butt for his trouble. And to punish him for his chivalry, they dragged him in too. They made him watch.

* * * * *

Would it be so very wrong to give Nature a gentle shove, Simon wonders, removing the black cuff from Zoe's arm. Her blood pressure is very nearly back to normal and her breath sounds are good. Her being conscious would certainly help in diagnosing the nature of her injuries, given the woeful lack of medical equipment on this shuttle. Lack of everything, he amends, looking around at the plain metal surfaces and plastic furniture. Whereas Inara's shuttle is lush and full, this one is Spartan in the extreme. Only the barest of bare necessities.

Six months ago to Simon's eyes Serenity looked just like this, accustomed as he was to wealth and plenty. Now Serenity is like a palace compared with some places he's been – no, Serenity's better than a palace – she's a home. Zao cao, but he wishes he was still there. Still with Mal. As soon as he felt the shuttle pull away, he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. But how could he have opposed Mal at such a dreadful time? The only person capable of doing that was unconscious. So, the question arises again ... would it be so very wrong?

River looks up from braiding her hair. "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies," she promises. Simon's heart skips a beat. She knows what he's going to do – or at least, has guessed. And if she knows that, what else does she know?

"The point of no return is fast approaching," she says cheerfully.

Tamade! He hadn't thought of that. "Wash? How far can we get on the fuel we have?"

"Half a click. Maybe."

"And how far have we gone so far?" he asks.

Wash checks his screen. "Nearly a quarter. Why?"

"Nothing," Simon lies, picking up a syringe. "Just making conversation."

Wash eyes him suspiciously. "What's that your giving her?" he asks as Simon fills the syringe from a sterile blister pack.

"Something to help. In case of internal bleeding," Simon lies again, slipping the empty pack into his bag as if the pilot might know what naloxone hydrochloride is used for.

"Okay." Wash jumps up from his seat and hurries over to his wife's side,. He takes her hand just as Simon slides the needle into a vein. There's a seemingly endless pause and then Zoe's whole body convulses. Instantly, Wash has an arm under her shoulders, supporting her head. Coughs rack through her and her eyes open, close and open again. Simon holds a beaker of water to her lips. She sips, then gulps, looking around her, rapidly working out where they are if not why.

"What we doin' in here?" she asks as soon as she can speak. "An' where's the Captain?"

Wash bites back his jealously and starts explaining, getting events all in the wrong order in his confusion and delight to see his wife awake and alert.

Zoe stares at him. "You all just left him there? Alone?" she demands. "How could you?"

"It was our only choice, bao-bei!" Wash nearly shouts at her. "And he did order us off the ship."

"Well, I'm orderin' you back," she says through clenched teeth. "Turn this shuttle around. Mashang!"

Simon breathes an enormous sigh of relief, then remembers they're still all going to die – foetal, bloated and gasping.

River groans softly and falls backwards, clutching her side. "Hurry," she whispers.

* * * * *

"That's a lot of blood, isn't it?" Wash asks Simon as they make their way down the hallway.

"The average adult human body contains ten pints of blood," River informs them. "Accounting for seven percent of body weight."

Wash glances at her out of the corner of his eye and grimaces. "Right. Good. Uh – Doc ..?"

Simon doesn't look up, he's still following the trail of blood, holding his breath and praying. Please, please don't let us be too late. Don't let him be dead.

"What about Zoe, Doc?"

"Take her to the infirmary. I'll be down as soon as I can. As soon as I find him."

"I'll be fine ... Leave me here..." Zoe is saying when River interrupts. "His miracle got here. Gone to meet it."

Simon and Wash exchange a look. "The bridge!"

Simon starts running.

* * * * *

Simon withdraws the needle from Wash's inner elbow and places a cotton wood pad over the puncture wound. "Keep that pressed down for a while," he tells him, moving the pilot's fingers into position. "Are you feeling all right? Any dizziness? Nausea? No? Well, I think the best thing would be for you to get some rest now. Zoe will probably need a lot of nursing when she comes round."

Wash nods. "Okay. Nursing I can do. I'm big with the brow-mopping and the tending." He looks down at Mal. "How's he doing?"

"Well, he's weak, but he'll live. Thanks to you. You saved his life."

Wash shakes his head. "No, I didn't Doc. I just had the right blood type. It was you that saved him. Saved my wife too. Might just have to name our first-born after you. Assuming it's a boy."

"That's awfully ... but ..." Simon starts as the guilt kicks in, then stops himself. "Thank you. Now I'd like you to go and lie down for a while. That was a lot of blood to give in a single session. Don't worry - I'll call you when she wakes up."

Wash is reluctant to leave, but when he gets to his feet he realizes he's quite light-headed. "Okay, Doc."

When he's gone, Simon sets about tidying up the infirmary and writing up his notes. Both patients are sedated and the room is very quiet. He checks Zoe's blood pressure and pulse and moves on to Mal. Using the third finger of one hand to gently pull it down, he inspects the inside of Mal's lower lid for signs of anaemia. None. Thanks to Wash, the blood vessels are red and healthy. Amazing, after such blood loss. In fact, apart from the wound in his abdomen, dry lips are the only indication of what the Captain has been through. Bleeding on that scale causes dehydration too. Simon crosses to the sink and wets a cloth. This he applies carefully to Mal's mouth, letting the water trickle over his lips and into his mouth. The Captain's tongue flickers out briefly, but he soon lies still again. Simon puts the cloth down, and as if in a dream, traces the wet contours of Mal's lips with his fingertips.

Zoe opens an eye. And watches as Simon's hand moves up to stroke Mal's hair back from his forehead. Zao cao! She groans quietly, making the medic start. He's swiftly at her side. "Try not to move," he urges. "You need complete rest – that means bed rest – for at least forty-eight hours. It's all right," he adds quickly as she opens her mouth to argue, "You don't have to stay here. We'll move you to your own bunk in the morning."

Zoe's brows knit together. Maybe she ought to stay here. Keep an eye on the Captain. Keep an eye on Simon too for that matter. "Doctor," she says, touching his arm. "You remember our first conversation?"

He nods, suddenly nervous.

"Good. What I said then – it still stands." The pause that follows gives Simon plenty of time to recall every last syllable about mercy, forgiveness and trust and how Zoe will kill him if Mal tells her to. She smiles. "But that don't mean I'm not all manner of grateful for what you've done for me an' the Captain. When we got back, wa'n't sure he'd – well, he'd lost a hell of a lot of blood, ha'n't he?"

The unspoken threat is still reverberating around the room and Simon can't quite return her smile. "Yes. But luckily Wash was able to ..."

Zoe looks around. "Where is that husband of mine?"

"I told him to rest. It was a long transfusion. The Captain needed several pints ..."

"Not enough," River says from the doorway. "The hole's still there."

"It'll heal me-mei. I've stitched it up. He'll mend, River – now go back to bed. Please." Simon tries to shoo her out of the infirmary but she won't be moved. She slips past him and reaches a hand out onto Mal's chest.

"Hollow man. Between the emotion and the response falls the Shadow." She smiles down at him sadly and turns earnest eyes on her brother. "Not with a bang, but a whimper."

"River – I don't ... what are you talking about?"

She looks so old, so wise, and yet she's just a kid. She lays a slender hand on Mal's head like a blessing. "The way his world ended," she says simply.

* * * * *

The flame of a single candle lights Inara's shuttle. She closes her eyes and feels the blood drum through her veins. A deal is a deal, even one made with the Infinite. She reaches out and extinguishes the flame between thumb and forefinger, wincing at the pain.

* * * * *

A man can't be held responsible for his dreams but often they hold him to account. Remind him of all the things he could've done an' di'n't. All that things he shou'n't have and did.

Of the things he might do.

There's a package on his bed, wrapped up in anonymous brown paper. A tag hangs from it which reads "Not to be opened." Defiantly he rips it off and tears open the paper. A Russian doll tumbles out and rolls across the mattress. He bends down to pick it up, fascinated to discover the face it bears is utterly familiar. Simon Tam – all serious eyes and pretty mouth. Mal rolls it between his hands for a while, enjoying the smoothness of the paintwork and admiring the detail. Then suddenly he gives it a vicious twist and the doll cracks open, revealing a slightly smaller one inside. This body glitters scarlet and black, so it don't take a mind-readin' genius to realize it will be wearing Inara's perfect smile. A sharp pull and this shell falls open too. Zoe's face appears, angry and unforgiving. He can't bear to look at it and quickly snaps the doll open once again. Round, doe eyes are replaced by almond ones and dark skin fades into something paler. It's Jia Wei and there are tears in her eyes. Blood on her bottom lip. Mal's hands tremble as he snatches at the doll, wrenching it apart desperately – not wanting to, but unable to stop. At first he thinks there's nothing there but a shake proves him wrong. A small, cold shape falls out onto the palm of his hand. A pale body, scratched an' battered and bleedin'. There's blood on his hands. He fumbles with the tiny pieces of torn clothing which cling to the figurine, trying to cover up the immature breasts and slender thighs, but his fingers are too big, too clumsy. He can't do it. Can't put it right. Frustrated and furious he flings the wretched thing onto the floor. Its eyes roll open and stare up at him. Cold and lifeless but full of blame.

Panicked, Mal snatches it up and begins frantically reassembling the dolls, forcing one shell into the next until once again he's left with the white-coated likeness of his medic. He rolls it up in the brown paper and sinks down on the bed, exhausted, covering his face with his hands.

"You want me," a voice says.

"No," he argues, clapping his hands down hard over his ears. "No. Leave me alone."

"It's all right," the voice continues. "Everthing's going to be all right."

* * * * *

In the still of the infirmary, the sound wakes Simon up. He rubs his eyes and gets up from the chair he decided to sleep in in order to keep watch over his patients. Mal's head is thrashing from side to side and he's muttering something in his sleep as he struggles under the weight of blankets.

"Shh, Mal," he says softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right. Everything's going to be all right."

His patient lets out a long sigh and turns his face in towards the comforting touch. Simon's breath catches in his throat as Mal's slightly stubbly cheek rubs against the back of his hand. "Uh - Captain? Can you hear me? Mal?"

There's no answer and Simon lets out a sigh of his own. He straightens the blankets, tucking Mal back up like he used to do for River when she was young. Funny, in this light and fast asleep, the Captain looks pretty young himself. Young and surprisingly vulnerable. Simon smiles fondly at him and leans forward to press a light kiss to his forehead. And another to his lips.

Shocked at himself for having taken advantage of Mal's unconscious state, he pulls back quickly. That was unethical, stupid and wrong. And he might never get the chance to do it again. He glances across at Zoe. She's sleeping on one side, her back turned, her breathing steady.

This time he closes his eyes.

And when he opens them again, he's looking right into the clear blue depths of the Captain's.

Chapter Text

Mal's pupils dilate, constrict and dilate again. Sure signs he's awake and focusing. Simon can't move. Can hardly even breathe. The muscles of his face seem to have congealed into an expression of absolute horror. All he can do is look into eyes so deep he could drown in them. Drowning – now there's a solution to the predicament he finds himself in. Right now he wouldn't turn down spontaneous combustion either. Or perhaps Jayne could finally make good on his repeated promises to end him. Anything rather than have to face the consequences of what he's just done. He kissed Mal. Shit! The best he can hope for now is a lifetime of humiliation – pointed comments, double-entendres. Mal has a cruel streak he knows will revel in being able to make him squirm. He'll probably keep it to himself for a while and let Simon sweat, never knowing when the others will find out. Oh God, he's going to make Simon suffer for this.

Mal inhales and his lips part slightly. Tamade – is he going to start right now?

The waiting is excruciating ....

And then the Captain's lids flutter closed again. His chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm and he looks for all the 'verse like a man in a deep, deep sleep. Except Simon knows he isn't.

The medic remains rooted to the spot, not daring to move. Mal can feel him there, hovering, just inches away. He can feel the warmth radiating from him and smell the clean, slightly sharp scent of him. How does he manage to stay so clean when there's so little water on Serenity? A vivid image of how Mal could dirty him up some flashes through his mind and it takes all his control not to reach out and grab the Doc by the back of his neck. A minute passes – maybe two – then there's a creak and the sound of retreating footsteps. Cooler air rushes in to fill the sudden emptiness above. Where is that boy? Still in the infirmary, Mal is sure. Simon Tam's far too conscientious to leave seriously injured patients unattended. Most like he's watchin' from across the room ... So Mal keeps still, keeps his breathin' steady, and wonders if he's managin' to fool the Doc. Because – despite the havin' been shot and the drugs crawlin' through his system - Mal knows somebody jus' kissed him. And that that somebody – unlikely as it seems - has to've been Simon. Don't make no sense. The boy don't even like him much. Oh sure – he's grateful that Mal offered him sanctuary from the Alliance. He maybe even feels a bit of grudgin' respect for the way he captains his boat. But he don't like him. Two of them got about as much in common as Mal's got with Inara. So why the hell'd he do such a thing? Afraid Mal's gonna sell him out to the Feds now the reward for him and li'l sis 's gone up? Or out of some twisted notion of payin' for the two of 'em's keep? Could be – Core folk is like that. They think sex is a commodity like genseed or ammunition an' use it to get rich or advance their position. Case in point: Inara. Well, Mal don't approve of Simon sellin' his body no more than he does of Inara sellin' hers. An' he sure as hell ain't gonna be buyin'. Come to think of it, he feels mighty insulted Simon imagines he would. Gotta mind to tell him so too. Ask him what the diyu he thinks he's doin' when he ain't no more sly than Mal is. Thinkin' about a thing an' doin' it are two very different things. On the other hand - no. Best plan is to pretend that kiss never happened. Cos he ain't gonna take advantage of the boy. Not like that ... Whoa! Not never.

* * * * *

Ever since he saw that number Jayne ain't slept well. Most of the time, durin' workin' hours, he can push it to the back of his mind, but soon as he's alone in his bunk it keeps lightin' up his brain. Two hundred and fifty thousand platinum. He di'n't get a real good look at the page 'fore Mal switched it off so he ain't sure whether the reward was jus' for Simon Tam or for him an' his sister. Wou'n't matter much to Jayne. Be damn glad to see the back of both of 'em. Money'd be a kinda bonus.

* * * * *

The Consul is a very powerful man. An angry very powerful man. The Director's comprehensive knowledge of the penalties that lie within his power to assign make him exceedingly grateful that he has something the Consul needs. Something no-one else can give him. Even if he doesn't exactly have it to hand.

"There's already been an uprising on Augustus," the Consul fumes. "And yesterday we received reports of suspicious activity on Portia. The insurgents are becoming ever bolder, Director. It would be unwise to delay further. I want the girl activated. We must implement the imprinting process immediately."

The impossibility of complying with this request brings a bead of sweat to the Director's forehead and makes him regret his career choice bitterly. He should have stayed in mainstream medicine. Certainly he would not have become so obscenely wealthy but neither would he be in the unenviable position of having to lie to the Consul.

"Certainly, High Consul – if that is your wish. However, I should inform you that, according to Research -" a disbelieving little laugh adds a touch of authenticity here "- the girl has the capacity for extraordinary skills of perception and precognition which they were hoping to develop to their fullest extent. Also, given her physical frailty, some muscular enhancement would probably be desirable. Of course, this would require some time ..." He pauses to let the seed of doubt take root in the Consul's mind. "And the girl may already be adequate for your purposes. She does not need to be one hundred percent effective ..."

The Consul frowns and taps his foot. "Is one hundred percent efficacy even achievable?"

Oh, renci Fozu – he's taken the bait! If the Director's cunning, it won't take much to reel him in. Gently now ... "Not normally, Your Excellency. But in this case ..." He shrugs, seemingly doubtful himself, "It appears to be a possibility. But surely not a necessity? After all none of your rivals has anything ..."

"How long do you need?"

"Two months. Three at most."

"All right – do it! It may be worth the wait. We both know I have bigger fish to fry than browncoat scum on backwater planets."

"Thank you, High Consul. I'm sure you won't be disappointed."

* * * * *

A week ago it seemed like a good plan. Simple. Jus' pretend it never happened. Never mention it his own self and rely on the boy bein' too tight-wound to wanna start down that road. After all – least said, soonest mended.

But as soon as Mal steps down into the kitchen, Simon gets up from his seat and hurriedly scoops his unfinished meal into the garbage chute. He exits the room without a word, leaving Mal all kinds of frustrated. Yesu tamade but this is drivin' him feng le! Simon ain't looked him in the eye since it happened an' ain't answered him back not once. Mal misses his snippy wit, his way of sayin' somethin' sharp jus' when Mal's sure he's got him beat. Now he's always got some excuse for leavin' any room Mal's in. Always gotta be scuttlin' away like Mal's gonna bite him. No – don't think about that. Don't think about markin' that pretty skin. Think about how to fix this.

"Open up. See what's inside." River's words make the hairs on the back of Mal's neck stand up. Damn but that girl is creepifyin'. "Thinks you're mad."

He looks at her, tryin' to figure whether she knows what she's sayin'. "Mad as in like to punch him? Or mad as in ... ?" He circles his forefinger round and round near his temple.

"Yes," she nods enthusiastically like he's managed to wrap his skull around a really difficult notion.

He rolls his eyes. "Well, thanks for clarifyin'. That's a great help."

She pokes her tongue out at him and dances away after her brother.

Mal sighs. So, the Doc thinks he's mad at him. That explains the repeated disappearin' act. Mal ain't mad. He jus' wants things to be back the way they were. Why does everythin' have to keep changin'? He grits his teeth. There's no getting' away from it – he's gonna have to talk to the boy. Explain things – how Simon don't owe him nothin', how bein' ship's medic is more'n enough to pay his fare an' his sister's too. How he don't need to be offerin' nothin' more.

* * * * *

A hazy coil of blue smoke rises from the incense burner, filling the shuttle with the scent of nasturtium, meadow saffron and yarrow. The very air around Inara is a prayer as she sits cross-legged and with eyes closed in silent supplication. She knows she should not trouble the Infinite with a matter of such insignificance and yet she cannot do this alone. She is not strong enough.

He has made her weak.

A knock at the door interrupts her entreaties for help in relinquishing the selfish desires that plague her and she is glad of the distraction.

"Can I come in?" Zoe asks, He body is tense and her expression guarded. She eyes the incense burner warily.

"Would you like some tea?" Inara asks, placing a gilt dome over the burner to extinguish the glowing embers and contain the smoke. After all, the prayer is hers, not Zoe's.

"No. No – thank you. I need to talk to you about the Captain. About you and the Captain."

A serene smile betrays nothing of the turmoil Inara feels. "Yes?"

Zoe looks embarrassed. An unnerving event in itself. "Don't wanna tell you how to do your job .. but, could be it's time to up the ante."

"Really? May I ask why?"

Zoe hesitates. Should she explain? Tell the Companion the Captain's gone and let hisself have feelin's for the Doctor? An' that she's seem somethin' that's convinced her they're reciprocated? An' that if the Captain's fool enough to bed the boy it'll go badly cos ever since the war the Captain likes to beat up his lovers – which by the way I shoulda mentioned before, but you're a professional and've probably had worse - an' if he does that to the boy the ship's like to end up without a medic an' then who's gonna patch up the stupid sonofabitch when his latent deathwish has him takin' another dumbass decision like orderin' his crew to leave him to die alone? She takes a deep breath and clenches her jaw. And lies through her teeth. "Saw him readin' up on that rebellion on Augustus. Afraid he's maybe plannin' on joinin' the Independents there. He does that – ain't no way he's comin' back alive. You gotta stop him. Give him somethin' to look forward to instead of back."

Inara reads most people very well but Zoe has always been a challenge. Her face gives little away, even to an Academy-trained Companion. And yet Inara's intuition tells her there's something wrong with the other woman's story. Zoe means enough of it to be convincing, but some of it is unquestionably a lie.

"Am I to understand you think my taking to bed with the Captain will fill him with hope for the future and the strength to go on?" She smiles. "Well, I am very flattered, but I wouldn't make such extravagant claims myself."

Zoe isn't used to feelin' powerless. She can't make this an order, can't threaten nor bargain. That leaves beggin'. Oh hell ... "I'm worried 'bout him, Inara. He was ready to die when that damn part blew. Think part of him still is. He likes you. You like him. Please."

Inara's heart does a little flip at the unexpected word. She glances down at the gilt dome. Is this her answer? And is it really the one she wanted? Because if so, why is she suddenly panicking at the prospect of affording Malcolm Reynolds the same service she's given to hundreds of other men? Why does she see her freedom ebbing away? Why? Because it wouldn't be about her servicing him. It would be about her wanting something back. Feifei de piyan! This job wasn't supposed to be about loving Malcolm Reynolds and yet she does. Keeping that a secret is the only way Inara has of holding onto herself. There has to be a way out of this. Or at least a way of stalling until she feels stronger. And then it comes to her ... An excuse so feeble, no-one could doubt it.

She stands and smooths the folds out of her silk gown with a graceful sweep of her hands. "He may not yield to my charms as readily you think," she says with a cool smile. "But, given your concerns, I will certainly try to advance our relationship." Zoe presses her hands together in a gesture of thanks, but Inara continues, "As soon as I have undergone my annual medical. I must have a clean bill of health in order to practice as a Companion. Besides, I would like to know all is well myself since I have several clients for whom I – as the Captain so delicately phrases it – 'spread' ."

Zoe grins. "You gonna get the Doc to check you out? Better be on standby then, to scrape him up off the floor. Not sure he's ever ..."

"Oh, no. I'm afraid Simon isn't accredited with the Guild. I will have to attend a registered clinic."

Zoe's eyes narrow, but Inara is the picture of earnest innocence. "Okay," she says slowly, "But after that ..."

Inara nods enthusiastically. "Absolutely. In fact, I'm looking forward to it!"

 

* * * * *

Mal's outside the infirmary. It ain't like him to feel nervous an' yet he does. The mere sight of Simon through the window sets his guts hoppin' about like rabbits in spring. Realizing his hands are clammy, he rubs them dry on the seat of his pants and steels hisself for A Personal Chat.

Simon is fiddling with the hydraulics on the exam table, and if he hears Mal come in, he doesn't show it. Mal stands in awkward silence for a moment, wishin' River would say somethin' rather than jus' ruttin' well sittin' there starin' at him. Finally he gives a little cough.

Simon jumps and nearly bangs his head against the table. When he sees it's Mal his eyes take on a hunted look. They flicker about and Mal knows he's seekin' an escape route. Can't be havin' that. Almost unconsciously he moves to block the doorway. "Hey, Doc," he says lightly if lamely.

He watches the medic's Adam's apple bob up and down. "Captain .... "

Sounds a mite scared. Tamade – shoulda got Zoe to do this.

"Captain ..." Simon reaches for his notes and suddenly he's all brisk professionalism. "How are you feeling? Is your wound giving you any pain at all?"

"Some. Not enough to keep me awake at nights." His eyes meet Simon's. Got somethin' else to fret over durin' the small hours these days, boy. Need to tell you ...

"There's no merit in suffering unnecessarily, Captain," Simon replies stiffly, opening a cupboard and practically diving into it. "I have some painkillers which may offer some relief."

"Don't want no painkillers," Mal snaps. Gotta keep this conversation on course. He walks over and slams the cupboard door shut more noisily than he'd intended. Simon takes a step back and would take more if Mal's hand weren't now on his shoulder.

"There ain't no need for this, Doc," he says quietly. "I ain't mad ..."

"Self-diagnosis is notoriously inaccurate." Being flippant in highly charged emotional situations has always been Simon's way of hiding his feelings, and comments like this come easily enough. They usually make people laugh, but not Mal. Instead he looks almost sad.

"What you did, Simon ..." He's still holding the medic by the shoulder and tightens his grip as he tries to pull away. "I ain't mad ... it's jus' ..."

"Inappropriate?" the medic asks bitterly, wrenching himself free. "Unethical? I can't argue with that, Captain. And if you want to leave me behind the next time we make planetfall, I'll understand." He's gone even paler than usual and his eyes are downcast. "In fact, I think I might prefer it."

"No-one's getting' left," Mal tells him firmly. "Least of all you ..." His dress sense, the boy's hardly like to pass unnoticed on any planet. Wou'n't be long 'fore someone was rattin' him out to the Feds. What'd happen to him then? Prison at the very least. Mal's seen the inside of more'n one Alliance jail an' knows, for all he ain't weak, that Simon Tam would probably lose his mind in one. "Need a medic on this boat. An' besides, you an' River are always gonna be safer on the move. You know that."

Simon does know. He raises his eyes and studies Mal's face. Is he really prepared to just forget about it? Or will his opinion of Simon have changed forever? Does he despise him now? Men from backwater planets like Shadow tend to have some fairly unenlightened views on sexual orientation and even if Mal's not the type for sly-bashing, his morality is pretty strict and uncompromising. Did Simon's kiss imply he thought it might not be? Oh, how insulting was that?! He nods. "Yes, Captain. I do. But I don't want to stay if things ... if you ..." His hands are flutterin' nervously about his face, almost touchin' it and then not. Mal suppresses the urge to still them between his own. "Oh God, Mal – I wish I hadn't. I didn't mean to offend you ..."

"Offend?!" Mal snorts out a surprised laugh before forcing a more serious expression. "Wo de ma, you thought you'd offended me?"

"Mmm. I know we don't exactly get along. You don't even like me. And then I had to do something stupid ..." He shakes his head, angry at himself.

"Like you well enough," Mal grunts and looks away. How the diyu he end up confessin' that? This ain't nowhere he wants to go. Don't wanna tell the boy he's missed him this past week. Nor that the urge to touch him keeps creepin' up on him unexpectedly. Don't wanna ... an' yet he's dangerously close to doin' jus' that. Every time he looks into that boy's eyes.

Simon realizes they're staring at one another and that Mal is on the verge of saying something. For some reason he's got this eerie feeling that it's something he wants to hear. He waits. Mal blinks. His eyes are very blue.

Like Simon's. River smiles. "Fearful symmetry," she says, clapping her hands and the tension breaks. Simon rolls his eyes and Mal grins. "Gotta find a way to make it fit," River continues eagerly, taking first her brother and then Mal by the hand. "Nearly there."

Simon quickly disengages her hands. As he does so his fingers brush against Mal's and both men recoil a little from the tingle the contact generates. River giggles. "Getting warmer! Nearly on fire!"

"Fire? That ruttin' moonbrain start a fire now?" Jayne asks, poking his head around the infirmary door. "Gorram dangerous little freak!"

River tosses her hair haughtily. Jayne is a girl's name but Jayne is not a girl. It's a deception. Part of his camouflage. In green and brown, it's hard to be found. Turncoat. Never see him in his true colours.

"My sister is not a freak," Simon snarls. "She's just a kid. A kid the government decided to experiment on."

Just a kid. But they took her anyway. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

Jayne laughs nastily and Simon feels an urgent need to hurt him. The stupid great brute is a malignancy on this ship. Something that needs to be excised. Cut out. Simon's a surgeon. He has sharp knives that would slice easily enough through that thick skin. Make the leering wangba dan bleed.

"'s all right, Doc," Mal says quietly to Simon but he's glaring at Jayne. "I got this. Now Jayne, let me make this abundantly clear to you." He grabs a fistful of the mercenary's shirt and yanks him out of the room. "This thing between you an' the Doc. Better put an end it Jayne – 'fore my patience runs out, dong ma?"

Jayne mutters something about his preferred way of putting an end to it and stomps off. Mal turns back to Simon, more certain of what he wants to say now. "Far as I'm concerned, boy, it never happened. So you can stop worryin' about me bein' mad an' concentrate on fixin' your sis."

Simon smiles weakly and watches him go. As far as Mal's concerned, it never happened.

* * * * *

"All I'm saying is, not everybody wants a religious ceremony," Wash explains to Book as he deals out the cards. "Take me an' Zoe, for example. First of all, we didn't have access to a preacher. And then there was that whole giving-the-bride-away thing – which, seein' as how he was Captain, Mal would've had to do. Zoe wasn't comfortable with that. Mal wasn't comfortable with that. And neither was I. So we just did the civil thing. Logged onto the Cortex and BAM! Man and wife."

Inara laughs and winks at Kaylee. "You make it sound so romantic!"

"Oh, it was plenty romantic, let me tell you." Wash grins at the memory. "Specially later on ..."

"If'n I get married, I wanna have a real big ceremony with all my folks an' friends," Kaylee declares dreamily, her eyes sparkling. "Want flowers an' bells an' choirs singin'- girls in pretty dresses ... an' me in the prettiest dress of all!"

Jayne frowns. Fancy affairs like that cost more money than he makes in a year. T'aint right that some folk got all the money an' others got next to nothin'. He'd like to buy Kaylee all them things she wants, but how's he ever gonna do that? He ain't no fancy rich boy. His thoughts slip bitterly to Simon Tam. Bet his family could afford all that. Jayne's nose wrinkles with satisfaction as he realizes ain't no 'could' about it no more. Not now their son's a wanted fugitive. More chance of him ending his days in an Alliance jail than walkin' down the aisle. Even if he wa'n't sly.

"What 'bout you, 'Nara?" Kaylee asks the Companion as she sorts through her hand. "What kinda weddin' d'you want? If you married one of your clients, you could have a real fancy one!" She teases and then asks seriously, "You ever wanted to marry any of your clients?"

Inara has to turn her head whilst she composes herself but her objective is sabotaged by Mal's arrival in the commons. He answers for her, his tone heavy with contempt. "Nah, Kaylee. Inara don't wanna get married. She did that, she'd have to give up playin' the fancy lady!"

Inara would say something cutting in return if only she could think of something. Instead she just glares and he flashes her a brittle hostile smile. Mal likes this dance. Could do it for hours. Inara''s smart and beautiful and completely untouchable. Bein' with her don't scare him half as much as bein' with the Doc does.

Book clears his throat. "Captain ... I was wondering ... I mean, I know-" a glance at Wash - "We'll be passing in the vicinity of Ariel soon. If at all possible, I should like to spend a few days at the Bathgate Abbey."

Mal flops down into a chair. "Needin' to top up your religiosity, Preacher?" he asks, helping himself to a swig from the bottle on the table.

"Something like that, yes."

"Going to Ariel would suit me too," Inara puts in. "I was saying to Zoe earlier it's almost time for my annual check-up." She gives Mal a sarcastic smile. "So that I can continue playing the fancy lady. And earning enough to pay the rent that keeps you in fuel. Captain."

Mal shrugs. "OK. We ain't in no particular hurry. Not like we got a job or nothin'."

Jayne scratches the side of his nose. "Ain't Ariel a Core planet?"

"Yup," Mal answers with a sneer. "Whole gorram place crawlin' with Feds."

Jayne rubs his chin. "Thought so."

 

* * * * *

You're hungry, so hungry the emptiness could devour you. And you crave something to fill you. Something warm and sweet and yours. Something to wash away the bitter taste of shadows and ashes ...

River looks at the food he's offering and pouts. "I don't want it," she complains but Simon insists. "River, you have to eat. It's good, it tastes like ..." He swallows a forkful. "It's good."

"Smells likes crotch," Jayne comments unhelpfully as Simon and River take a seat at the table. The others seem to be debating the merits of shore leave on Ariel but Simon's more concerned about his sister. Her crazy spells are coming more frequently and her moments of lucidity are dwindling. He doesn't want to try the Captain's patience any further ... A kick to his chair from Wash draws Simon into the discussion. "But not boring like she made it sound." The pilot is asking for a little support. "There's uh ..."

"There's... there's hiking. You can go swimming in a bioluminescent lake," Simon supplies, but Zoe isn't convinced and then Mal announces that no-one's leaving the ship anyway. His decision is not met with universal approval. Jayne expresses his displeasure by spitting on one of the big knives he wears in his belt. He starts polishing it vigorously. At the table. The man is utterly revolting. "Can you not do that ... ever?" Simon grimaces.

The mercenary retaliates by spitting again and Simon isn't surprised that River gets up from the table.

"So – two days in a hospital, huh?" Wash asks Inara sympathetically. "That's awful. Don't you just hate doctors?"

"Hey!" Simon objects.

"I mean, present company excluded," the pilot adds hastily.

"Don't be excludin' people," Jayne chides him. "That'd be rude."

He's flying under false colours. Like a pirate with his cutlass in hand. River picks up the knife. But is it the colours that are false? She walks swiftly back to the table. Or the man himself? Simon's a surgeon. He uses knives to make people better. She raises her arm -

and slashes Jayne across his chest with the blade. His colours change in the blink of an eye. And he backhands her painfully.

brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth ... he could still hear the muffled whimperin'.

Suddenly there's shouting and everyone is running about. Simon is at her side. Inara and Wash too.

Mal and Zoe rush over to Jayne, not simply to check the wound but also restrain him from seeking further retaliation. That ain't gonna happen. Mal feels sick enough already.

Then li'l Kaylee is there too, eyes wettin' up with concern for Jayne. Makes gettin' cut on almost worthwhile.

* * * * *

Simon is mortified and more terrified by Mal's quiet calmness than he is of his punches. He knows he's thinking this out. Weighing up whether River's too big a risk to keep on his ship. This is all Simon's fault. If he'd kept his mind on treating her illness, he might have found a drug that worked by now. It's a punishment, that's what it is.

"Gorram freak's completely off her axle," Jayne growls.

"I'm sorry about this," Simon apologizes, mostly to Mal. "I don't know why she ..."

"Not talkin' to you," his patient hisses. "She's gotta go. They both gotta go. Ariel's as good a place to leave 'em as any. Might even pick us up a reward for our troubles."

Simon curses him inwardly but continues stitching the gash on his chest. All of a sudden he feels very cold and alone.

"No-one's gettin' left," Mal says firmly, repeating his words of earlier and giving the doctor a crumb of hope.

"She belongs in a bughouse," Jayne argues. "You don't pitch her off this boat ... I swear ..."

Mal leans in under the light and gets right in the big man's face. "What? What do you swear, Jayne?" he demands menacingly.

Jayne's eyes slide off to the side. "They don't get gone," he mutters, "You better start locking up your room at night. Next time li'l sis gets in a murderin' mood, might be you she comes callin' on. Maybe Kaylee. Or Inara." Simon glances at Mal. What he sees on his face is like a knife to his own heart. "You let 'em stay, we're gonna find out."

If he thought it would help, Simon would be on his knees right now. Begging. Mal doesn't even look at him. "Finish your work, Doctor." He stares hard at Jayne. "This is my boat. They're part of my crew. No-one's gettin' left. Best you get used to that."

Since when did Simon ruttin' Tam take precedence over Jayne? "You owe me a shirt," he spits at the medic as he stalks out of the room.

Simon's mouth is full of apologies and promises but Mal doesn't give him time to utter them. There's a touch of flint in his eyes as he issues his order. "She's to stay confined to her room at all times, no exceptions. You want to take her to the kitchen, the infirmary – whatever – you ask me first, you understand."

They'll never even be friends, let alone lovers. Mal is the Captain and Simon must do as he says. "I do."

Then Mal twists the knife again. "When I took you an' your sister in, the deal was you keep her in check. You can't keep up your end, we're gonna have to revisit the deal." Simon wonders if he's still angry with him after all and hangs his head miserably in the brief pause that follows. "She's gettin' worse, isn't she?"

Simon nods once."Yes."

* * * * *

"Dreamt about hitting you," River tells Simon, as he rummages through his bag for a syringe.

"Did you mei]mei?" he asks distractedly. "Why? What had I done?"

"Not me. The Captain. Mal."

Simon's blood runs cold. There's no way she could know that but if it were true it wouldn't surprise him in the least.

"Trembling with tenderness, lips that would kiss," River smiles wistfully, and presses a finger against her brother's mouth. "Between the desire and the spasm falls the Shadow."

She's crazy. Really, really crazy. How is Simon supposed to deal with that? He doesn't even know what's been done to her. If he could just scan her brain, it might give him some idea of how to proceed. But for that he needs access to a neural imager and you only find that kind of sophisticated equipment on a Core planet.

"Ariel's the Core," River points out and Simon has the distinct impression she just read his mind.

* * * * *

Gotta admire the boy. He's thought this out. Might even work. Mal listens attentively as Simon outlines his plan. "Obviously we can't steal everything we need. Any illegal activity in the planning stage could end this thing before it begins." He catches Mal's eye and receives a nod of agreement. "Ariel City hospital contracts with a municipal junkyard for its large disposables. Big hospitals mean big waste. We'll have to look like we belong. That means uniforms, ID badges ... all these items are easy to obtain."

Mal grins encouragingly and Simon returns his smile. Maybe they could be friends after all. Simon hopes so.

Mal ain't so sure. Cos what Simon's doin' here is takin' charge. Makin' the plan. Executin' the plan. No-one givin' him orders. An' Mal likes it. An' don't. Could be he's jus' not used to sharin' responsibility. Could be he don't want to. Ai ya, Simon Tam's got his head all messed up!

* * * * *

"Pupils were fixed and dilapidated ..."

"Dilated," Simon corrects him gently.

"Qingwa cao de liumang!" Mal curses. This'd be so much easier if he di'n't have to pay such close attention to what Simon is sayin'. If he di'n't have to watch that mouth form words like 'pupils'. An' if Simon wa'n't gazin' back at him so intently. He tries again. "By the time we got there, the patients were cyanotic and ... uh, non-responsive. We tried but we couldn't revive – resuscitate – them. Despite our best efforts ... " Simon is hangin' on his every word, his lips slightly parted like someone expectin' a kiss. Mal's brain shorts. "They kicked!"

The medic ignores the error and rewards Mal's earlier efforts with a genuine smile. Boy's got a real nice way of leadin', Mal realizes. Never heard so much praise flyin' about his boat as in the past few days. Or seen people so eager to earn it. Wash was practically glowin' when Simon told him he'd done an amazin' job on that 'copter. An' even Mal gets a warm glow when the Doc lets him know he's done good.

"What about the cortical electrodes?" Simon directs the question unexpectedly at Jayne.

The mercenary looks startled. "Yeah .. we, uh ... they, uh ... I don't ruttin' know!" he snaps defensively.

'Course, Mal reminds himself, gentle leadership don't work on the likes of Jayne. Some men need the threat of a beatin' to keep 'em in line.

* * * * *

That was a gorram stroke of luck – the contact arrangin' the meet by the vidphone. Gives Jayne a perfect excuse to be here. Even if Mal were to come round the corner right now he wou'n't be suspicious. Don't wanna be alertin' him to the scheme jus' yet cos his first reaction'll be to punch Jayne an' call him all manner of stupid. But he'll come round. Sure he will. When Jayne counts out his share of the reward.

The mercenary consults the palm of his hand and punches the number he copied down from the Cortex screen into the number pad.

* * * * *

"That's it," Simon encourages Zoe as she tentatively prods at a vein on his inner elbow with the needle. "But you need more pressure to puncture the skin."

Mal closes his eyes, glad as all glory he ordered Zoe to do this. Too many layers of meanin' in it for him. Breakin' the boy's skin. Enterin' his body. Killin' him. No, it ain't a job Mal could do.

A little more force on Zoe's part and the needle slides in. Her relief is palpable..

"Now depress the plunger," Simon tells her. "Slowly!"

Zoe does as instructed, one corner of her mouth lifting as the irony of this hits her. Well, she did tell the Doctor she'd kill him on Mal's order.

River is already unconscious in her coffin-like body bag and now Simon climbs up into his and lies back. Already he can feel his pulse slowing and it's hard to hold onto a thought. "You ... you remember how ... to wake me up?" The question to Mal is slurred and before he gets his answer, Simon slips into unconsciousness.

Jayne slams down both lids enthusiastically and waggles his eyebrows at Mal.

* * * * *

Mal got no problem with this bit. Wakin' them back up. He injects the antidote into River and moves onto Simon. His arm is cold and lifeless and touchin' it makes Mal shudder. Quickly he administers the drug, part of him wishin' he could stay to watch Simon come round. Be the first thing those keen blue eyes see when they open again ... But that ain't the plan. He turns to Jayne.

"That should bring them out of it in a few minutes. As soon as they're up, get them to the imagin' suite, let Simon do his thing and then haul it back to the roof. Fifty minutes."

Jayne's tempted to tell Mal his genius plan but decides the Captain's more likely to see reason with a wad of platinum in his paw. "Got it."

* * * *

Inara enters House Anming with a sense of profound relief. The House Priestess is waiting for her and ushers her into a private room.

Inara curtsies respectfully. "Thank you for receiving me at such short notice, Ning-Shun."

"Not at all. You sounded in great distress, mei-mei."

A single tear spills for Inara's eyes. "That is because I am weak, Ning-Shun, despicably weak." The other woman dismisses the claim with an indulgent smile and encourages her to go on. "I made a sacred vow but ..." Her voice falters. "I am struggling with it. I need help."

"And the nature of this vow?"

"I offered my hopes for a relationship with a man to the Infinite in exchange for his safety."

"I see. But your feelings for him persist?"

"Persist and grow," Inara admits miserably. "And I'm afraid there's more ..." The House Priestess has such a sympathetic demeanour, Inara find herself telling her the whole story, from how Zoe engaged her services in the first place to how the friction between her and Mal gradually changed into mutual attraction and finally to how Zoe is convinced that Inara may be the only thing standing between Mal and an early death.

The older woman closes her eyes and rocks her chair back and forward. "A not inconsiderable problem, mei-mei," she concedes. Inara waits in silence. Finally the House Priestess rises and moves over to a black lacquered cabinet. She withdraws a box of some size and hands it over. "What I give you here is not for every day use. The serum you already use – as you know, that is for the body. This is for the spirit. It is very powerful and only for use when the pain seems unbearable. Or as a preventative in circumstances where your resolve is liable to weaken. Dong ma?"

Inara nods.

"Good." A sad smile. "I will pray you stay strong, mei-mei. Never forget that the Infinite is not to be trifled with."

* * * * *

"Alprazaline's a painkiller not a ..." the young intern starts to protest but he's cut off by a coldly furious Simon.

"Unless you combine it with droxine, which as any first year should know is the standard prep medicine your patient was taking before his surgery. Your patient should be dead." Simon returns the intern's stethoscope with a little too much force. The younger man looks suitable chastened.

Jayne is not impressed. He snorts disdainfully. Core folk mus' be pretty damn spineless if they lets theirselves be pushed around by the likes of Simon Tam. Bet not a single one of these white-coated sha gua knows how to handle a gun – not even the men. Jayne signals to Simon to hurry the diyu up. There's a whole pile of cash waitin' for him downstairs an' he's eager to make its acquaintance.

* * * * *

"How much we get?" Wash asks.

"'Nough to keep us flyin'," Mal replies, still reelin' a bit from the value of their haul.

"Can we fly somewhere with a beach?" Zoe asks with a wide grin at her husband.

He takes the idea and runs with it. "Maybe a naked beach?" Zoe hugs him excitedly and they kiss.

"Cut it out," Mal orders suddenly superstitious that celebratin' to soon will mean trouble. "Job ain't done till we're back on Serenity."

"Sorry, Sir. Didn't mean to enjoy the moment." Zoe's sarcastic apology is tinged with sadness. Cos for some reason she's rememberin' the day Cody Bain an' the Sarge brought down that Alliance hover-plane by stuffin' a handful of grizwalds into a damn near obsolete rocket launcher. Never mind that there was a whole squad of enemy ships comin' in – Mal swept the private up in his arms and was dancin' around yellin' so loud he got winged by sniper fire. She seems to recall that made a nice excuse for him to drag the boy off into the bushes ... Perhaps she didn't oughta be standin' in his way? If he wants the Doc might be best he has him?

* * * * *

"Well, gentleman," the Director says, "This is good news indeed. Very good news." He smiles chillingly. "I have just been informed that the Tams are in custody on Ariel."

Gaunt and Ginger's smiles are no more attractive. "When do we leave."

"Immediately. The sooner we extract them, the less likely it is the girl will have imprinted."

Gaunt purses his lips. "I thought the brother had to ..?"

"Yes, yes," the Director replies impatiently. "And he's hardly likely to just come out with it during questioning. But we can't be sure." His lips peels back in a disgusted leer. "Never know what's likely to pass the his lips at the sight of a man in uniform!"

His subordinates acknowledge the implication with a snicker.

The Director is swiftly business-like again. "And that means, anyone who's spoken with them must be eliminated. No exceptions."

Gaunt and Ginger nod. Sometimes their work is its own reward.

* * * * *

"Time?" Mal asks, instinct naggin' at his gut.

Zoe checks. "Ten minutes past rendezvous."

Too zai zi! "Somethin' happened." Too damn bad he knows what. Don't really need Wash an' Kaylee to confirm it for him.

"Feds got 'em," he declares, dread raising the hairs on his arms. The Feds took 'em an' there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Not again! For a second or two Mal feels like breakin' things but soon gets a grip on his emotions. Learnt the hard way durin' the way during the war that fallin' apart don't help no-one. Only way to help is take action. His mind is racin'. One thing's sure – he ain't losin' none of his crew. Not today. Not never. That li'l girl needs him an' he needs her brother. For his doctorin' skills. Obviously. Hell, he even needs Jayne."Kaylee, bring up the hospital schematics on the Cortex. Find me a way into the security substation."

Wash is goggle-eyed. Here again is proof positive that Mal is crazy. "You're just gonna walk into the security station through the front door?"

Mal's smile has a you-idiot flavour to it. "No. You're gonna find me a way round the back."

* * * *

"Guy shoved me," Jayne shrugs. "I shoved back. Not like I was tryin' to mount a rescue."

Simon is touched by the mercenary's modesty. Underneath that gruff exterior, it turns out that Jayne's really quite a decent man. "Still – I appreciate you trying."

The fear and anger at being caught Jayne can deal with but guilt's still too new an emotion for him to handle easily. "You know what I'd appreciate? If you'd stop flappin' that pretty mouth at me. I'm tryin' to think of a way out of here an' I can't do it with you yammerin'."

Simon falls silent and River is confused. Simon's coming adrift. His mooring to the Captain has slipped loose and now he's heading downstream towards the rapids and the waterfall beyond. Is that why he's smiling at Jayne? Why he's flattering him? Is Jayne his last hope? River stares at the mercenary. He reminds her of someone she used to know. No – that's not right. He reminds her of someone Simon used to know. Oh, God. Pain and shame and the fear of someone finding out come crashing down on her. That man hurt Simon – whilst his friend stood by and laughed. It was the holiday ...

"They took Christmas away," she whispers, as the pieces fall into place.

"Christmas?" Jayne asks, bewildered.

"Came down the stairs for the shiny presents, but they took the tree and the stockings. Nothing left but coal." Her brow wrinkles. The man who did that to Simon wasn't Jayne. Jayne tried to save him. Liu koushi de biaozi hehouzi de ben erzi! The water's murky and the tide keeps changing. Jayne is their friend. She smiles at him. "And don't look in the closet either. That's greedy. It's not in the spirit of the holiday."

* * * * *

They're close. River can feel it. She starts to run. Is the screaming her own? No time to worry about that. Sometimes you have to follow your instinct, find your way to the voice that calls you. Even if it means barrelling down corridors with no idea of where they'll lead. Or braving corners so dark demons might live there. If the staircase goes down, you just have to descend it and trust in the voice.

The empty room echoes with the sound of their footstep and the door is locked.

The doors are always locked. It makes people feel safe, even if they suffocate inside.

"This is it," she announces breathlessly. Her eyes shine but the victory is not hers. There's a current between them and all she did was let is carry her.

Door ain't gonna yield to brute force alone, Jayne realizes. Gonna need some fire power. "Stand back." He takes a shot at the door with the rifle Simon handed him earlier but the gorram thing's worse than useless. "Xi niu high-tech Alliance crap!" he mutters angrily before using it as a battering ram on the lock. He can hear the footsteps closin' in on 'em. He bashes harder, not knowin' what caused all that screamin' and not much carin' to.

Suddenly there a loud shotgun blast and the door flies open. Mal and Zoe are standing there, the guns in their hands still smoking.

By force of habit, Mal checks off his crew. One, two, three. River, Simon, Jayne. The hurry-it-up gesture he gives them conveys a nonchalance he don't feel.

River slips her hand into Simon's. "Time to go."

* * * * *

"What happened to your face?" Kaylee asks, indicating the swelling on Jayne's forehead. Ain't that jus' like her, gorram sweet thing that she is?

"Got it shot," Jayne answers. He'd like to revel in her attention, but he's gettin' an odd kinda vibe off Mal an' is keen to put some distance between 'em.

Kaylee gasps. "With a gun?!"

"One of them 'non-lethal' guns," Jayne sneers. Never did see the point of them things. You shoot a fella, you want him dead.

Mal certainly does. But it ain't necessarily gonna come to that. He only gotta scare him ...

Somewhere between findin' out they'd been took and seein' the look on that treacherous bastard's face when Zoe blasted that door open, Mal worked it out. How the whole ruttin' mess was Jayne's doin'. Kinda pained him to know for sure that the mercenary was every bit as untrustworthy as he'd always suspected. Thought maybe what happened on Higgins' Moon mighta woke the chun zi up to his moral failin's but – apparently – not so much. So it falls to Mal to point a few things out to him. An' if he don't see 'em – well, Mal's shot men under his command before.

"It was a sonic rifle," Simon tells Kaylee with a sideways admiring glance at Jayne. "He was amazing! I can't begin to tell you ... we wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for him." He looks up at Jayne, eyes shining and clasps his arm. "Thank you."

Jealousy rips through Mal's belly like shrapnel.

"Hey," Jayne can't hold the medic's gaze. "You're on my crew."

"I think I might cry," Mal says, changing his mind. Pointin' things out, a bullet in the brainpan - both too good for the likes of Jayne. After what he did today the sight of him acceptin' Simon's adulation - an' the sight of Simon damn well givin' it to him – is all too much. Mal had some experience with torture durin' the war. Both ends of it. He knows how to make a man suffer. How to make a strong man cry. Trick lies in tailorin' it just right. His tone is deceptively neutral. "Jayne, help me with the cargo. Everyone else – make yourselves useful. You got jobs, go do 'em."

"Gotta be one of our best takes ever," Jayne comments, unease making him talkative.

"Doc had a good plan. Boy's got a decent criminal mind." Mal picks up the wrench and weighs it in his hand. It's heavy enough that he could kill Jayne with it if he's not careful. And you can't hurt a man who's already dead.

"What're you buyin' with your cut ...?" Jayne's question is punctuated by a solid blow to the head.

* * * * *

River is drawing when Simon enters her room. A perfect row of Russian dolls, starting with the biggest and tapering down to the smallest. He compliments her artistic skill as he fills a syringe.

"I brought you some medicine. You remember why we went to the hospital?"

"Time to go to sleep again?" she asks.

He shakes his head. "No mei-mei – it's time to wake up."

She lets him take her arm and watches his face as he inserts the needle. So much tenderness in him. So much love. "Snow White and the handsome prince. Not dead, you know. Only sleeping. Poisoned by the apple. True love's kiss will bring up the pieces."

"Well, Snow White should probably lie down for a little." He smiles affectionately at her. "I'll be back to check on you in an hour, okay?"

"Shell's going to crack and then all the chickens will be coming home to roost." River warns, wagging a finger.

"Shh. We'll talk about it later." He blows her a kiss and opens the door. She waves cheerily as he slides it shut.

* * * * *

Why the good gorram is it so noisy? An' what the hell is Jayne doin' lyin' on the floor. Through the pain that's splittin' his skull he realizes he's in the airlock. Huh? How'd that happen? There's a tap on one of the diamond window panes and he looks up to see Mal pointing to something lying on the floor.

Confounded, he switches the thing on. "The hell are you doin'?" he croaks.

"Figured it was time for a little chat." Mal's voice crackles through the walkie-talkie. He jabs at a button and the airlock door opens a fraction. Jayne squints against the sudden bright light.

"Seems to me we had a solid plan," Mal continues, drawin' it out. He wants to make Jayne sweat. "Smooth you might say. But what I can't figure out is what you were doin' round the back exit."

"What? I couldn't go round the front," Jayne lies. "I had to improvise. Open the damn door!"

He's scared and Mal knows it but the demand goes unacknowledged. "You called the Feds," Mal declares regrettin' there's a wall between 'em. Cos there's a lot to be said for bein' able to smell the fear.

"What? I got pinched!" Least tha's got the benefit of bein' true so Jayne is able to sound indignant.

"Which is what happens when you call the Feds."

"No! I would never do that!" Jayne protests. "My hand to God! May he strike me down as I'm standin' here!"

Involuntarily Mal's hand curls into a fist. "Well, you won't be standin' there long. Minute we hit atmo, you'll be a lot thinner when you get sucked out that hole." Shame about that gorram vacuum thing, Mal reflects. In space, ain't no-one can hear you scream. An' he's pretty sure he'd like to hear Jayne scream. Nearly sold the Doc to people as would torture him an' his sis, an' somehow got the boy to idolize him for it. Mal is gonna make him regret that.

"No! Come on, Mal. That ain't no way for a man to die. You wanna kill me, shoot me. Jus' let me in."

"You know – I hear tell they used to keel-haul traitors back in the days." Drag 'em under the boat, let the barnacles rip the flesh from their bodies before they drowned. "I don't have a keel to haul you on, so ..."

"Oh." Mal ain't easy fooled an' Jayne knows it. "Okay, I'm sorry. Right?"

Mal's anger is white hot. Makes him icy. "Sorry for what, Jayne? I thought you'd never do such a thing?" He's glarin' at Jayne through the window an' the mercenary's kinda grateful he can't jus' reach out an' strangle him.

"Money was too good. I got stupid. I'm sorry, okay? Be reasonable. Why're you takin' this so personal? It ain't like I ratted you out to the Feds."

"But you did," Mal snarls through the glass. "You turn on any of my crew - you turn on me. Which, if such a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around, then you got no place here. You did it to me, Jayne and that's a fact." He turns and walks away from the door.

"What're you gonna tell the others?"

"About what?"

"About why I'm dead?"

"Hadn't thought about it."

"Make summat up," Jayne mutters. "Don't tell 'em what I did."

Mal never expected Jayne to find the words to reach through his anger an' yet he has. Six simple little words. Oh, he's dumb an' graspin' an' totally untrustworthy – none of tha's changed – but those words got a power to 'em an' now Mal don't wanna kill him no more. Well, not for any justifiable reason like treason. He goes back over to the door, where Jayne's face is still pressed up against the glass.

"The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face."

He leaves the big man where he is. Best he keeps out of Mal's way for a spell.

* * * * *

Now that the rage has left him Mal feels exhausted. Completely spent. Could sleep for a ruttin' month. Sooner he gets to his bunk the better ...

Simon drains his tea-cup and puts it in the sink. What a strange day it's been. Terrifying in parts but fruitful too. The cerebral scan is safely in the infirmary, the hold is packed with valuable cargo and Simon's relationship with Jayne has turned a corner. But now it's late and he needs to check on River before retiring to bed ...

Mal looks up and sees Simon heading down the corridor towards him. His heart beats a little faster. There were long moments today when he thought he'd never see him again. The doctor moves aside to let him pass and without warning finds himself being shoved up against the cold metal wall.

"Captain?" His eyes are wide with incomprehension. "Mal – are you all right? You look ..."

"Bizui," Mal orders, leaning in toward him.

Simon's mouth opens and instantly Mal's is covering it. His tongue is tracing the soft wet inner edges of Simon's lips and his arms are drawing him nearer. The hot, dangerous, intoxicating scent of him is filling Simon's nostrils and it's a joy beyond words to be able to breathe it in. This close there's another note beneath the familiar smell of worn leather and slightly stale sweat - an intimate spicy musk of indefinable composition that seems to enter Simon's body molecule by molcule, starting a chain of chemical reactions of extraordinary scope and power, changing him from the inside out. Turning him into someone better, stronger – new. He clings tightly to Mal and kisses him back, putting everything he has into it. Trying to tell Mal things words never could. Whatever Mal wants he can have it. Because Simon only wants him. Wants to make him happy.

Tian a, this could be so good. There's a fire in this boy to match his own. Anger an' pain too. Darkness ain't nothin' new to him. An' he ain't tryin' to retreat from this, he's tryin' to push it forward. Simon's mouth is hot and wet and tight around Mal's tongue and he finds himself hardening in response to the implied promise. Then a hand is on the small of his back and Simon is rocking against him in a way that drives the breath from his lungs and sparks nerve endings into almost painful life. But it ain't the points of contact between them that makes Mal realize how much he wants the boy. It's the part of his body that ain't touching him that do that. They way they strain twoards him an' the gorram certainty they will have their way if he don't stop this right now.

The needy little noise comes from Mal's own throat but it still shocks him into reason. Abruptly he pulls back and pushes the medic sharply away. "'s no good!" he snaps angrily as Simon wilts against the wall. "Don't want this!" And then he's stalking off down the corridor, leaving Simon weak-kneed and wretched.

He covers his face with his hands and notices they're shaking. He tries to steady his breathing and remember that this feeling, bad as it is, will pass. Eventually.

A hand on his arm startles him. River. He wishes his sister would wear shoes like everybody else. Her behaviour is creepy enough as it is. And none of it's her fault. Certainly not this.

"Doesn't want to do it to you," River says, gazing dreamily after Mal.

"Thank you," Simon replies bitterly. "I'd worked that out for myself."

She stares at him, astonished, her eyes raking over his face for signs he understands. Has she left him so far behind?

"I don't give a good gorram, Zoe," Wash all but shouts as he and his wife appear at the other end of the corridor. "We need a holiday."

Zoe spots Simon and River and decides not to argue. Don't wanna be airin' this in public. Simon has a similar instinct. Somehow he pulls himself together and tries to encourage River back to the passenger dorm. "Come on, mei-mei," he wheedles. "Let's just go to bed."

Bed. It's what he wants. What they both want. It's the fear that stands in their way. The Shadow. "Pudding and pie," River says loudly, resisting Simon's attempts to move her and blocking the gangway.

Zoe quirks an eyebrow at Simon who shakes his head and shrugs. "I'm sorry. I really have no idea what she's talking about."

"Not what," River exclaims impatiently, slapping his arm. "Who. Georgie Porgy. Kissed the girls and made them cry."

"What?"

Wash notices Zoe's spine stiffen.

"Ask her," River says, pointing. "She knows. Georgie Porgy, pudding and pie. Kissed the girls and made them cry."

Zoe doesn't say a word, merely shoulders River out of her way and strides off at speed, with Wash almost running along in her wake. "Zoe, baobei? Honey? What is it? What's the matter?"

Chapter Text

Mal yanks off his boots and throws himself down on the bed. He don't bother undressin'. For a long while he lies with arms crossed behind his head starin' up at the ceiling, tryin' to ignore the naggin' ache in his balls an' how uncomfortably tight his always snug pants feel right now. It's all his own ruttin' fault anyhow. Ten minutes ago the Doc woulda been in here happily administerin' somethin' to ease his discomfort. Now he's more like to wanna inflict pain on him than the other thing. Yesu tamade but Mal is one stupid sonofabitch. Ought never have let the boy get to him. Shou'n't never've started admirin' his devotion to his sis, his smart mouth an' his determination. Shoulda stayed irritated by 'em. Gorramit – somehow Simon Tam's breached all of Mal's defences, bar one. An' that ain't gonna happen. Not never. Cos every damn thing Mal touches turns to dust an' he's learnt his lesson well. No touchin'.

He groans and rolls over onto his side, wishin' to hell that Zoe an' Wash would tone it down. Though it's mostly Wash doin' the yellin'.

* * * * *

One look at Zoe's face tells Wash it's serious. And there's only one thing Zoe takes that seriously: Mal. That chou wang ba dan de too zai zi Mal. Sometimes Wash thinks Zoe shoulda just ... He kicks a chair over and glares at his wife, defying her to complain about it. She doesn't say a word.

"What the hell is this, Zoe?" he demands, his voice tight with anger. "You see – me - I just ignore that poor kid's crazy talk but here you are ... " He gestures wildly with his hands. "All quiet and gloomified. What was all that Georgie Porgy stuff about kissing girls?"

"Who knows?" Zoe shrugs unconvincingly. "River never makes much sense."

"Except this time she did. At least, she did to you." Wash points out, his tone softening. "And it upset you. Wanna tell me why?"

Zoe sighs and rubs her palms together. "Not really."

"It's something to do with Mal, isn't it?" Wash persists.

Zoe looks at him out of the corner of her eye. "Yes," she finally admits with a sigh. "But it don't affect you an' me, baobei."

He knows she's sincere – he's just not sure whether she's right. "It affected you. That means it affects me. It's a thing."

She smiles. "It was all a long time ago, Wash. Water under the bridge."

Wash's slightly worried expression turns terrified. "You said you an' him ... you said you never ... You swore to me, Zoe .."

"An' it was the truth," she says, her gaze intense and earnest. But there's so much going on behind her eyes, it doesn't do much to allay her husband's fears.

Wash resumes his distracted pacing, brows furrowed as he recalls that conversation. The one they had early on in their relationship when Wash didn't really understand the bond between Zoe and Mal. Ha! He still doesn't understand it, but he's always believed what she told him. She never slept with Mal. She didn't want to. Mal didn't want to. And then it hits him. How he'd framed the question in such a way that she could tell him the truth and yet tell him nothing. How he'd meant had they ever wanted to and she hadn't.

He tugs at a handful of hair. "You said neither of you wanted to ... but now I'm thinking you were talking about then. When I asked you. What about before?"

"Before doesn't matter!" Zoe cries, reaching out a hand. "I love you. I married you! And anyhow – nothin' ever happened."

Wash would so like to believe her. "There's something you're not telling me!" he suddenly shouts, pointing an accusing finger at her. "And it's driving me crazy! You're always telling me not to be jealous and how I can trust you. But what about him, Zoe? Can I trust Mal? Cos if he used to want you before, could be he's still harbouring some feelings for you ... Could be he's still waiting for his moment."

"He don't want me!" Zoe is surprised to find herself yellin'. "He never wanted me, you yuo ben de chun zi!"It takes several deep breaths before she's back in control. "How many times I have to say it? How damn fragile is your ego, husband? Cos I'm gettin' sick of this!"

Wash is taken aback. One minute the moral high ground was his, now he's being painted the villain of the piece. He grabs Zoe's arm. "And what about you Zoe? You ever want him?"

He thinks he sees her flinch but the reaction is gone so quickly he can't be sure about it. Or begin to guess what it means. Her eyes are blazing now and she shakes free of his hand. "I've had enough of this," she says coldly, one foot already on the bottom rung of the ladder. "I'm gonna check on the cargo. What we got is valuable – don't want it gettin' broken."

Wash lets her go, noticing how she avoided answering his question and not for the first time thinking how much simpler their marriage'd be without the shadow Malcolm Reynolds casts over it.

* * * * *

River is laughing hysterically. "Been king too long," she splutters, doubling over. "Thinks he can hold back the tide."

"Shh, mei-mei," Simon whispers. "You'll wake Shepherd Book! Come on – lie down. Time to go to sleep."

She falls silent as abruptly as if he'd turned off a switch and allows herself to be guided to the bed. "Not time to sleep," she complains as he tucks her in. "Time to wake up. Time for the boys to come out to play."

Simon's mouth twists and he bites back a bitter reply. "Good night, mei-mei."

Back in his own room, Simon looks for a way to vent his frustration. He'd like to break something. Someone's neck. He picks up a pillow and flings it across the room. Pathetic. Just like him.

He crawls into bed and pulls the covers up right over his head and tries to sleep, but Simon has never fallen asleep easily. He can lie awake for hours. That's usually when his thoughts turn to Mal. And tonight he'd much rather they didn't. The secret fantasies that have sustained for the past few months seem more like a kind of torture now.

At least the physical craving has subsided. His body's about as flaccid as his self-esteem. Painful rejection has that much to be said for it at least. He squeezes his eyes shut and rides an unexpected wave of sadness. This would be so much easier to bear if he still believed Mal's lack of interest was because the man was one hundred per cent plain. But that comforting explanation was swept clean away by the hunger in his kiss. No – Mal didn't push him away because Simon's a man – it was because he's Simon. And that hurts.

Hurts so much and Mal has no idea. Doesn't know or doesn't care. He really is a bastard. A self-serving, unremitting bastard. And right now Simon hates him. With a passion. Enough to want him to hurt too.

* * * * *

The cerebral scan answers a lot of Simon's question but it raises many more. Questions he'd like to have time to ponder without being engaged in somewhat ghoulish small-talk by Book. He wonders what the Preacher's real reason for being here is. Did Mal send him? To deliver some pious words about unnatural practices and hell-fire? It seems unlikely. Mal's opinion of religion is about as low as his opinion of Simon. No, Book is probably here on his own account.

"Have you ever read the works of Shan Yu?" Book asks.

Hearing that name on the lips of a man of God sends a chill through Simon. "Shan Yu, the pyschotic dictator?" Psychotic. Dictator. A man who enjoyed making people suffer. Hmmm. Now who does that description remind Simon of? He tries not to listen as Book talks about poetry and torture and war but the words are like missiles, carrying a payload of meaning he doesn't understand and yet can't ignore.

"He said 'live with a man forty years, share his house, his meals, talk with him on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge and on that day you will meet finally meet the man'."

"What if you don't live near a volcano?" Flippancy – the last refuge of the emotionally challenged.

Book smiles. "I expect he was being poetical."

Simon doesn't want to be drawn into this. Whatever this is. "Sadistic crap," he says coldly. "Legitimized by florid prose. Tell me you're not a fan."

"I'm just wondering if they were. The people who did this to River."

* * * * *

The box is out of sight, hidden at the back of Inara's closet. Only for use when the pain seems unbearable. And today the pain is merely bad. Something has happened, she's sure of it because Mal is acting very strangely. He didn't make a single snide remark when she asked for details of Serenity's schedule so that she could make an appointment with a client. He simply gave her the information and even asked if she needed longer. And then he said something about hoping the client appreciated her.

She likes it better when he's obstructive.

Inara returns her attention to her Cortex screen where five hopeful faces look out at her. One is unfamiliar, a high-ranking official recommended by a third party. She clicks on his face and it disappears. Two of the remaining faces are regulars – sincere, gentlemen Inara holds in high regard. She clears them from the screen too. Devon Cartwell's smile is a lot like Mal's. And is gone in a second. That only leaves the Councillor. A good choice, Inara tells herself. The safe option. Someone with whom she can go through the motions and not feel a single thing.

* * * * *

Simon is angry. He woke up angry and Mal has done nothing during the course of the day to change that. He hasn't spoken a single word to him, has hardly even acknowledged his presence. Which means Simon is still angry when he takes his place at the table for dinner. Not raging, shouting, red-hot angry. No – more like ice-cold, distant and aloof. Carefully ignoring Mal, he smiles at Kaylee, nods to the others and looks at Jayne with undisguised admiration. He doesn't notice the way that makes Mal's jaw tighten and his nostrils flare slightly. Instead he leans across and removes the serving bowl from in front of the Captain without bothering to ask if he's finished with it. Simon came to a few decisions today – chief of which was the firm resolution not to take any more of Malcolm Reynolds' gou shi. He won't let the Captain dish out any more punishment for what was a gesture of genuine, uh, affection. If Mal had wanted to make an issue of it, he should have done so earlier. Simon has apologized. He even offered to leave Serenity but Mal claimed there was no need for either. And then he had to do that ... had to humiliate him like that ... Simon bangs the serving spoon down onto his plate noisily and returns Zoe's quizzical glance with a determined stare. No – he's not going to be bullied by any of them any more.

Meal don't look none too appetizin' but then, Jayne ain't got much of an appetite. He wou'n't be here at all if Mal ha'n't insisted he act normal. So's nobody'd know what he did. On Ariel. The mercenary pushes the mushy protein around his plate half-heartedly wonderin' which is worse: the gettin' your skull cracked by Mal or the waitin' for it to happen again. The man's never simply there like other folk – his presence's got a kinda ominous feel to it. Like Jayne only gotta make one false move an' he'll be in for some more pain of the serious variety.

The stillness opposite tells the mercenary that the Doc is watchin' him. Makes him all manner of twitchy an' guilty. He jerks his head up and demands grumpily, "What ya lookin' at me like that for?"

"Cos you're his hero," Mal says sarcastically, intendin' to uncomfortable Jayne some with the irony of it.

Simon bristles but ignores the remark. Instead he asks Jayne solicitously, "Are you feeling all right? You look a little ... Any headache? Nausea? Dizziness?"

Embarrassed by Simon's concern, Jayne grunts. "Some. Had worse."

Simon's admiration for the mercenary's fortitude grows. "I'm sure you have, but if you've finished eating, I'd like to run a few checks on you. You have a second swelling here - " he indicates the spot Mal struck with the wrench by pointing to his own temple - " which I didn't notice yesterday. I suspect you may be a little concussed."

"Don't want no fuss," Jayne mumbles staring down at his plate. "Anyway – Mal wants us to get the goods prepped for tradin', don't ya? Mal?"

Mal shakes his head, kinda lovin' the big man's discomfiture. "Do as the Doc says," he orders cos the more guilty Jayne feels 'bout his treachery, the less like he is to do anythin' of the sort again. "Let the boy take a look at you. Seein' as how eager he is to take care of you. Don't rightly need either of you right now."

Too late Mal realizes how he made that sound.

Simon turns his head sharply and catches Mal's eye before the Captain has time to look away. Boy's practically cracklin' with fury. "I didn't imagine for one minute that you did, Captain," he says, each word steely and sharp-edged.

See? Dust. It always turns to dust.

* * * * *

Next morning River is sitting in the commons area, hunched over a blank sheet of paper. All round her lie piles of discarded drawings, each identical. The pencil in her hand hovers indecisively for a moment and then it's moving rapidly and precisely, building up form and texture with effortless ease. Kaylee picks up on of her earlier attempts and studies it. The detail is so sharp it's almost like a photograph. And it's exactly like the one River is concentrating on now.

"She sure do like those nestin' doll things," Kaylee says to Simon, who's poring over his encyclopedia. "She have one back on Osiris?"

Simon shakes his head.

"Well maybe she always wanted one." Kaylee kneels down beside her friend. "That it, sweetie?"

"The real one's trapped inside," is River's only answer. She crumples the drawing and tosses it aside in frustation before reaching for another sheet of paper.

Simon pinches the bridge of his nose and clenches his teeth. Kaylee gets up again and pats his shoulder sympathetically, smiling sadly at his desolate expression. "It's a compulsion," he tries to explain. "Caused by whatever they did to her at that school. Mostly probably something she associates with some kind of traumatic event. She doesn't like these dolls, Kaylee. She's just compelled to keep drawing them. She can't stop."

Kaylee considers this for a moment. "Well - that the case – you ever think maybe someone should do it for her? Stop her, I mean."

Simon rubs his cheek. "I don't want to upset her. She's been through so much ..."

"Apples!" River cries looking up expectantly. "To stay in the garden.!"

* * * * *

The man's just as Mal expected. All fancy clothes and manners. Not unlike the Doc. But without any of Simon Tam's endearin' oddness. Mal steps forward and extends a hand.

"Welcome aboard. I'm Capt-..."

Man jus' keeps right on walkin' like Mal wa'n't there. So, not so much with the fancy manners then.

"We're all clear here, Councillor," the man says into the electronic doodad on the side of his face.

There's a shimmer of grey light to Mal's left and he turns to see an exquisite woman gliding up the cargo bay ramp. For a moment he don't get it ... then Inara is embracing her, kissing her and Mal's mouth falls open. "Huh."

Inara and the Councillor ascend the stairs, matching each other step for step, beauty for beauty. Even their gowns move in the same flowing, hypnotic rhytmn. Mal's mouth is dry. He turns away quickly. Does Inara torment him like this on purpose? A man can only take so much.

Once in Inara's shuttle, the Councillor allows Inara to undress her. For a moment she stands naked, enjoying the feel of the Companion's eyes on her body. Inara smiles sweetly and leads her to the bed. Yes, Councillor Altana was the perfect choice. So self-absorbed and self-satisfied, she has neither the skill nor interest to reach Inara's heart. Inara sits beside her and runs practised hands up the unblemished golden skin of her back. Routine tasks calm the mind and Inara craves a little calm. "You have such beautiful skin ..." Words without meaning, like an incantation. Inara finds her mind slipping away.

"There's no need for show, Inara," the Councillor replies, playing her part to perfection. "I just need to relax with someone who's making no demands on me."

Inara seeks to reassure her that she wants nothing in return. She prefers it that way. Because wanting leads invariably to pain. "Most of my clientele is male. Did you know that? ... If I choose a woman, she tends to be extraordinary in some way." She doesn't explain that the Councillor's extraordinariness lies in how very blank Inara finds her and how safe that makes her feel. "And the fact is, I occasionally have the exact same need as you do. One cannot always be one's self in the company of men."

"Never, actually," the Councillor agrees.

"So, no show," Inara promises. "Let's just enjoy ourselves." She closes her eyes as the Councillor strokes her hair and leans in for a kiss, happy to let her body take over, leaving her essence – the real Inara - untouched and intact.

* * * * *

THEN

"You don't always ... always have to be ... so ... so damn careful about it!"

They were hemmed in on all sides, bein' shot at an' bombed and yet again supplies had failed to get through. So - another excitin' adventure in doin' not very much and tryin' not to get killed.

Except Bain had had an idea about how to pass the time.

"For God's sake, Mal ... I want ... all of you." The words come out in shallow lungfuls. "Let go for once ... Stop holding back."

Instead Mal stopped moving completely. He bumped an apologetic finger down the other man's spine. "I ... I jus' don't wanna hurt you," he mumbled and immediately contradicted himself by leaning forwards and delivering a sharp nip to Bain's shoulder.

Bain reached an arm back to hold him there. "Mal – I know your Momma brought you up to be a gentleman but I'm not some girly-girl you have to be chivalrous with." He thrust harder into Mal's hand to underline the point. "I'm not saying I don't enjoy slow, but on occasion I like hard and fast as much as the next man. And I'm not so afraid of a little pain I want my play in half measures. Dong ma?" He twisted his head round and caught half of Mal's mouth in a wet kiss. "I don't want polite and good-mannered." Another kiss, then in a hoarse whisper, "I want the real you Mal, not who you think you ought to be. Please."

A man can only hang on so long. An' then only when he's concentratin' on the hangin' on. Cos he feels he has to. But Bain's words loosed all Mal's ties to 'should' an' 'ought' an' he lost his balance. Went flyin' an' fallin' all at once. Heavier than stone and light as air, lost in the wantin' an' havin'. Nothin' else mattered. Not right, not wrong, not Bain – nothin'. Jus' blood an' skin. Bone an' fluid. Flesh in flesh and sensation on sensation until the 'verse throbbed and hummed and Mal was flung to the very edge of it. For a moment he was held tight in stillness, in almost-peace, an' then the 'verse turned itself inside out an' him with it, leavin' him fightin' for breath as his body shuddered and pulsed beyond his control.

Bain let out a little hiss as he withdrew and Mal feared he'd gone too far, crossed too many boundaries. But Bain rolled over to face him, a lazy sated smile on his lips.

"You okay?" Mal asked.

Bain grinned and pushed the damp hair back from Mal's forehead. "I'm better than okay, Mal. So – that was the real you? Glad to have met him. But tell me ..." his eyes were dancing. "Are you sure you lean towards women? Because – hey! Stop that! Mal ... I mean it ..." He had to break off because Mal had him pinned down and had just discovered his friend was horribly ticklish and before long they were wrestling and rolling through the scrub, laughing with content and relief whilst in the distance bombs kept falling.

 

* * * * *

"Bye hon. We promise not to stop for drinks with the fellas!" Wash promises Zoe with a grin as he slips into the pilot's seat. He turns to Mal, damn near smirkin'. "So – we gonna sing army songs or somethin'?"

Mal stares at him like he's from a different species. Why's he lookin' so gorram smug? So triumphant? This ain't him winnin'. It's him bein' ruttin' stupid. Whatever does Zoe see in this clown? Time to let him know this is a one-off. Mal ain't comfortable with the notion of havin' to rely on Wash for back-up. He's only goin' along with this lunacy because Bolles ain't the kinda fence you get trouble from ...

 

* * * * *

Time is running out. The elections are looming and the Consul will not wait forever. The Director cracks his knuckles. They'd been so close, he felt sure they would get her back. But Gaunt and Ginger let her slip through their fingers. The Director would be within his rights to terminate them for their failure, but such action would only draw attention to his own shortcomings. No, better to assume fear will make them redouble their efforts. And besides – the Ariel debacle was not a complete disaster. At least they now know that the girl's aboard the Firefly class vessel Serenity and that the brother is still with her. There's little point in retrieving one without the other. Without him, she will not imprint. The Director laughs. It's almost poetic. Using love to unleash the whirlwind.

He flicks through the file of Prospects on his desk and notes with satisfaction that in each case, excepting River Tam's, imprinting depends on a predictably venal weakness – anger, greed, lust, envy. Common, everyday failings ripe for development and exploitation. River Tam's weakness eluded them for many months. And then someone looked more closely at her letters home and all became clear. The girl's greatest weakness was love.

Once that had been discovered, the rest was relatively simple. They worked on her endlessly, tweaking responses, implanting the phrase, the scenario. When the time came her brother would be 'persuaded' to utter those three words and thanks to his proclivities, the girl would believe him. Thus the Consul would take ownership of the 'verse's most efficient, mostly deadly bodyguard. Complete and infallible protection. Better than a fortress.

* * * * *

Soon as Mal's fingers came into contact with that strip of fabric, he knew there'd be torture involved. It was the feel of cold metal and that all-pervasive smell that told him it'd be electrocution. And when the blindfold came off and he saw the twinklin' smile of that tamade old psychopath, he understood why. And how much of it there'd be.

Electrocution ain't like other tortures. Knives, flames, blunt objects – they can only hit you so many places at a time. Electrocution gets you everywhere all at once. It's like fightin' a war on a million fronts. Ain't no way you're gonna win. Only question is how long you can hold out before your defences crumble, before the walls you've built to protect yourself start tumblin' leavin' you exposed an' vulnerable.

Mal's got a particular dread of electrocution.

* * * * * *

"Now we got some money, next time we go someplace with a Triplex, I'm gonna buy another fancy dress like that one the Cap'n got me for the ball," Kaylee declares.

Zoe purses her lips.

"What? You think I should get somethin' slinky?" the mechanic asks her.

Zoe grins. "Hell, yes! All them frills an' bows – obscures the view, if you know what I'm sayin'."

Kaylee's face drops. "You can't've thought much of my ballgown then?" Her bottoms lip juts out a fraction. "What 'bout you, Simon?" She turns to the medic and flutters her eyelashes a little. "You prefer slinky too?"

He looks up from the page he's read three times already. "What? Sorry. I was just ... " He looks at his watch and then at Zoe. "Shouldn't Wash and the Captain be back by now?"

Zoe smiles at his obvious anxiety. Boy's not very good at hidin' his feelin's. "Clandestine dealin's, little one, don't always follow a strict schedule. They're only a few minutes late. An' any worryin' needs doin', I'll do it. You go back to your readin'. Somethin' interestin'?"

"Mmm. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Not much of it's relevant to River, I'm afraid. Most of the case studies are on emergency services personnel. And the military."

"Really?" Zoe raises an eyebrow. "Interestin'."

* * * * *

They're arguin'. It's good that they're arguin'. Keeps the adrenalin flowin' and dulls the pain. 'Course, Wash don't know that.

"What about love?" he demands.

Mal nearly laughs. Love ain't gonna get them through this. Anger – hate – that's what they need. Luckily Wash already got plenty of ill-feelin' towards him. All Mal has to do is crank it up some. "I ain't against it as a general rule. But in situations such as ours, it tends to cause problems. It splits loyalties." He has to stop for breath and somehow his mind jumps from loyalty to betrayal to Jayne and then Simon. Can't think on that. Defences'll be breached all the sooner if he does.

"You know what I think?" Wash all but sneers.

Mal tenses at that, anticipatin' an unkind but wholly accurate assessment of his character but instead a surge of current burns through him. There's no resistin' it – jus' gotta hang on. Beside him, Wash crumples a little as the fight begins to drain out of him.

"What, Wash? What do you think? Because I'm interested!"

Struggling to breathe, Wash lifts his head. "This policy you got against shipboard relationships – that's just you projecting your own intimacy issues on everyone else." Wash's voice is thick with somethin' unexpected: pity. Now jus' who the good gorram is supposed to be torturin' who here?

Another jolt of electricity. The torturer? Oh yeah, that would be Niska. An' he's good at it. Too good. Wash is failin'. Too much love in him and not enough hate.

"Or, could be a might simpler than that. Could be I jus' don't think you're good enough for Zoe," Mal needles him. For his own good.

"I don't give a good gorram what you think!" There's a spark in that answer, somethin' that still wants to live.

"Oh don't you? See – I think you do. Zoe and I – we got a history. An' I figure you gotta be askin' yourself some fundamental questions as to the nature of that history."

The strange thing? The truly crazy, wacky thing? Suddenly Wash realizes Zoe's been telling him the absolute truth all along. "You never slept with my wife."

"Oh? That a fact?" Gotta keep goadin' him or he's goin' down. "You know that for certain, do ya? You ever asked her?"

Another twist of the dial and the pain blocks everthing out. Limbs shudder uncontrollably and muscles contract under impulses too powerful for them. Mal's still breathin' heavily when he resumes tormentin' his pilot. "We'd been together a long time before you came along Wash. An' she's a damn fine-lookin' woman!"

"Never happened." Wash's voice is ragged but certain. "Know how I know?"

"How? Tell me?"

Wash drags in some air. "This whole 'Captain' thing isn't Zoe's trouble. Its the guys-she-never-slept-with thing. Hell, Mal – I wish you had slept with her. Then at least she'd be over it."

"Oh, you want me to sleep with her? Would that make you fell better?" Mal snaps back at him, his anger real now. He don't wanna be hearin' this. He don't wanna think someone he cares for could lie with him an' then move on, takin' a piece of him with them. Not when he's lost so much already.

"It might."

What the hell does Wash take him for? The likes of Jayne? Kinda fella who wants nothin' more than to wet his wick an' never kiss no-one on the mouth? That ain't Mal. Wishes it were sometimes, but no – Mal wants everythin'. An' forever. An' that tends to make things complicated. He twists his head round an' finds Wash ain't lookin' so good. Needs another jab. "I imagine it'd do wonders for her too!"

"Screw you!"

"Get in line!"

The next blast of agony is almost a relief but after it Wash's legs give out and his head slumps forward onto his chest. Mal knows that he can't let Wash win this argument or he'll lose his life. Gotta keep him angry. "Okay, gonna do it then. Wash! Listen ... first thing we get back ... Wash! Listen to me! I'm takin' your wife into my bed. I'm gonna get me a piece of ..."

The rest of the sentence turns to sparks on Mal's tongue under the onslaught of another surge of electricity.

* * * * *

Zoe's face gives nothing away. She scarcely even bothers to give her husband and her Captain a second glance. "It's five times what you paid us for the train job, " she tells Niska, her tone even and business-like.

The old man's smile is much like that of any other elderly gentleman. Almost as if he's proud of her success. "Yes. You have had – you say it? - good times ... I see that."

"Should be more than enough to buy back my men."

Niska chafes a little at her assumption. "This is your opinion, is it?"

Zoe stands her ground. "It is."

"They are perhaps damaged now. Are they worth so much to you?"

"Yes." The word is too heart-felt, too true. Niska has her and they both know it. Now the real torture can begin.

"And to me they are worth more." His assertion is a blasphemy and Zoe would cut his tongue out for it if she could. However great the hatred he bears Mal, it is a puny emotion beside Zoe's love for him. And even that love is overshadowed by her feeling for her husband. Her dear, sweet, crazy husband. The man who sees the real Zoe in all her strength and who loves her despite her weaknesses – maybe even because of them.

"I think this is not enough. For two. But sufficient perhaps for one ...Ah - so now you have a question to answer ..."

"Him," she interrupts without hesitation. Wash. Because Wash is hers in a way that Mal never was and never will be and even though Zoe would die for Mal without a second thought, she won't let her husband. "I'm sorry – you were goin' to ask me to choose, right? Did you wanna finish?"

Niska stares at her, amazed. "He is yours. We are ended now." But it was too easy for her, no? The suffering should be extended, he is thinking. Drawn out slowly, like nails. "A moment please! This money ... There is too much. You should have some small refund." He turns to his henchman and issues an order in a tongue Zoe doesn't understand. The man advances on Mal with a savage blade. It flashes once and then Mal is screaming, a sound that erupts for some deep well of pain inside him. Wash stumbles against Zoe and she has to brace herself and close her ears to Mal's torment.

It's the only way to survive.

* * * * *

Serenity trembles a little as the shuttle docks, mirroring the response of her crew. Five pairs of eyes turn expectantly towards the door.

Wash comes through it first, looking both better and worse than Simon had been expecting. Better in that he's at least able to walk. And worse – well, because Simon's never seen someone who's been tortured before. "Let me take a look," he urges. "How bad is it?"

Wash pulls away. "I'm fine."

And then Inara says the two words Simon's been trying keep out of his mouth, his mind. "Where's Mal?"

Simon knows the answer. He just knows. Mal is dead. Or soon will be.

"Niska wouldn't let him go," Zoe replies bluntly.

Inara's eyes widen and her heart hammers in her chest. "Is he alive?"

A beat and then Zoe answers. "For now." She turns to Simon. "Take that to the infirmary." Her voice echoes weirdly through the fog of despair that has enveloped him. "Put it on ice."

Simon looks down, amazed to see there's something in his hand, wrapped in white cloth. He opens it mechanically and stares, numb. Unable to feel anything.

"What is it?" Kaylee asks despite herself.

"It's his ear," Simon hears himself say calmly. Everything - everyone else – is moving, sliding forward and away into the future, whilst he is suspended in this one moment in time. Hanging over the volcano's edge. Holding all that may be left of the man he ...

"We're getting him back." Zoe's words yank Simon back from the edge.

Jayne frowns. "What we gonna do? Clone him?"

Simon looks at Zoe, snatches some of her determination for himself and dares to hope. To believe he can help somehow. "It's a clean cut. With the right equipment, I should be able to attach it." But they're words. Just words. Clinical. Detached. And absurd. The fiery pit beneath him opens up again. "That's assuming there's a head."

Somehow he gets to the infirmary and packs the ear in ice. The ear – not Mal's ear. He can't let himself think about that.

Then he walks slowly to his bunk and with infinite calm, vomits into the toilet bowl over and over again until he's bringing up nothing but bile.

He's empty, shallow, hollow. Hardly a man, let alone a doctor. How could he have wished hurt on Mal? He'd rather die himself. Simon doesn't believe in Fate or in the tempting of it, and yet somehow he feels this is all his fault.

"You're not responsible." He looks up and River is standing in the doorway, eyes brimming with compassion. "It's not your fault."

"What?"

"You think because it was your idea to steal that medicine, and because it happened when he was out there trying to sell it, that's why he got took." She trips over the last word, like it's not her own. "Taken." Again River looks confused, as though someone's putting words into her mouth. "Abducted. The Captain was abducted." That's it – the higher register is her own. He's not there in her head any more, telling her what to say, comforting her brother.

Simon smiles weakly and looks down at his feet. "River, mei-mei, there's something I have to do. The others ... they're going to try to rescue the Captain and I ... River, I ..."

She crouches down in front on him, one hand on his knee, the other stroking his cheek. "It's all right. I know. You need to go with them. Can't hold back the tide, Simon."

"I can't just sit here. I'm sorry it means leaving you behind but I have to do something, River." He swallows and smiles again, shyly this time. "I have to. Because ..."

Her head tilts to one side. Three words. She realizes she's been waiting for them. "Because?"

He shakes his head, disbelieving it himself. "I love him."

In her mind's eye, River watches as the puzzle solves itself. Pieces slot easily and inevitably into place. Knots untangle and the marble rolls unhindered down its track. White resolves into a spectrum of colours and the cacophony she's lived with for years reveals its true harmony. Her purpose. At last she's found it. She is Simon's and Simon is Mal's, which makes her Mal's too. Simple.

"River? Are you all right."

"Perfectly. Time to get the Captain, Simon."

 

* * * * *

"You jus' gonna turn up on her doorstep?" Zoe asks dubiously.

Inara shrugs. "What else can I do? She won't answer my waves."

"She ain't gonna like it," Zoe warns.

"In that case she can gen houzi bi diushi," Inara replies vehemently. "I'm going. I can't just stand by and wait for Mal to die!"

Zoe blinks and looks more closely at the Companion's distraught face. Well, taikong suoyou de xing qiu sai jin wo de pigu! – how's she been so blind? Been too busy watchin' the Doctor fall in love with Mal to notice Inara doin' it too. Gorramit – talk about complications!

"What about the Guild? Won't they have somethin' to say about you breakin' their rules?"

"I don't care, Zoe. If Mal were to die and I hadn't done everything I could to prevent it, I couldn't live with myself." Inara realizes she's on the point of crying. She digs her fingernails into her palms and paints on a false smile. "And if he doesn't die and I didn't do everything ... Well, we all now how insufferable he can be!"

* * * * *

Mal's no longer sure where the pain stops and he begins. Maybe he is the pain. Always winds up hurtin' – other people, himself – that's for sure. An' sometimes he means to. Which is bad. Makes him a bad man. Could be he deserves this – the crampin' agony of blood loss and the nerve-janglin' screech of metal against bone. He's done a lot he ain't proud of an' mayhaps don't deserve the mercy of a bullet to the brainpan, but he needs to rest. He craves stillness, peace. The losin' hisself. His eyes close and he lets himself fall into the Black.

But there ain't no rest for the wicked. His body pulses and shudders and he's gasping for breath.

"Mr Reynolds?" The sing-song cheery tone lights the Black once more. Mal groans. "You died, Mr Reynolds," Niska informs him.

"Seemed like the thing to do." Still seems like it, cos Mal can't struggle on with this load no more. The hill's too high. The boulder too heavy.

"When you die, I can't hurt you anymore. And I need two days, at least. Minimum. I think many people know the name Malcolm Reynolds. They know he crossed Niska. They must know what happened after that. They must know business is still running."

Two days? It's too much. And so very little. The senseless finality of it crushes down on Mal's chest like rock. He closes his eyes and wishes what's left of his life away.

At first he thinks it's the blood ringing in his ears, but eventually Mal realizes that noise is an alarm. When he manages to prise his eyelids open again, he sees Niska talking anxiously into his comms system. "Dalin? What is this? Dalin?"

Zoe came back for him. Again. Bad as he is. Somehow he manages to swing his legs down and his feet find the floor. Hope and anger combine to override the throb from open wounds and he looks round for a weapon. Ah – the very thing! The tendrils sink into Niska's henchman's back with the same ease they ate into Mal, with similar results. Screaming, the man claws at his back and falls to the ground. Niska turns and looks like he's seen a ghost. Mal advances on him. At last – someone worthy of the kinda pain Mal's capable of dishin' out. He takes a swing at the old man, lands a solid blow to his jaw and sends him tumbling over backwards. "Looks like business ain't runnin' so much as crawlin' away," he growls. Turns out pain is as effective as pleasure in loosin' the ties to 'should' and 'ought'. Vengeance might result in the same kind of high. "You wanna meet the 'real me' now?"

* * * * *

"Don't think, just shoot," Book advises.

Simon's hand tightens around the gun. He can do it if they have a hope of rescuing Mal. Doubly so if they don't. He nods to the Shepherd and follows him down the corridor.

Behind him Kaylee freezes. She starts shaking and tears roll down her cheeks. Cap'n's as dear to her as her own Daddy an' yet she can't do this. Can't kill for him nor for no-one. A bullet whizzes past her and she stumbles into a run. Another bullet, closer now. She dives back behind the cargo bay doorway and sinks to her knees.

River is puzzled by her friend's behaviour. Why is she cringing behind cover when people are trying to kill Mal? She steps out of the shadow and picks up the gun Kaylee's dropped, giving the terrified girl a smile that's all quiet confidence. Kaylee is Mal's heart. Without her, his engine won't turn. And River wants to keep breathing. Keep Simon breathing. She peers quickly around the door frame, maps the location of each gunman and dips back again. "Can't look, can't look," she mutters, allowing the implants to take over and then she's standing and firing the gun. Just three shots. One, two, three. Like ducks at the fair, they all keel over and the prize is River's. She raises an eyebrow at Kaylee. "No power in the 'verse can stop me."

* * * * *

Simon is glad he's a doctor for two reasons. First, it means he can do something practical about Mal's injuries. Clean them, dress them, ease the pain. Secondly, he can hide his emotions behind detached professionalism. Stern words about getting enough rest and not overdoing things take the place of sentimentality and afford him some defence against the strength of his feeling for this man.

He helps Mal into his shirt, biting his lip as he sees the Captain wince at the effort involved. "I think you should take a few minutes before trying to stand up again, Captain," he suggests.

Mal nods. "Think you might not be wrong 'bout that, Doc."

Captain, Doctor – the barricades are back up, but Simon doesn't resent them now. He's just glad to have Mal back. "I'm just going to get the Councillor's equipment ready ... if you're ..."

Mal holds his gaze for a while, seemingly on the point of saying something. Instead he just nods again. "Okay. Thanks."

Simon exits the infirmary and joins Book who's already dismantling the high-pressure grafting system. Inara watches them thoughtfully and Simon wonders what she's thinking.

Far earlier than he should Mal comes out into the cargo bay too, fussing about his ear and talking to Inara. Simon concentrates on checking the attachments and putting them carefully away.

"I hear ya'll took up arms in that piece of action back there."

Book nods but Simon feels almost embarrassed. He keeps his eyes lowered wondering how Mal knows. Who told him? Jayne? Zoe?

"How you farin' with that, Doctor?" Mal asks, without a trace of mockery, only interest, concern.

Simon looks up and is surprised by the gentleness in Mal's eyes. "I don't know," he confesses. "I never shot anyone before."

"I was there, son," Book grins, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'm fair sure you haven't shot anyone yet."

The medic can't quite believe his ears. He went through all that for nothing? Then Mal chuckles and he realizes it wasn't for nothing. It was for something – someone- precious.

 

* * * * *

"It's a difficult mission," Mal tells Zoe, brushing her hair back over her shoulder and placing her hand on his hip. "But you an' I have to get it on."

Wash rolls his eyes.

"I understand. We have no choice. Take me, Sir. Take me hard."

In the entrance to the kitchen, Jayne stops mid-stride. "Now somethin' about that is jus' downright unsettlin'," he mutters, meanin' it.

Wash gets up. Yeah – he gets it. They never have. Zoe didn't want to. Mal didn't want to. He takes Zoe's hand firmly and tells the others, "We'll be in our bunk."

Zoe gives a little squeak as he swats her on the butt, and they head off along the corridor laughing. One corner of Mal's mouth curves minutely upwards. Wash is good enough for Zoe. Knew it the moment he laid eyes on him.

* * * * *

Zoe's eyes sparkle as Wash pulls her close He slides his hands down from the small of her back to squeeze the full curve of her butt and he kisses her mouth, tenderly at first then more heatedly.

"You sure you're up for this, husband?" she teases.

He grinds his hips against her. "Hey – I'm up! You mean you didn't notice? Now I'm offended!"

She laughs, marvelling at her husband's indomitable zest for life. How quickly he bounces back. When he kisses her she feels his vibrancy pour into her and when she kisses him back, he melts against her, wanting to give her everything he has, holding nothing back. She breaks the kiss and looks deep into his eyes. Time for her to stop holding back too. Time to tear down that final barrier.

"Wash – there's something I want to tell you first. Something about me an' Mal."

Chapter Text

All the colour has drained from Wash's face. He stares at his wife, wondering if he knows this woman at all. "Okay – skating right past the part where you got into his bed - he did what?"

Zoe squeezes both his hands in hers. "He hit me," she says quietly, surprised at the mixture of sorrow and shame the admission causes her. "But it wa'n't all his fault, Wash. I shou'n't've ... We'd been drinkin' ... We were ..."

Wash stands up, his body more tense than she's ever seen it. "I don't give a good gorram about all that, Zoe! That tamade hundan hit you!" The tendons in his neck stand out as he clenches his jaw and fists. "And you never told me! Does Mal know that? Or is he going around thinking I know what he did but I'm too much of a ji bai to do anything about it?" He's shaking now.

"We ain't never discussed it, baobei," Zoe says softly.

"What? Never? You mean he never even apologized?" The disbelief takes Wash's voice up an octave.

"You know Mal – not much of a talker," Zoe shrugs, rememberin'. Even after all these years, she can still see him, tryin' to sneak out of that bar next mornin', reluctantly draggin' his gaze up from his boots to meet hers when she blocked his way. Still see the pain an' loss and total ruttin' hopelessness in his eyes. She remembers too that, mad as she was at him, her arms ached to pull him close, comfort him.

"So – you just forgave him!" Wash sounds angrier with her than he is with Mal. "Like it was just another of his screw-ups!"

"Not exactly." She gives her husband a wicked little grin. "I hit him back."

"You did?" A slow smile begins to creep over his face - because that sounds more like the Zoe he knows.

"Well, not right then. A few days later." Her smiles turns guilty. "An' I don't exactly keep him out of situations where he's like to get smacked in the mouth. You ain't ever wondered why I don't try to stop him from goin' to Alliance friendly bars on U-day? Every time it happens – well, I think we both know it's his due. We ain't never talked about that neither."

Wash sits back down beside her. "So, you di'n't take it personally?"

Zoe laughs, and leans her head so that it rests against his. "Maybe a little. But then he did it again ... 'bout a year later-"

Wash is back up on his feet an instant, cheeks flushed and shoulders squared. "Right! That's it! I'm gonna ..."

"Not to me!" Zoe tells him hurriedly.

Wash stares at her, confounded. "Not you? Then who?"

"There was this girl. We were doin' some casual work on her daddy's ranch an' she an' Mal got pretty close." She gives a short, sad laugh. "Think he was plannin' on settlin' down with her. Then one night ... Don't rightly know what happened, but she ended up with a black eye an' a split lip an' tian a knows what else and me an' Mal got run out of town."

Wash grimaces. "He's psychotic!" he says at last with a told-you-so waggle of his eyebrows. "I always said he was psychotic." He frowns. "You sure he's safe with a boatload of women? Here was me thinking he was all chivalry and do-the-right-thing old-fashioned. Remember how Saffron had him all tied up in knots, like he was some kinda blushin' virgin? And now you're telling me ... This doesn't make any kinda sense." He scratches his head, trying to work it out. "He trusts you with his life. He treats Kaylee like a favourite sister and he's taking all manner of risk keeping River onboard. And as for Inara ..."

Inara. Zoe bites the inside of her lip. Someone else who maybe oughta know ...

"'Course," Wash continues, mostly to himself. "Far as we know, he's never kissed any of them. Well, not like that. Think that's it? That it's the kissing that sets him off?"

Zoe shakes her head. "He kissed Saffron. Remember?"

"Oh yeah, he did, didn't he." Wash has a sudden flashback to Saffron coming onto him on the bridge and how hard she was to resist. "Fancy him falling for that jianhuo's tricks! Anyway – guess that means it isn't the kissing per se."

"Most like not."

Wash sighs and lies back down. "Shame Simon's a surgeon. Sounds like Mal needs a psychiatrist."

* * * * *

Simon is finding it hard to process the last twenty-four hours. The sound of gunfire is still ringing in his ears and the sickly sweet aroma of burning human flesh lingers in his nostrils, yet none of it seems real. He's a trauma surgeon not a soldier. He has a sister who depends on him for everything. And he's not the kind of man to throw himself into a fight. Except – apparently - he is. The discovery is unsettling. He's always assumed he knows himself pretty well. Now he wonders if Simon Tam really is that diffident, disciplined, law-abiding man after all. Because the man he thought he was would never have been prepared to risk everything for love. And then he remembers that's exactly the kind of man he is.

River is sitting quietly on her bed, staring into the distance. "They get inside your head. Make you see things you don't want to see. Make you listen to things you don't want to hear. Do things. Bad things." A single tear rolls down her cheek and Simon wraps an arm around her.

She places an ice-cold hand over his and grips it tight. "Had to do it, Simon."

He misunderstands. "Yes, mei-mei, I did."

"Scared her," River whispers sadly.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to," Simon replies, stroking her hair. "But I'm back now. Mal's back. Everything will be okay."

River lets her head fall against his chest and he takes it as a sign she's forgiven his desertion.

Understands so little. Reason and logic fog up his mind so he sees only the outline, not the substance of things. Doesn't notice the layers, the reflections and echoes.

She looks up at him, suddenly lucid and bossy. "You ought to read more poetry."

 

* * * * *

Mal's been tryin' real hard not to think about it ever since Zoe told him. Cos every time he imagines Simon takin' the decision to join the others in stormin' Niska's skyplex, his determination to stay away from the boy begins to erode. Cos Mal knows how deep Simon's devotion to his sister runs. Knows he di'n't decide to risk gettin' killed an' leavin' her all alone in the 'verse lightly. But he did it – and for Mal. Part of him wants to grab the boy by his expensive lapels an' demand what the hell he thought he was doin'. But most of him jus' wants to grab him and push him down onto a bed. Or bend him over a table.

Which is why Mal waits until he's sure the Doc's safely occupied elsewhere before headin' down to the infirmary. Only needs some painkillers after all. What he don't need is Simon fussin' over him. Touchin' him. Runnin' those cool fingers of his over the wounds on his chest.

The infirmary is empty. He steps inside and that's when he sees it. Simon's grey vest. Velvet front and satin back. Neatly folded and lyin' on the counter. The Doc was wearin' that very one when he reattached Mal's ear. It kept brushin' his skin as Simon went about his work. Took Mal's mind off the pain some.

He doesn't mean to steal it. All he wants is to touch it. Feel the soft fabric under his fingers, against his cheek. But when he lifts it to his face, the scent he breathes in makes his heart race an' the blood pool in his groin. Zao cao! - the smell of Simon Tam's like a promise. One he gotta fight against callin' in.

"Ah – Captain."

The Shepherd's voice behind him makes Mal jump an' for some fool reason, he stuffs the vest inside his shirt. He takes a deep breath and schools his features into a slightly pissed expression before turnin' round. "Shepherd."

The light in Book's eyes makes the sweat prickle at Mal's armpits. It's like the Preacher knows what Mal's jus' done an' why. But all he says is, "Wash is asking for you up on the bridge. Seems he's just received a wave about a job you were bidding for." He scrutinizes Mal's face more closely. "Are you feeling all right, Captain? Should I get the young doctor down here?"

Mal's eyes widen a touch.

"No," he says quickly – perhaps a fraction too quickly. "Jus' needed somethin' to dull the pain. Niska did a pretty thorough job on me, ain't no denyin' it."

He folds his arms over his chest. The movement conceals the stolen vest but makes one of its buttons graze a nipple.

Mal swallows. "Tell Wash ..." The button is smooth, hard – like a fingernail. "Tell him I'm comin'."

* * * * *

It's Simon's turn to cook, Mal realizes as he pauses unseen at the mess door. It's all manner of funny watchin' the boy's feeble efforts at the stove. The Captain often finds an excuse for workin' at the table when Simon's makin' dinner jus' for the entertainment value of seein' Mr Top Three Per Cent make a total hash of it.

Cooking is possibly Simon's least favourite job on Serenity. He doesn't mind it quite so much when all they have in the cupboards is dried protein and flavourings because then all he has to do then is follow the instructions helpfully provided by the Blue Sun Corporation on the packaging. The resulting meal doesn't taste, look or smell good but at least he knows it's nutritionally balanced and unlikely to make anyone physically sick. No - the days he really dreads kitchen duty are when they have fresh produce and he's expected to create something appetizing. Because Simon has eaten at some of the best restaurants on the Core and he knows what good food should taste like. Sadly his own efforts invariably fall short of that ideal.

He must be frowning because Kaylee abandons her game of patience and comes over to nudge him playfully. "Ain't no need to look so glum, Simon! Wanna hand?"

He smiles gratefully. "Yes. Thanks. Thank you."

She takes a large onion from a box of fresh-ish vegetables and places it on a chopping board. "You make a few incisions in that Doctor Tam, an' I'll see about skinnin' these tomatoes." She takes a handful over to the sink. "Can you imagine how folk used to manage when their food was all natural? 'Fore transgenics, must've been awful hard to ever eat fresh."

"Well, actually ..." Simon begins, but has to stop because there's something wrong with his eyes. He blinks a couple of times, but the stinging only gets worse. Then he rubs his eyelids and now he's in actual pain. "Ouch! I ... I – um – I seem to be having a medical emergency here!"

Mal stifles a chuckle and moves back further out of sight.

Kaylee turns to see Simon red-eyed an' with tears streamin' down his face. She laughs, then claps a hand over her mouth and tries to look sympathetic. "Ain't you never chopped an onion before? They got a way of makin' you cry! Oh com'on sweetie," she takes his hand and leads him over to the table. The burning begins to subside. Kaylee pats at his eyes with a grease-smeared cloth pulled from her overall pocket. "There you go! All better now?"

Simon sneezes loudly and Kaylee laughs again. This time he does too. "Do onions always have that effect?" he asks, amazed.

"Not always," she replies, then smiles and punches his shoulder gently. He's so wet behind them kissable ears. "You sure don't know much 'bout normal things, do ya? Ooh Doctor Tam - there's so much I'm gonna have to teach you," she tells him with her very best sultry look and husky tone.

Simon blushes, not sure what to say to that. But suddenly her grin turns innocent and infectious. "There probably is," he admits.

Two of 'em're so gorram cute together. Li'l Kaylee deserves some fun an' she'd be good for the Doc. A night or two in her bed an' Mal's sure Simon'd come to his senses about all manner of things. It'd sure help Mal too. Don't wanna hurt li'l Kaylee any more than he wants to hurt Simon. He backs quietly out of the door way and leaves her teasin' the medic into shy laughter.

* * * * *

When dinner is finally served, amid much tauntin' of Simon by Jayne and passionate defence of the Doc by Kaylee, Mal has some good news.

"Ladies an' gentleman, we have ourselves a job. Ain't exactly gonna mean we can all retire any time soon – but the take's reasonable enough an' it oughta go smooth seein' as how we're pickin' up the run from Monty."

"Monty?" Kaylee asks.

"Served with us in the war," Zoe tells her. "Nearest thing Mal an' I got to a brother."

"I suppose it would be too much to hope that this job is somewhere I might have clients?" Inara asks.

Mal flashes her a bright smile. Work always lifts his spirits. "Well, if you wa'n't so picky, I'm sure there's folks on Garnet Crossin' as'd appreciate what you got to offer. 'Course – they'd be needin' special rates. Reckon most've 'em don't earn in a month what you make in a coupla minutes."

Inara answers the sarcastic smile that follows with a superior lift of her chin. "A couple of minutes, Captain? Really? Some of us have more stamina than that."

Jayne guffaws and Wash hides a grin behind his hand. Mal flushes. "Oh, I got stamina ..." he promises her in the same quiet tone he normally uses for threatenin' people. "Reckon I could give you a run for your money any day!"

Wash shoots a look at Zoe, who presses her lips tightly together. Like she knows there's somethin' needs sayin' but would much rather not be the one to say it.

Inara lowers her lashes and smiles sweetly. "Why, Captain," she murmurs softly. "I do believe you're flirting with me!"

Mal flushes again but can't look away when her eyes lock on his. She is so, so beautiful it's almost painful. But that ain't the reason Mal dreams about her. It's the way she's got of bein' so near an' yet so far away. Jus' when he thinks he could reach out an' touch her, she's gone. Like some mythical creature that's forever free. That quality in her appeals to somethin' that runs real deep in Mal.

"Call that flirtin'?" Jayne scoffs. "Now I could show you flirtin'..." He leers across the table.

"I'd rather you didn't," Inara says coldly.

"We'd all rather you didn't!" Wash amends and the tension breaks. Jayne grunts and mutters something under his breath and the others go back to eating.

Except for Simon.

River touches his arm. "This is just a moment in time," she whispers. "Stand aside. It's not your moment. Not yet."

* * * * *

The Chief Programmer looks like a rat in a trap. His mouth is stretched tight over his teeth in a nervous smile and he's blinking rapidly. The Director walks around his chair a couple of times, the soles of his polished shoes squeaking on the marble flooring. Finally he comes to a halt behind the terrified employee and places a hand on each of the man's shoulders.

"Explain it to me again," he says in a deceptively reasonable tone. "Explain to me why you deviated from the clearly defined spec you were given."

The Chief Programmer swallows hard. "It was a refinement, Sir." His voice trembles. "Designed to extend her usefulness. Times of violence call for certain skills ... Times of peace for other, more subtle skills."

The Director spins the chair round so that they're facing one another. "We are not in a time of peace," he snarls. "In fact, we may be about to enter the most violent period of our history since the war to unify the planets under one rule!"

"B-but, Sir!" The Chief Programmer has nothing to lose by speaking out. "After the elections when the High Consul assumes complete control, we can surely expect an end to the uprisings and rebellions. At that stage, his requirements will change." He takes a deep breath. "That is why I made her more ... flexible."

For a moment, it looks as if the Director is convinced by his argument. Then his face hardens and he summons the guards nearer with a wave of his hand. "Take him away."

 

* * * * *

Of all the gorram balls of mud spinnin' round the 'verse she had to pitch up on the same one as Mal. An' so-say married to Monty. Mal'd been stunned at the notion of his old friend havin' got hisself hitched. Always thought the man too fiercely independent for that. But when Saffron showed her schemin' face, it all became clear. Mal watches her pick up one of the bags Monty flung out of his ship an' asks hisself why he di'n't finish the si san ba off last time they met. Well, he ain't takin' any chances this time. He advances on her an' draws his pistol. "You're gonna wanna pull your claw out of that bag nice an' slow."

She looks up at him through her lashes and gives him a seductive smile. "Relax. I'm not going for a gun or anything." Her voice is a purr, soft and designed to lure a man in closer. "Just freshening up."

Mal's answerin' smile is unconvinced. He snatches the lipstick she's openin' and tosses it away. "You an' lipstick is a dangerous combination, as I recall. Now get up an' turn around." He gestures with his weapon, so she knows he means business. She sighs theatrically.

Now he only gotta check her quickly, see if she's carryin'. He skims his hands over her, tryin' not to notice the warmth of her body nor the way she leans into his touch. "Oh yeah..." she teases, "Just like old times."

"We don't have any old times," he reminds her bluntly. "Jus' don't want you pullin' a gun out of ... " His hand is between her legs and she writhes against it. "...of anywhere." Has it got warm all of a sudden?

"Mmm," she sighs and wriggles against his body, "You missed a spot ..."

Despite his contempt for her, his body starts showin' an interest. He pushes the feelin' an' her roughly away. "Can't miss a place you've never been."

Quick as a flash, her mood changes. She holds her arms out, appealin' for understandin'. "Marriage is hard work, Mal, I know it ... But that doesn't mean we have to give up ... " She's walkin' – no prowlin' – towards him, like some beautiful but deadly feline. "Sure, we've had our spats. Maybe I made some bad decisions along the way ..."

The woman is crazy! Even crazier than Mal. There's a kinda comfort in that. "Oh, you're a tweaked one, you are," he tells her - a comment which earns him another inviting smile.

"But face it, hubby – I'm really hot."

She ain't wrong ... Mal pulls hisself together. "Start walkin'."

"Walking?" she simpers. "Walking where?"

He don't care. Wants her gone is all. Only trouble is, she ain't goin'. Keeps arguin' about it.

Mal dabs at his nose with a handkerchief an' it comes away stained with blood. How come he's bleedin' an' she ain't? He sure hit her hard enough. Don't feel bad about it neither. Monty spoke the truth back there when he called her a devil woman. Mal doubts even his Momma would object to him treatin' a female like Saffron rough. Hell – mayhaps he oughta bed her instead of yearnin' after 'Nara an' Simon. Least that way he'd get some play an' not need to be crucifyin' hisself for the things he's like to do – if the gorram nightmares are anythin' to go by – come mornin'. Only drawback with that plan – an' it's a creepifyin' notion – is that Saffron may well be far enough off her axle to get off on that kinda thing. She'd sure like seein' him outa control.

"Seriously, Mal," she pleads, "You gotta give me a ride."

"Woman, you are completely off your nut!"

"I won't make trouble," she wheedles. "You can stick me in one of those crates if you like. Just don't leave me here ..."

A bullet hittin' the ground in front of her puts an swift end to her appeal. An' jus' as swiftly she changes tack again. Mal's head spins with the effort of tryin' to keep up with her.

" ... I had the perfect crime lined up you know ... A million square job ... I got the layout, the entrance codes ... I'm handing you a fortune on a silver platter, sweetheart ..."

Gorramit! He's tempted. In oh so many ways. An' – ta shi suoyou diyu de baozi de ma – it ain't no use pretendin' he could abandon her an' sleep easy at night. Always had trouble ignorin' pleas for help – even from folks as feng le as Saffron.

So Mal does what he does with all his problems. Locks them away. An' makes like they don't exist.

 

* * * * *

Wash comes hurrying down the stairs to find his wife just as Mal makes it back with the cargo. Jayne, Zoe, Kaylee and Simon – Simon? - are on standby to help stow it. The Captain seems pre-occupied with something and keen to get gone. Suppressing a sudden desire to punch the man, Wash speaks as they pass on the stairs. "Inara was asking for you. Wanted to ..." He breaks off, staring. Cos it looks like someone else got there first. Mal's nostrils are plugged with two bloody twists of cloth and he storms past with barely an acknowledgment.

Wash looks down at the others and raises his eyebrows. Zoe very nearly smiles. Guess Mal's getting punched in the nose isn't too different from his getting smacked in the mouth.

* * * * *

Mal's glad to have made it to his bunk without Simon insistin' on tryin' to staunch the bleedin' from his nose. The blood's runnin' a mite too hot through his veins jus' now. He's sure to've said or done somethin' stupid.

He splashes some water over his face and pats it dry. Then decides he'd better go see what Inara wants.

* * * * *

"Yesu tamade!" Simon exclaims, hopping around and screwing up his face in pain. "That ruttin' crate landed on my toes!"

"Doctor Tam!" Kaylee exclaims in mock disapproval. "You sure that kinda language is appropriate?"

Jayne casts a quick glance at the little mechanic who's lookin' at the Doc all coy and fluttery. So – she ain't over her crush yet. Best if Jayne don't exploit this plum opportunity for pointin' out the medic's obvious short-comin's. "Well, they is heavy Doc," he says instead, clapping Simon on the back. "Maybe you should sit this one out? Ship's medic di'n't oughta be doin' this kinda work anyhow."

"Yes. Yes – I think I will. And it's time for me to go check on River," Simon answers gratefully and limps away.

Kaylee turns a full-beam smile on Jayne. "That was real nice of you, Jayne." And she stretches up on tip-toe to plant a kiss on his cheek, making him grunt with embarrassed pleasure.

* * * * *

Sometimes Mal imagines he can hear music when he looks at Inara. Somethin' undulatin' and mellow an' serene.

This ain't one of those times. Kinda music he's hearin' right now's more like a kid scrapin' at a violin in a manner as has everyone in earshot wishin' its strings was back in the cat.

An' it'd been goin' so well – if a mite unnervingly. She'd invited him in, offered him tea an' for all of thirty seconds he was in a beautiful fantasy where he was an upright citizen on the right side of the law comin' home to his beautiful an' adorin' wife. But somehow it all went to hell an' here they are practically spittin' at one another. Again.

"They were dolls!" he yells, angry at havin' to admit it.

"They were little geisha dolls with big heads that wobbled!" Inara elaborates though Mal'd much rather she di'n't. Makes the whole job sound kinda dumb.

"People love those!"

"And what exactly was our net profit from the famous wobbly-headed doll caper?" Inara demands, hands on hips.

He glares at her an' spots a chink in her armour. "Our cut? You're in the gang now?"

That stings. "Well, since I can't find work as a Companion, I might as well become a petty thief like you!"

He flinches and she hurts for him. How in the name of renci Fozu is she ever going to service him dispassionately when he evokes such intense emotion in her?

"Petty?" He stares at the floor.

Her tone softens and her eyes are full of apology. "I didn't mean petty."

Yeah, she did. Cos he is. In her opinion, at least. Let's hear her try to convince him otherwise. "What did you mean?"

"Suoxi?" She's sorry. She never meant to hurt him. She only wanted to maintain a degree of emotional distance between them so that when the time comes she'll be able to do the thing Zoe's asked of her.

"That's Chinese for petty."

"No, that's a narrow. There are nuances of meaning."

She's fumblin' an' now it's his turn to feel sorry. He'd like to stop this. Reassure her it's okay with a gentle touch on her arm. No touchin'. No even gettin' close. "Maybe you shoulda stuck with your wiles."

He won't meet her gaze and now she feels terrible for belittling him. For all his faults, Mal is an extraordinary man. "Don't put all this on me, Mal," she pleads. "You know you haven't been after serious work in a ..."

"Serious work? You wanna know what I ..." He stops mid-sentence and flashes her an enigmatic I-win smile.

"What?" Inara asks hopefully.

"Nothin'."

* * * * *

Many a time Mal thinks it ain't him that's crazy, it's the rest of the gorram 'verse. All he ever wanted was to live free, live right but history an' politics conspired against even that modest dream. Mal still lives free an' tries to live right, but some days the oceans of grey ain't easy to navigate. Days like today.

He eyes the crate warily, opens the padlock and throws back the lid.. Saffron blinks against the sudden light and he gets the ominous feelin' he's just opened a can of worms.

"All right. Tell me more about this job o' yours."

* * * * *

Now he ain't labourin' under the illusion she's some poor waif in need of his protection, Mal keeps a close eye on Saffron as he ushers her up from the cargo bay to the mess. Which means he makes note of the way her eyes flicker about, how she takes in every last gorram detail – no doubt storin' it all away for future use.

Behind them he hears one of the passenger dorm doors open an' close an' he damn near prays it's the Shepherd on the move. Cos what Mal don't want is Saffron findin' out the Tams're still on board. If she works out who they are ... well, it ain't gonna be good for any of 'em. Aiya, huaile! She snared him good with her promise of easy money! Lettin' her out of that crate wa'n't jus' stupid – it was kuangzhe.

Meanwhile up in the mess, Jayne is reluctantly joinin' Zoe, Wash an' Kaylee at the dining table. Still ain't sure he's off Mal's hook an' this meetin's got him sweatin'. "What d'ya reckon this is about?" he asks, hopin' for some reassurance.

"Captain wants to discuss our next job," Zoe informs him an' Jayne feels the muscles in his neck unwind a little.

"Sounded pretty excited ..." Wash starts saying but forgets to go on. Because Mal's just come in. Followed by Saffron. O, zhe zhen shi ge kuaile de jinzhan ... or rather, it's not. Wash turns to Zoe but she's fixing Mal with a look so acid it's a wonder his skin doesn't peel.

"Tell 'em," Mal orders Saffron. And so she does. Explains how she's got this mark called Durran Haymer – some high-rankin' Alliance fella with an eye for valuable antiquities. Tells how he gets his hands on 'em too. None of it's good – lootin', black-marketeerin', smugglin'. By the time she's finished, Mal's pretty sure his crew're gonna be as anxious as he is to liberate Haymer's prize possession – the Lassiter. Specially when she tells 'em she's got the security codes to the hundan's fancy estate on Bellerephon along with his schedule for the next eighteen months.

He's wrong.

Wash raises a hand. "I'm confused ..." An' he ain't confused about why Saffron wants or needs their help. It's more the fact that she's on Serenity in the first place. Or the fact that she's on Serenity. "Didn't she try to kill us?" Mal's clearly crazier than even Wash suspected – or else why would he be trusting Saffron?

She laughs. "Oh please – no-one died last time!" It's the 'last time' part of that sentence Wash finds particularly unsettling.

"This isn't a one-woman operation," Saffron explains when Jayne finally gives her an excuse to start offering reassurances as to her bona fides. "To do this right, I need ..."

"Idiots," Inara enters the room with the mot juste on the tip of her tongue. There's something about even the sight of Saffron that makes her want to scream. Her hand itches with the desire to slap that simpering face. "Dupes – that's what you'll be if you trust her."

Mal squares his shoulders, reacting as if she'd attacked him. "Could be that's so ... Lord knows, we ain't none of us 'criminal masterminds'." His tone is bitter and Inara knows he's still smarting from their earlier row. "So if you got somethin' better, Inara – somethin' not petty – we'd sure be willin' to hear it."

What does he want her to say? Sorry? Would he even listen in the pig-headed mood he's in right now. "Nimen dou shi shagua," she repeats and leaves.

There's a brief pause before Mal goes back to outlinin' the plan. Saffron smiles to herself. Kaylee offers to try to find a way of gettin' a tagged an' coded bit of pretty past the sensors, an offer which Mal happily accepts. He turns to Zoe., amazed she's kept her peace this long. "You ain't said a word. Time to weigh in."

Saffron fields Zoe's concerns about how they'd fence somethin' so valuable by claimin' to have a fence on Persephone but Zoe's still wary. "Inara's not wrong," she warns Mal. "She can't be trusted."

"I ain't askin' you to trust her," he replies. "I'll be with her on the inside the whole time."

Saffron smiles a nasty superior kinda smile. "See there? Only one thing you gotta do if you want to be a rich woman, hon ... and that's get over it!"

It was all the justification Zoe needs to land a solid punch on her smug face. Shame she cou'n't knock some sense into Mal at the same time. She stalks off with Wash in tow.

"Kaylee – you go over the estate plans with Saffron," Mal says, gesturing to Jayne to follow him out into the hallway.

"What is it, Mal?"

"Want you to go take care of the Doc an' his sis. Make sure they stay outa sight till the job's done, dong ma? Tell him they're to stay confined to their quarters till I say otherwise."

Jayne looks dubious. "Doc'll stay put, like as not. But that moonbrain got a habit of wanderin' about when you least want her too ... Want me to tie her up for ya?" He laughs at a sudden thought. "Could do the Doc too!"

Mal takes a step too close, forcin' both Jayne an' a mighty disturbin' visual to back off. "That won't be necessary. Tell him Saffron's on board. Boy's smart enough to know what that means."

* * * * *

Jayne's job is made easier by River an' Simon already bein' in his room. Girl don't look too crazy but you can't never be sure with her. Sweet as candy one minute – ravin' knife maniac the next.

"I didn't!" she's saying firmly to her brother. "Why would I hide your vest?"

"For a game?" Simon asks uncertainly.

She rolls her eyes. "For a game I'd hide your pants!"

Jayne decides he don't wanna listen to any more of this conversation. Pair of 'em plain weird. He sits down and starts emptying a canvas bag, placing packaged food and water on a shelf. "Captain says you're to stay put," he tells Simon, examining each pack in case it's somethin' would suit him. "Doesn't want you runnin' afoul of his blushin' psychotic bride. She figures out who you are, she'll turn you in 'fore you can ... say ... 'don't turn me in, lady'."

Simon sighs. "This bounty on us just keeps getting more exciting."

Gorramit! This is why Mal made Jayne do this. Wanted to rub it in. "Well, I wou'n't know."

Jayne is a girl's name. "She's a liar," River states matter-of-factly.

The mercenary shrugs. "Well that don't exactly set her apart from the rest of us. And the plunder sounds fun enough."

Names are important. Saffron's not her name. "She's a liar," River repeats, "and no good will come of her."

"Well, I say as a rule that girlfolk ain't to be trusted," Jayne tells her.

"Jayne is a girl's name."

"Well, Jayne ain't a girl," the big man snaps. He glares a warning at Simon. "She starts on that 'girl's name' thing, I'm gonna show he good 'n all I got man parts."

Simon stares at him, appalled as Jayne fumbles with his pants.. He reminds himself that whilst the man may be a hero but he's also boorish and coarse. Simon doesn't like people behaving that way in front of his little sister. "I'm trying to think of a way for you to be crude. I just ... it's not coming."

Jayne stops fumbling, having found what he was looking for. "I was gonna leave you a deck of cards ..." he sneers, closing the door behind him.

Resignedly Simon takes a seat beside his sister. "Great. Another exciting adventure in sitting."

"Afraid," River says.

"We'll be okay," Simon smiles. Then he remembers what Saffron did last time. He puffs. "Why the Captain is trusting that bu huihen de po fu is beyond ..."

"Not her. Jayne."

Simon laughs. "Jayne? Since when?"

"Since Ariel. Afraid we'll know."

A flash of anger burns through Simon, leaving him icy cold. Jayne called the Feds. He wanted the bounty. Why, Simon could ... he could ...

"No need," River says softly with a small smile. "Learnt his lesson. It was drummed into his thick skull. Looked death in the face. Afraid."

Simon's eyes are hard. "Good."

* * * * *

A sense of exhilaration comes over Mal as the shuttle takes off. Saffron's plan – now it's been polished up by Kaylee and Wash – is a good one. 'Course no plan's one hundred percent foolproof – but tha's what makes 'em excitin'. Sometimes Mal thinks without the buzz he gets from pullin' off a really good heist every now an' again, he'd be as good as dead inside.

"So – where's your boyfriend hiding?" Saffron asks innocently as soon as they hit atmo and the engine roar quitens.

Something leaden hits Mal's stomach linin' but he manages to look blank. "Huh? What you talkin' 'bout now, woman?"

Saffron laughs her tinkling little laugh. "No need to be coy, Mal. You know, that pretty boy with the dark hair you had on board last time. Did you get bored with him? He did look a little straight-laced ..." She darts him a heavy-lidded, sultry look which Mal ignores. "Or have you got him locked up in your bunk?"

"We ain't all as tweaked as you," Mal says, staring out of the viewports at the monied expanse of the Bellepheron Estates. His gut tells him to lie to her. "Boy left a month ago."

Saffron nods. "With his sister?"

Looks like his gut was right.

* * * * *

Inara and Zoe pass by each other on the stairs. "We should be on Bellerophon by oh-six," Zoe tells the Companion. "I figure the job should be -"

"Please," Inara interrupts. "I really don't wanna know."

Zoe smiles. "At least it's your kind of world. You got appointments made?"

Inara nods. "The minute we hit atmo, I'm gone. I've booked a few choice clients, should help me get my mind off Mal's descent into lunacy .."

A thought occurs to Zoe. Sex by the clock must be a joyless affair. "What happens if you got an appointment comin' an' you ain't finished the one you're at?"

"Overbooking is a cardinal sin. Clients must feel the experience is timeless," the other woman explains. "Only thing worse is a badly faked fall."

The information makes Zoe feel a mite sorry for Inara. She wonders if she ever gets any pleasure from what she does. "See, that's where me and Compnaionship part ways," she says firmly. "I never could work the notion of pretendin' a man was gettin' it done when he wa'n't."

Inara raises her eyebrows. "So – you've never pretended to fall?"

One corner of Zoe's mouth twitches. "Well – 'never' is a strong word ... sometimes it's easier."

"What about with Wash?" Inara presses, equally curious.

Zoe shakes her head ruefully. "One time," she confesses. "Poor boy was bone-tired "

"And?"

"He knew!" Zoe laughs. "Sonofabitch called me on it!"

Inara can't imagine what that's like – to have someone know you that well. Know you and love you for who you really are. She touches Zoe's arm. "That's the one you marry."

Zoe fancies she hears a touch of envy in the Companion's voice. "Damn right."

* * * * *

Much to Mal's astonishment, Saffron's sources seem to be good. Gettin' admitted to Haymer's estate, by-passin' security – all a piece of gorram cake. A man could get used to this. Gotta love a plan that goes smooth. Nothin' better than in-an'-out an' easy money. Mal even finds hisself warmin' towards towards Saffron on the strength of it.

They make it inside Haymer's Alliance fat-cat mansion without so much as havin' their IDs checked. An' all of a sudden they're walkin' into his personal museum of priceless Earth-that-Was artifacts.

"Shensheng de gao wan!" Mal exclaims when he realizes that crappy, clunky piece of fei hua in the case before him is it: The Lassiter. He sets to work settin' it free. An' that's when Saffron hears footsteps in the hallway.

"Someone's coming," she hisses an' before Mal has time to think he's lookin' into the unsmilin' face of the weapon's proper owner. He braces hisself for a fight an' a little gunplay but it don't go that way.

"You!" Haymer gasps. "You found her! Oh God ... you've brought back my wife."

Knowin' Saffron like he does, Mal di'n't oughta be surprised an' yet somehow he is. Surprised, embarrassed an' even a mite touched by the display of genuine love – at least on Haymer's part – that follows. Chewin' the skin around a fingernail, Mal wishes he wa'n't there. This reunion makes him feel like an intruder. It also stirs some murkier feelin's like resentment an' envy as he watches this supposed killer-of-men gaze at Saffron with out-and-out adoration. Feels sorry for Haymer too - knowin' he's doomed to nothin' but pain an' disillusionment when he finds out who his 'wife' really is.

Don't take long for that to happen neither cos he comes back sooner than expected from fetchin' the reward Saffron encouraged him to insist on payin' Mal for her safe return an' catches them tryin' to make off with the Lassiter. Strange thing about it is, he don't seem all that surprised. Even when Saffron point a gun at him. Mal'd ponder it some more if he had the time. Instead he takes advantage of the distraction to slip the Lassiter into the garbage chute an' then Saffron goes into full-on crazy mode. The Feds are on their way, Haymer's unconscious on the floor an' Mal's minutes away from a long stay in an Alliance jail. So he does the only thing he can do. He fights his way out of it an' drags Saffron along behind him.

* * * * *

The hatch opens and Jayne's unconscious body is dropped through it into Shepherd Book's waiting arms. "Lord! This boy weighs ... a solid ton!"

Zoe addresses Simon. "Doctor, you got yourself a patient to see to."

Simon looks down at the crumpled mound at his feet. "Yes. I'll take care of it." And he will. Because he's a doctor and he doesn't treat patients according to their merits as a human being. And because Jayne is part of Mal's crew. And because Simon finally understands Jayne. Knows he's a self-serving, lying, scheming low-life who's not to be trusted. Oddly that enables Simon to trust him. Because at least now he knows what to expect.

* * * * *

Back in the shuttle, Saffron is mighty subdued. Mal engages the autopilot and goes to join her. Zao cao – there're tears in her eyes. "That must've been tough," he offers by way of sympathy.

"Yeah," she snarls. "Have yourself a great guffaw."

"I mean it," Mal replies. "Six years, you knew he was holding such treasure an' you di'n't move on him. I gotta figure that's a job you told yourself you'd never take. Till times got hard enough, and the one line you hadn't crossed ..."

"My name's not Yolanda." She says it like it's her trump card. Like it proves Mal don't have the measure of her.

"Never entered my mind that it was."

His reply establishes an uneasy peace between them an' for a coupla minutes their conversation's polite enough. Then the talk turns to killin'.

"I should've killed Durran," Saffron says, mostly to herself.

"Right. The one guy that don't have it comin'. The man who knows you an' still loves you – treachery an' all. Can't have him walkin' about," Mal agrees bitterly. He's lost in his own thoughts for a while, strugglin' with envy an' sadness an' what-might've-beens. Knows you an' still loves you. Too much to hope for now. Only love Mal can hope for is from someone who don't know him.

"You must be loving this," Saffron accuses through her tears.

He looks at her. Payback is kinda cheerin'. "Little bit. I seen you without your clothes on before. Never thought I'd see you naked."

Funny – when those words came out his mouth, he di'n't have the slightest impression of temptin' fate ...

* * * * *

"I can fix it," Kaylee tells Zoe. "But she must've put a timer on the motivator and wet-wired the dampener with -"

"What does that mean, Kaylee," Zoe interrupts.

"We ain't gonna make the rendez-vous," the mechanic explains. "We have to land. Now."

Zoe's brows knit together and her eyes darken. Gorram Saffron. Gorram ruttin' stupid Mal. Oh tian a – where the diyu is Mal? She races up to the bridge and opens a link to Inara's shuttle. "'Nara?"

There's a low moan and a rustling sound. "Yes?" Inara's voice sounds sharp, anxious.

"Sorry to trouble you. Need a favour. Afraid that jianhuo tampered with our engine an' we ain't gonna make it to the dumpsite on time. Wou'n't be surprised if she ha'n't pulled a stunt on Mal too. Wanna go save the Captain's zhandou de yi kuai rou?"

"It'll be a pleasure!"

* * * * *

Simon is not a vindictive man, nor a vengeful one. He doesn't think that's changed. Which is why he doesn't want to twist the knife in Jayne. But he's not a coward either and some things have to dealt with. There's no use in sweeping them under the carpet and pretending they're not there.

"How much did they offer you to sell me and River on Ariel?" he asks his temporarily paralyzed patient calmly.

Jayne's expression can't seem to choose between shock and fear. "Das crazy talk," he slurs.

"Then let's talk crazy," Simon suggests. "How much?"

Who'da thought the boy could be so steely – so unwaveringly relentless. Jayne might be in need of a bit of help here. "Is there anybody there?" A tranquil pale face appears at the doorway. Not who he'd been hopin' for. "Anybody elese?"

Simon moves closer to the medcot. "You're in a dangerous line of work, Jayne," he points out. "Odds are, you'll be under my knife again. Often. So I want you to understand on thing very clearly .." He pauses and Jayne would shudder if he could. "No matter what you do, or say, or plot ... no matter how you come down on us, I will never harm you. You're on this table – you're safe. I'm your medic, and however little we make like or trust each other, we're on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemeies and more than enough of both. Now, we could circle each other and growl, both sleep with one eye open but that thought wearies me. I don't care what you've done. I don't know what you're planning on doing, but I'm trusting you. I think you should do the same, cause I don't see this working any other way."

Hunh? D'he really jus' say he's gonna trust Jayne? Well, that's all manner of creepifyin'. Jayne never was one for that turn-the-other cheek crap hisself. He tends to subscribe to the fill-the-cheek-full-of-lead school of thought. If'n the Doc means what he said – an' it's a big if – well, it makes Jayne uncomfortable. Kinda leaves it up to him to act honourably. Which is a whole lot of pressure a man don't need.

"Also," River says quietly. "I can kill you with my brain."

* * * * *

Simon decides to fill the anxious time between the crew picking up Mal's location and actually finding the Captain by going back down to the infirmary. As he enters, Jayne is beginning to stir.

"Here, let me ..." Simon helps the mercenary into a sitting position. "Don't rush it. It'll take a while for the barbiturate to clear your system. Give your body time to adjust."

Jayne's eyes are little more than slits when he looks at the Doc, tryin' to fathom his game. How come he's bein' all forgivin' when it was his ass Jayne put on the line? How come he ain't as mad about it as Mal was?

"Feeling sore?" Simon asks, without a trace of hostility.

Jayne grunts, not likin' this one little bit. Simon seems to understand his unease and turns his attention to his notes. He checks off a few boxes and then moves on to remove some instruments from the autoclave. After some minutes he approaches the exam table again. "Want to try standing?"

Jayne nods and lets his weight slide from the table so that his feet are planted on the floor. Not so difficult. He takes a step, sways a little, regains his balance and clenches a fist in triumph. More confident now, he crosses the room and stops dead in his tracks. "Wo de ruttin' ma!" he exclaims in a low voice. "There's a sight you don't see every day!"

Simon follows the direction of his gaze and his stomach turns over. Because there, silhouetted against the planetscape on the cargo bay ramp is Mal. And he's naked. Simon blinks. And Mal is still naked. Simon just has time to take in the line of his shoulders, the strong muscles on his back and the curve of his ass before he turns around. The doctor's mouth goes dry and all he can hear is the pulse pounding in his ears.

Oh.

God.

Jayne grins at the expression on the medic's face. Looks like all his Christmases've come at once! He slaps him heartily between the shoulder blades. "You okay there, Doc?"

"Um. Yes. Um. I – I ...." Simon stutters. He has to get out of here – and quickly. "I ... There's something I must ... I'll be in my bunk."

* * * * *

Zoe hurries to catch up with Inara. "We need to talk," she says in an undertone. "Now."

Inara gives her a querying glance and when no answer is forthcoming replies, "Come to my shuttle."

The Companion closes the door behind them, sits and waits.

Zoe clears her throat. Gorramit – confessional ain't her style. She folds her arms, almost defensively. Cos this gotta be done. Inara's proved herself as much a member of this crew as any of 'em over an' over again. She got their asses sprung from jail in Paradiso, offered herself to that wangba dan Wing in exchange for the Captain's life, all but prostrated herself in front of the Councillor in an attempt to get Mal away from Niska an' today she managed to get both him an' the Lassiter away from Saffron. Woman's earned the truth.

"I ain't been entirely honest with you," Zoe says at last. "Never did tell you why I needed you ... why I asked you ..."

"Why you asked me to service the Captain?" Inara supplies helpfully.

"Mmm. You see ... he's got this ... well, when he ..."

Inara thinks Zoe's difficulty in getting the words out has to be more troubling than anything she could actually say. "Why don't you start at the beginning?" she suggests.

"Okay." And then it all comes pouring out, so fast, so painfully that Inara isn't sure she's following. Mal hit Zoe? He beat up another girl so badly he broke bones? It doesn't sound like the Mal she knows. The Mal she's in love with. As Zoe goes on, Inara starts to feel cold. Goosebumps spread across her shoulders, down her backa and arms and she shivers.

Finally Zoe stops. She raises her eyes, and to Inara's amazement, there's still a spark of hope in them. "I figured you'd've dealt with this kinda thing before. That you'd know how ..."

Inara stands, raising herself to her full height. She takes a deep breath. "I appreciate your honesty," she says in a tone that says otherwise. "However I must point out that you engaged my services under false pretences ..." She holds up a hand as the other woman starts to protest. "I therefore have to inform you that our arrangement is invalid and any contract between us null and void."

Zoe seems in need of clarification.

"I will not be servicing the Captain, Zoe. Not ever." Inara says slowly, enunciating each word clearly, as much for her own benefit as Zoe's. She's not sure whether the declaration makes her relieved or not. Yes, she had been dreading it – dreading losing herself to him completely and utterly. But she'd also been hungering for it. She closes her eyes. "I'd like you to leave now."

Zoe is only too glad to oblige.

* * * * *

"You mean it, Cap'n?!" Kaylee squeals with delight. "Really?"

"Yep," Mal grins and kisses the top of her head. It's been a good day. Got the loot, outwitted the 'verse's most schemin', evil, double-crossin' pofu an' made it safe back to Serenity. Yep, a real good day. The kind that puts even mean old men like Mal in the mood for a little celebratin'. "An' I tell you what, li'l Kaylee – you bring down some of that inter-engine wine of yours an' I might even dance!"

The mechanic doesn't need tellin' twice. She scampers off to her bunk to fetch her player and hooks it up to the ship's comms. Then, takin' the Cap'n at his word, she hauls a couple of demi-johns of wine down from the engine room. She scans the mess quickly an' decides to switch out the main lights an' rely on carefully placed candles an' wall lights. Give the place a cozy, intimate feel. And finally she rounds up the crew for a Got-a-Priceless-Earth-that-Was-Artifact party. Shepherd Book takes a bit of persuadin'. Seems more interested in gettin' back to them papers he quickly scooped up when she slid open his door, but even he can't resist Kaylee's entreaties for long.

Mal pours everyone a glass of wine although River turns her nose up at it. "Alcohol causes dehydration, inebriation and the lowering of inhibitions," she warns solemnly. "And anyway I want to dance." She walks up to a somewhat bemused Book and takes his hand. "I danced in the morning when the world was begun," she whispers confidentially but loudly into his ear. The Preacher shrugs and allows himself to be pulled over to the dancing area Kaylee cleared by moving the dining table.

"And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun," Wash sings, remembering some long-forgotten tune and encircling his wife's waist with his arm to spin her round. "Right baobei – let's show these people how it's done."

Kaylee can't wait any longer. "Come on Doctor Tam," she twinkles, holding out both hands to him. "Let's see if I can remember that dance you taught me an' the Cap'n."

Simon accepts the invitation with a flustered smile. He knows Kaylee wants more from him than he can ever give her, but that doesn't mean he doesn't like her. Nor that he isn't flattered by her attention.

Meanwhile Mal bows formally to Inara, although his request for her to partner him is typically ungracious. "Well, looks like it's you an' me. 'Less you wanna dance with Jayne?"

She raises an eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't?"

He grins. "Maybe later."

Jayne snorts loudly and pours himself another drink. He scowls as Simon and Kaylee go waltzin' past, his eyes never leavin' Kaylee's smilin' face. She doesn't notice. She's too focused on Simon and how close he is. In his turn, Simon is trying very hard not to look at Mal. Their eyes meet briefly and he has the distinct impression that they're saying good-bye. Mal laughs at something Inara is saying and his all his attention is back on her. If Simon didn't immediately force himself to look away, he'd notice her whole body stiffen, resisting Mal's attempt to close the gap between them. He might also notice the way she's looking at the doctor with a mixture of empathy and concern.

Chapter Text

Inara wishes she could share Mal's good mood but with Zoe's revelation still ringing in her ears it's impossible. He smiles at her and again she's surprised by how young he looks when he's relaxed. Then she reminds herself he *is* young – he's just seen too much and it's left him broken. Twisted. What he must have gone through during the war she can only imagine. It's not his fault he couldn't take it. Her heart could break for him. For both of them.

Wine's nice, Simon decides draining the second – third? - glass Kaylee pours for him. It blurs the edges. Dulls the pain, like an anaesthetic. Even so, it still hurts to see Mal dancing with Inara. To know it's her he really wants. But who can blame him? She is so very lovely. Even Simon can see that. He can't compete. He's not even going to try. Instead he's going to let Kaylee take care of him. Let her wrap him up in her warmth and sweetness. She tugs at his hand, drawing him up for another dance and he has to admit that she really is very pretty. His breath may not catch in his throat when he bumps into her unexpectedly and she may not make his pulse race, but she is pretty and sweet and good. He wonders if he ever could ..? With Kaylee? Simon has never had sex with a woman. Well, to be honest, he's not had sex with many men either. Maybe it would be just as good with Kaylee – it might even be better.

Inara makes an excuse about it having been a long and exciting day and retires to her shuttle. Mal takes a seat next to Jayne and accepts a refill of his drink. He leans back in his chair and surveys the party contentedly. Maybe it's jus' the effects of the alcohol but he feels real mellow tonight. 's good to see his crew enjoyin' themselves. Don't get nearly enough opportunity.

Kaylee realizes Simon is studying her face intently. "Whatcha thinking?" she asks.

He blushes. "Nothing ... Just that you're pretty."

Mal's too far away to hear what they're sayin' but he finds hisself watchin' the Doc's hands. An' not for the first time. It's kinda hypnotic the way they move, the way the nearly touch his face but don't. Mal takes another mouthful of wine and then Simon is doin' that thing – that thing where his little finger finds its way into the corner of his mouth an' the point of his tongue flicks out to lick the tip. Mal crosses his legs an' uncrosses them again. Ain't neither position comfortable. Determinedly he drags his eyes away and his gaze falls on Zoe an' Wash. Which ain't much better, seein' as how they're tangled tightly in each other's arms, swayin' in time to the music. Wash whispers somethin' into his wife's ear an' she makes a sound like honey simmerin'. "Hope you can back that claim up, husband," she chuckles. He don't reply – jus' takes her by the hand an' leads her off to their bunk.

"Whoa there, Simon!" Kaylee's cry has Mal lookin' back at her an' the boy who's legs seems to've suddenly given way. "Help Cap'n! He's heavy."

"Sorry. I'm sorry," Simon mumbles into her hair.

Mal peels him off Kaylee and slips an arm under his shoulders to support him. "Think we better get you to bed Doc."

Simon allows his head to flop against Mal's arm. "Think that's a very good idea," he agrees, his face totally serious.

"Need a hand?" Book asks – partly because he likes to help and partly because dancing with River is exhausting.

"Nah," Mal replies. "I got him."

"All the same -" The Shepherd takes Simon's other side. "Easier with two."

Between them it doesn't take long to get Simon down to the passenger dorm. River skips on ahead and opens the door to her brother's room. Kaylee follows behind, cluckin' at them to be careful.

"In you go, Doc," Mal says. "You go sleep it off."

Simon slumps against the door frame. "I think I may be drunk ..."

Mal laughs. "Yep. I think you ain't wrong."

A pair of unfocused blue eyes meet his. "Like you."

"No," Mal corrects him. "More than me." Because ... well, jus' because ...

Simon snorts out a laugh. His head wobbles from side to side. "Like you," he repeats, tapping Mal's chest with a finger. He takes a few unsteady steps into his room and stops, rubbing the back of his neck. "Forgot my 'cyclopaedia."

"You'd forget you're head if it wasn't screwed on," River says in the sharp tone of a critical parent, forcin' Mal to review his assumptions about the Tams' privileged upbringing.

"Mmm," he brother nods. "Lost my vest too."

Mal slants a glance at Book and is alarmed to see he's lookin' in his direction. It's only for a second and then the Shepherd steps forward to help Simon make it to his bed, where he simply collapses in a heap of sprawled legs an' arms, head thrown back, hair all over the gorram place. His shirt's unbuttoned an' no longer tucked neatly into his pants. Tamade. He looks ... what's the word? ... well, he don't look appropriate all mussed up like that. Wanton - that's the word. Book removes the medic's shoes an' Mal's afraid he might not stop there. Feels an' urgent need to get out of here. An' a pressin' need to stay. Mayhaps he's drunker than he thought.

"Thou shalt not covet," River whispers, making Mal start. "Thou shalt not steal."

Creepifyin'. Feelin' cornered, Mal glares at Book as if he's to blame for the girl's sudden religiosity. The Shepherd's eyes twinkle back at him but then River is fixin' him with a penetrating stare. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Book blanches. It was so long ago. But she can see it, hanging around his neck like an albatross. He coughs. "We are all sinners, child." Mal quirks an eyebrow but he continues, "Doubt there's man alive without a few regrets. Not many dead ones either, I'd wager." He closes Simon's door quietly. "Think even your brother might have a few come morning."

The girl gazes at the door as if she can see right through it. "Not tomorrow. But some day."

* * * * *

Delete. Enter new number? Yes. Enter. Two hundred thousand. Return. Page updated.

That's all it takes. A few keystrokes and it's done. From this screen to the furthest outposts of the 'verse with a Cortex link, reaching vast numbers of people. And amongst those vast numbers there are probably scores who are loyal, enterprising or greedy enough to want to earn the reward for the safe return to Alliance hands of River Tam and her brother.

* * * * *

"Please, Simon!" River begs, dancing about with excitement.

Her brother shakes his head regretfully. "I'm sorry, River, but I think we should stay put. Space bazaars are busy places – we might get seen. Our pictures have been on every news bulletin since we left Persephone. We should definitely stay on the ship."

Kaylee's face falls. She'd been lookin' forward to spendin' some fun time with Simon. An' possibly some alone time with him.

"Seems to me, son," Book says thoughtfully, "Most folks who might be interested in you will be looking for a brother and sister. Might be you'd be less noticeable apart."

River grabs the Shepherd's hand. "I'll go with him," she declares. "You go with Kaylee."

"I don't know ..."

"You're right, Simon – bazaars is busy," Kaylee agrees. "So busy, nobody pays anybody else no mind. Ain't that so, Cap'n?"

Mal looks up from securin' the Lassiter into a scan-resistant case. Kaylee's eagerness to have Simon to herself for a while is written all over her face. Boy don't look so keen, but could be all he needs is a gentle shove in her direction. An' even if Mal can't do it with an entirely happy heart, he's got no right ... "Yep. Go on, Doc. Let the Shepherd take care of River. Go take in some of the 'verse's more unsavoury sights. Jus' keep your hand on your wallet."

* * * * *

"Seriously, Badger," Saffron pleads. "You gotta help me out!"

He ain't really listenin'. Far too interested in the new bulletin on the desk before him. Two hundred thousand credits. He sucks in a breath. Knew the girl was special. Only wishes 'e'd known 'ow special. An' 'e coulda sworn she was from the old 'omestead ...

Saffron tries again. "Badger. Peaches. All I'm asking for is a tinsy little loan. Just fifty platinum. I'll pay you back." Her voice drops to a more seductive pitch. "With interest."

Badger puts another apple in 'is peeler an' starts skinnin' it slow an' deliberate. "Seems to me, little girl, we 'ad us a deal," he reminds her. "You an' that 'usband o' yours was gonna get me the Lassiter, I was gonna find us a buyer an' we was all gonna get 'orribly rich. Now, I kept up my end of the deal. You, on the other 'and ..."

He's interrupted by Saffron sitting down on his lap. She puts one arm around his shoulders and rubs a hand against his chest. "Badger. Honey ..."

Now a man got needs. Everybody knows that. But i's all a matter of priorities – of timin', innit? Right now what Badger needs is to hang onto 'is 'ard-earned coin. You don't play a player. He pushes Saffron roughly away and into the hard edge of his desk. As she tries to steady herself, she notices the headline on the news bulletin. And recognizes the two faces below it. That's when she sees the number. Two hundred thousand. Thanks to years of training, none of what she's thinking shows on her face.

"I could be really useful to you," she purrs, tipping her head from side to side coyly. She runs her hands suggestively over the curve of her hips. "Wouldn't you like that?"

Badger's mouth smiles but his eyes are flinty. "What I'd like," he says coldly, "Is for you to get the 'ell out of 'ere 'fore I 'ave to call the Feds."

Saffron tosses her head defiantly and lifts her chin. It's a convincing enough portrayal of thwarted anger. "All right, all right, you sad little man! I'm going!"

Because what's fifty platinum compared with two hundred thousand credits?

* * * * *

"Behind this curtain lies the very secret they don't want you to see ..."

Mal watches Simon an' Kaylee wander over to the barker's stall. Not hard to know what each of 'em's thinkin' – Mal can see it on their faces. Simon's wonderin' what kind of ruttin' gou shi his money's gonna get him access to an' Kaylee's thinkin' the Doc's the prettiest thing she ever laid eyes on.

Mal's face is giving away a lot too.

"Mal?" Inara emerges from a tailor's booth and her perfect brow creases with concern at his expression. "What is it?"

He realizes he mus' be frownin'.

Inara spots Kaylee and Simon and gasps in alarm. "Are the police here? Is Simon in danger of being arrested?" She looks quickly around for signs of Federal agents but finds none.

Mal's attempt at a nonchalant grin is not entirely successful. "In danger of bein' *robbed* more like." He indicates the freak show booth with a tilt of his head. "Aliens – pah!"

Oh. *Of course*. The line on Inara's forehead deepens for an instant. Mal never was very good at hiding his emotions. She decides to change the subject. "How much did you get for the Lassiter."

He shrugs.

"Struck out again, did you?"

"It's like somethin' from a fable!"

* * * * *

Simon bites his lip and looks sheepish. "I really know how to show a girl a ... disgusting time."

Kaylee continues staring at the mutated foetus. "Oh, it's sweet," she smiles. "Poor little thing – never even saw the light of day, now it's in show business!"

Simon turns to look at her. She shines. Brighter than any star. She's pretty and sweet and good. "You manage to find the bright side of every single thing," he marvels with both envy and admiration.

She inches closer to him. "Also ..." - talkin' 'bout findin' the bright side, Simon Tam - " ... we've got this booth to ourselves for five whole minutes ..."

He can't meet her eyes. Not when he sees what's in them. The desire to be kissed. Slightly panicked, he glances at the foetus. "We are not alone, remember?"

"He won't squawk," Kaylee promises, taking his hands in hers. The skin on them is work-roughened but the bones beneath are small, delicate. "Tell me more good stuff about me."

Her hunger for compliments reminds Simon of River as a small child and the comparison makes her less scary. He smiles. "Well, you're kind of a genius when it comes to machines ... you always say what you mean ... and your eyes ..." She has lovely eyes. Open, honest, true.

"Yeah? Eyes, yeah?" she presses, craving more.

His panic returns. "I don't know how to ... " He never knows how to. That's what makes him flippant. Or smart-mouthed, as Mal calls it. Whatever. All Simon can do at times like these is try to be funny, say something amusing. "Plus – every other girl I know is either married, professional or closely related to me, so you are more or less literally the only girl in the world."

As soon as the words are out he knows he shouldn't have said them. It's like Higgins' Moon all over again. Except this time it's worse. Because he's trying.

"That's a hell of a thing to say," she comments icily.

"I was joking ..." he tries to explain.

"No, no – I get it!" Kaylee snaps. "Back on Osiris you probably had nurses and debutantes crawlin' all over you. But down here at the bottom of the barrels, it's jus' me."

"That is not even ..." He can't even apologize without hurting her feelings. What he wants to say is that she's the only girl he could ever imagine being with. Sexually. The only one he's ever even *thought* about that way. The only one he'd want to try with ...

"Well, I'm glad I rated higher than dead Bessie here!"

He watches as she storms off, with a muttered parting shot of "*Ni gaosu na nui ta you shuang meimu*?" He couldn't feel worse if she'd slapped his face.

"Oh my God, it's grotesque!" Wash exclaims. A beat. "Oh – and there's something in a jar." How come Wash can always pull off flippant?

Something warm comes to rest on Simon's shoulder and amazingly it's Zoe's hand. "Scared her away again, did you?"

Simon nods. "This may come as a shock," he says, irony being more his style anyway, "but I'm actually not very good at talking to girls."

Zoe raises her eyebrows. "Why – is there someone you *are* good at talkin' to?" She smiles kindly at him, feelin' all manner of sorry for the boy. An' kinda reassured at the same time. He ain't gonna be sweepin' Mal off his feet with fancy words, that's for sure. An' if Mal meant what he said about keepin' his distance from the Doc, everythin'll be shiny.

* * * * *

The clerk, Amnon, is an old acquaintance. Not exactly a friend, but not an enemy neither. Mal takes the form he hands him an' starts fillin' it in. Book an' River materialize out of the throng, the Preacher seemin' to think there might be post for him and the mind-readin' genius losin' her battle to conquer an ice-planet. Whilst Amnon fetches their stuff, Jayne reports back with the ammo Mal sent him for. He even admits to havin' scared a discount out of the storekeeper. Maybe he's learnin' about bein' part of a team. Although it does take a glower from Mal to make him part with it, so maybe not.

"This one's addressed to you and Zoe, Mal," Amnon announces, wheeling in a large crate. "The little one's for Cobb."

"I got post?!" Jayne's face is like a kid's – especially when he sees the label. A package from home. Still misses his folks somethin' fierce at times. "It's from my mother."

He starts reading his letter aloud and Inara takes advantage of the opportunity to slip a slightly larger parcel addressed to her into the folds of her robe unnoticed by the others. Thank Buddha! Her supplies are nearly exhausted. She glances across at Mal and promises herself she will use this batch more sparingly.

"You order any parts?" Mal asks Zoe when she and Wash return.

"No Sir."

She helps him prise the lid off the crate as Jayne entertains the others by modelling what is frankly the most ludicrous hat they have ever seen. He's enormously proud of it. Made with love, it was. That makes a thing valuable.

Mal rolls his eyes at the mercenary's misshapen orange headgear as the lid finally gives way. "Well, let's hope we get some funny hats too."

No-one answers. Because inside the crate there's a coffin. And inside the coffin, there's the body of a young man ...

Mal don't need to look at Zoe to know she's rememberin' the Battle of DuKhang. Crazy time that. Between the two of 'em they saved this boy – this ex-soldier's – life not once, but twice. But Mal's thinkin' back further. To a worse time ...

THEN

"You shot him!" Tracey was white as a ghost and his lips were quiverin' like he was about to cry. Beside the young private lay a crumpled an' bleedin' body and behind him was a grey-haired Chinese man, tied to a chair an' gagged. He was bleedin' too but still breathin'. "You shot him!"

Sergeant Reynolds strode across the room. The dead soldier's eyes were still open but Mal knew he'd throw up if he bent down to close them. Instead he glared at Tracey and the other new recruits, frozen behind the shop counter, caught in the act of stealin' liquor an' smokes.

Tracey was the only one who dared say a word. "You shot him," he repeated. "You shot a corporal."

"No, son," Mal replied grimly. "I shot a bully an' a thief." The old man groaned and Mal ground his teeth. "You boy," he turned to the dumb-struck private at his right. "Go an' untie him. *Ma shang*," he barked as the kid hesitated and the boy skittered off as if his life depended on it. Mal shook his head sadly. These kids. Why'd they keep sendin' him kids?

"But Sarge – he was one of us," Tracey protested. "This town – nobody here wants to help up."

Mal's hand was round the boy's throat before he'd had time to think about it. "An' you reckon beatin' up men old enough to be your grandfather's gonna change that, do ya?" Then you're even stupider than you look!" Tracey stumbled backwards, arms flailing, as Mal pushed him away in disgust. Mal's eyes blazed and if he'da thought for a minute any of his men had helped the corporal torture a defenceless old man, he'da shot them in a heartbeat. Tracey was close enough but Mal hoped he was just a bystander. He kicked the corporal's body over onto its back and coins spilled from the now limp hand. Mal prayed he'd taken out the bad apple before it'd had chance to turn the whole barrel rotten. "Listen to me – all of you," he shouted. "Out cause is just an' we *will* prevail. We got God on our side. We're fighting for honour an' glory. Freedom an' independence. Not so we can go round terrifyin' an' robbin' old men. You don't win wars by force alone. You gotta win hearts an' minds as well. *Dong ma*?" He felt tired. "We play fair. Take what we need. No more. Usin' no more force than's necessary."

Tracey eyed his sergeant warily. "Yes, sir," he said, looking to his fellows for support. They all nodded hastily. "Yes, sir."

* * * * *

The crew gathers round the open coffin in sombre mood. Jayne ain't happy about haulin' a non-payin' passenger on board one little bit. Even a dead one. Still - least him being a goner means he ain't gonna be vying for Kaylee's affections. "How d'we know he ain't plague-ridden or some such?" he asks, stayin' well back.

"We know," Zoe answers firmly. Even though she don't. Can't. He's one of theirs – that's all that matters. Mal's loyalty to his men stretches beyond the grave.

"He's so young," Kaylee says wistfully.

This is hard for Mal, Simon can tell. Painful in all sorts of ways he can't even imagine. So he offers to help in the only way he can think of. "If you want me to do a proper autopsy ..."

Kaylee's eyes fly open in horror. "Cut him up?"

Mal can't believe this. Tracey ain't got no right being dead. How old is he? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? *Just a kid*. The Captain shakes his head. "Not just yet, thank you Doctor."

Kaylee glares at Simon. "Robot."

The accusation stings. He's been called that before.

 

OSIRIS – December 2513

"I'm not really sure you've ever felt anything for me at all. Or if you're even capable of normal human feelings. Sometimes I think you're some kind of robot. A medical robot!"

Simon's stomach felt like he imagined it would had he been kicked. He stared uncomprehendingly at Theo, his lover of the past six months. He'd thought Theo realized his difficulty in expressing emotions didn't mean he didn't have any. He'd hoped actions spoke louder than words.

"And you're always so prissy about everything. You're so gorram neat - " Theo picked up a handful of Simon's notes and flung them in all directions. "And you're such a control freak!" He was on a roll now as his frustration with Simon's self-contained, proper ways bubbled up and spilt over. "We never have any fun. You're so ruttin' tight-wound it's a wonder you don't snap!"

"So – you're breaking up with me? Just like that?" Simon's voice was calmer than he felt. Further proof of his undemonstrative nature.

"Yes! At last - the genius medic catches on. I. Am. Breaking. Up. With. You."

Simon couldn't believe his ears. Theo had pursued him for weeks - leaving roses in his locker, sending him cards and little gifts – until Simon finally agreed to a date. And now, just when he was finally getting used to the idea of being in a relationship, Theo was dumping him. And on Christmas Eve. "Why?" he asked weakly.

"Because, my dear Dr Tam, you are boring. B-O-R-I-N-G, boring!"

* * * * *

"Now I need you to carry me just a little bit further. If you can. Tell my folks I'm at peace an' all. When you can't run any more, you crawl, an' when you can't do that ..."

It's eerie, Wash thinks, listening to his wife's dead army buddy's disembodied voice whilst staring at his corpse. Zoe's taking this hard. Mal too. As soon as the tape stops playing, the pilot heads for the bridge. "St Albans ain't but two days ride, we burn hard enough," he explains to Mal, anticipating the Captian's decision to take the boy home.

Mal nods gratefully and turns to Inara. "This might make you schedule a little ..."

"It's all right," she interrupts, sharply reminded of all that is good about Mal. His unwavering devotion to his people, his chivalry. She's not wrong to love him. And as long as they stay out here in the light, she can maybe learn to forget about that dark corner of his soul.

She tells herself the same thing a few hours later when she's sitting at the dining table with Mal and Zoe, toasting the memory of their departed friend. This time Mal isn't being devoted or chivalrous – he's being hilarious. He can be such fun to be with sometimes. How did Zoe describe the twenty-something Mal? 'So up - always goofin' around, laughin''. At this precise moment Inara can picture that young man with utter clarity.

"The colonel was dead drunk. Three hours pissin' on about the enlisted men – they're scum, they're not fighters – an' he passes right out. Boom!" Mal can scarcely get the words out he's laughing so hard.

"We couldn't even move him," Zoe continues. "So Tracey just snipped it right off his face!"

Mal shakes his head at the ridiculous memory. "And you never seen a man more proud of his moustache than Colonel Orbrin. In all my life, I will never love a woman the way this officer loved that lip ferret."

Zoe and Inara exchange a fleeting glance but they're not thinking the same thing. Inara is thinking how sad and lonely this extraordinary man's future will probably be whereas Zoe is repeating the words 'never love a woman' to herself. Does that mean she ought to warn Simon too? Would it be better for Mal if she didn't? But they both keep laughing anyway, unwilling to spoil the mood.

"Giant walrussy thing," Zoe remembers with distaste. "All waxed up .."

"Did he find out?" Inara asks Mal and he resumes his story.

Until Serenity is rocked by an explosion and the time for reminiscing about the past is definitely over.

* * * * *

Womack means business. Mal ain't under no illusions about that. An' his stallin' time is rapidly runnin' out. There's not a damn thing worth takin' in this gorram crate nor the coffin neither. Apart from Tracey's body. Which leads Mal to the unpalatable conclusion that for some reason that's what the Feds are after.

Mal turns to Simon. "Well doctor, I guess you are doing an autopsy."

Jayne an' Zoe lug the coffin to the infirmary and Simon sets about his task. "He's been opened up before," he remarks, noticing a neat white scar barely a hair's width in breadth running down the thin chest.

"How's that?" Mal sounds surprised.

"It's good work," Simon tells him, admiring the neatness. "The scar's nearly invisible but ..." He traces it with his finger an' there's somethin' about that that Mal finds unsettlin'.

"Well, let's see what's in there," the Captain says briskly.

Simon picks up a small scalpel and makes an incision a couple of inches down the area over the sternum. Boy's a damn sight better at professional detachment than Mal is. Can't watch.

Then there's a piercin' scream an' Tracey is lungin' at Simon tryin' to kill him. He seizes the medic, bellowin' with rage.

Simon struggles against being held powerless like this. It's never been a sensation he was comfortable with. Particularly since the night he broke up with Theo ...

CHRISTMAS EVE 2513 – later

The bar was noisy, packed with people celebrating the holiday together. And with people looking for someone to celebrate with. At first Simon felt nervous, but he was determined to prove Theo wrong. He wasn't averse to having fun and he certainly wasn't prissy. He ordered a large cocktail and took it to a dark, relatively uncrowded corner in order to watch his fellow drinkers.

Two cocktails later he was approached by someone. The man was tall and built like what Simon believed was referred to as an outbuilding of stone construct. His forearms were like girders and his legs like tree trunks. Handsome in an uncompromisingly masculine way. And he was certainly very interested in Simon. A couple of formal exchanges about jobs and interests were swiftly followed by teasing and flirting and Simon was having fun. *Not* being prissy. The man invited him back to his appartment and it seemed like a good idea.

His new friend kissed him hard on the mouth as soon as the front door was closed and it was nice. Then he spun him round, and holding him tight with one arm around his chest, started undoing his pants. Simon was a little unsure but it was still not unpleasant.

Until he saw the other one. And heard him laugh.

Simon would have tried to get away if he'd known how. But the grip he was in was just too tight. In the end he just had to let it happen. And think about something else. He settled on advanced surgical techniques for the knees, ankle and wrist replacements.

It was beyond strange to be offered a beer afterwards, adding to the feeling of unreality. Simon declined as politely as he might have done at a restaurant or dinner party and thankfully his announcement that he was ready to go home was met with indifference.

It was only once he got back to his family that the full horror of it sank in. He bundled his clothes into his medical bag and stood in the shower shaking. Blaming himself for being stupid.

Then he got dressed, found River's Christmas present and went downstairs. And never spoke to anyone about it. He just became a little more tight wound. And a little less willing to engage in small talk.

NOW

Mal yanks Tracey off Simon, thereby rescuing him for the fifth time. At least. Swab trays go clattering to the floor and drug trays get knocked over. Simon backs up against the counter. The struggle goes on until Mal manages to pin the now very alive corpse to the floor by holding his wrists and sitting on his thighs. "Settle!" he orders. "That's enough!"

Tracey speaks for the first time. "He was cuttin' on me, Sarge!"

Simon watches as Mal forces the agitated young man to quieten down, using a combination of physical force and calm reason, and his admiration for the Captain grows.

"Sarge?" Tracey says, his voice finally even.

"What?"

"I think I'm nekkid."

He is at that, Mal realizes.

Simon noticed a while back.

Right about the time Mal straddled him.

 

* * * * *

"So your innards ain't you innards?" Mal asks once the excitement of Tracey's non-existent heart attack is over and they're all gathered in the commons to hear him explain exactly what's going on.

"Mine got scooped out," Tracey confirms. "They replaced every bit."

Mal considers the kid he thought he knew. Well, guess none of us ain't exactly what we seem on the outside. All of us is carryin' around things not of our makin', things that got forced on us and into us. Trust Tracey to not leave it at the poetical.

"Why'd ya wanna go an' do that?" Jayne asks, morbidly curious.

"For the money," Tracey explains to the mercenary's great approval. "They're paying me to transport what they stuck in."

Only it ain't that simple. Never is, Mal thinks to hisself. Tracey got greedy. Double-crossed the first lot of organ smugglers and then the second lot died on him. Got killed more like. This story's not likely to have a happy endin', Mal fears. Organ smugglers. The term don't exactly got a cuddly ring to it. An' Tracey's first employers don't sound like the types to forgive an' forget.

"So you 'died' and figured then they'd stop lookin' for you?"

Tracey nods. "Yeah."

Serenity shakes as she's hit by another explosion.

Mal grabs an overhead support in order to stay upright. "Think maybe you figured wrong."

* * * * *

Hidin' from Womack don't do 'em any good. Even at the bottom of a snow-filled canyon on a rock civilization forgot. Can't ignore 'em neither. Depth charges got a way of grabbin' a fella's attention. Just as well the Preacher's every bit as devious as he looks.

"It's the only way," Book says solemnly, eyes speakin' volumes.

Mal studies the older man's face. You can tell a lot from the way a man meets your gaze. Book does it steady, unflinchin' and Mal knows he's right. "Wash," he orders, "Call the cops. Tell 'em we give up."

"NO!" It's Tracey. Against orders on the bridge an' brandishin' a weapon. Mal'd kill him where he stands if'n he di'n't still responsible for the boy.

"Tracey, what are you ..?"

"I said NO! Those bastards up there are gonna pull this million-dollar meat out of me an' leave me bleedin'." He levels the gun in his hand at Wash who's turned the radio on. "Turn it off. We have to run. NOW!"

Sounds like Simon, that first day on Serenity. Only Simon wa'n't military. He di'n't know no better than to challenge the chain of command. Tracey got battle experience. Oughta know better. Oughta trust Mal to know better. "Wash. Call the cops," Mal repeats.

"I'll kill him. I'll put a hole right through him!" Tracey promises an' Mal's got no notion to argue with him. He don't need to explain hisself. His order gotta be obeyed, no questions asked. He ain't always gonna have the time to give his reasons for 'em.

"Wash – call 'em up. Tell 'em we'll meet 'em topside."

"No!" A shot rings out, then another. Wash is bleedin' from his temple an' Tracey from his chest. "You sh... You shot me," he says in amazement to Zoe.

"Damn right I did," she replies, ready to fire again. Because Wash is her husband an' she's not about to lose him to a bullet from some yu ben mei yong de kid on the make.

* * * * *

Simon hears the sound of gunshot and runs out into the cargo bay. Above him he can see Tracey dragging a petrified Kaylee this way and that. Mal appears with his pistol drawn and Simon is rooted to the spot. Scared and hopeful at the same time.

"See there? Hear that quiet?" Mal demands. "Means the call's already been made." Boy'll surely drop his weapon now ...

Instead he bursts into tears. "You ... That call ... " His gun is pointin' right at li'l Kaylee's head. "That call means you just murdered me."

Bracin' hisself for a showdown, Jayne cocks his gun. Tracey whirls round an' Kaylee manages to get away from him. For the time bein'. He's still got a gun. Mal fires and Simon covers his mouth with his hand. "No, son," the Captain says wearily. "You murdered yourself. I jus' carried the bullet for a while."

* * * * *

Womack's probably less interested in his stolen goods now he's found out about the shippin' problem. All the same, it takes Shepherd Book to get him to leave without 'em. Not that Mal ain't all manner of grateful for that, but one day, he reckons, he's gonna have to have a chat with the Preacher about it. Right now, he got bigger, sadder things on his mind.

Tracey's dyin'. Mal already knew but the resignation in Simon's eyes confirms it. The Doc ain't one to give up easy. Mal crouches down beside Tracey to offer what comfort he can.

"You weren't that far off about me bein' stupid," Tracey splutters.

Mal's eyes swim with tenderness. He pats the young man's shoulder and holds on, rubbing a soothing thumb along his collar bone. Simon thinks that if he hadn't already fallen in love with this man, he would certainly be doing so right now.

"Never could get my life runnin' right – not once after the war. Kaylee, I'm so sorry. I didn't... Sarge...

"Right here," Mal answers softly..

"That stupid message of mine ... I was tryin' to play you guys an' now you'll do it, right? You'll get me home?"

"Yes." Zoe vows.

"Well, you know the old sayin'," Mal reminds him.

"When you can't run, you crawl," Tracey recites with a bitter laugh. "An' when you can't crawl ... when you can't do that ..."

Zoe finishes for him. "You find someone to carry you."

Tracey nods, his eyes close and his heart stops and Mal wonders why he's always the one left behind to watch others die.

* * * * *

The funeral is a wretched affair. Even the warmth of Kaylee's hand and her presence beside him isn't enough to keep the cold from Simon's heart. Mal is so still, so silent - as though he daren't give an inch for fear of collapsing under the weight of pain he's carrying. Simon can hardly bear to look at him.

They're invited back to the wake but Mal's anxious to get back onboard and away in case Book was wrong about Womack and his cronies workin' a black market scam and maybe the Alliance have finally managed to track the Tams down after all.

Simon is waiting for him outside the infirmary. "That was a bad business, Captain," he begins. "Are you okay?"

Mal's expression is stony. "Shiny."

The medic nods, unconvinced. "I'm sure you are. But if you have any trouble sleepin' tonight ... "

Mal looks at him sharply but a small container of pills is pushed into his hand. "Don't need no drugs," he grumbles.

"No, I don't suppose you do. But humour me. Just take them up to your bunk. That way, they'll be there if you need them." Mal glowers a touch and Simon adds quickly, "That way, at least I'll be able to sleep."

The Captain grunts and slips the bottle into the pocket of his pants.

Above them on the stairs, Inara turns to Zoe. "I have to tell him. You know that, don't you?"

Zoe purses her lips together. "Guess I do at that."

* * * * *

LATER

The tap at Inara's door is soft, polite. Simon. Who else? She closes her eyes, steels herself and rises to let him in.

He's clutching his red doctor's back in front of him nervously like a shield. She would spare him this is she could. Spare them both. But there's no shield against love, no refuge from its arrows. "Qing jin, Doctor."

He accepts the invitation of a seat but sits stiff-backed, as if ready to leap up in an instant. "Kaylee said you wanted to see me," he says. "Are you unwell?"

Inara smiles and shakes her head. "No, nothing like that. But there's something I have to ..." She hesitates and Simon wonders if he's ever heard her do so before. It's unnerving. Her expression becomes more resolute and she tries again. "I need to speak to you about the Captain."

The medic's posture becomes even more rigid, even as his eyes grow a little wild. "I'm afraid I don't discuss my patients with anyone," he tells her in the most formal tone he can muster over the rapid beating of his heart. What does she want to know? What does she want to say? Nothing he wants to hear, he's pretty sure of that. He stands up. "I'd better go."

"Simon, please, sit down," the Companion urges. "I'm not asking you to break doctor/patient confidentiality. I just want you to listen. Will you take some tea?"

Somehow he's sitting down again. Frozen, with something like fear tickling the back of his brain. He opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out.

Inara lifts the ornate teapot from its tray and starts to pour. There's a slight tremor in her hands and Simon knows she must be fighting to control her emotions too. She looks up suddenly. "Simon – you know I respect you greatly, don't you? And that I've grown very fond of you over these past few months. I hope I can call you a friend."

She's in deadly earnest and that makes the doctor even more nervous. No-one with good news to share ever starts a conversation this way. He nods. They're both Core born and bred. They have similar interests and backgrounds. They are both reserved and correct. Polite. Appropriate. Sometimes Simon thinks Inara is the only person on this ship who understands him. And she's never been anything other than kind to him and River. "I hope so too," he replies carefully.

"Good." Her smile is sad he realizes. "Because I want you to know I'm not telling you this out of anything other than friendship. Simon – I don't want to see you get hurt."

He doesn't answer. Just waits. Waits for her to tell him to forget about Mal. For his own good. Waits for her to tell him that his ridiculous crush on the Captain will only make him miserable because the Captain's in love with someone else. Inara. Well, he already knows all that. He is very smart, after all.

"He's sick, Simon."

"What?" Surprise gives way to horror then disbelief and sadness until his brain finally kicks in and reminds him that he's Mal's medic and if the Captain were ill he'd know about it. "I can assure you he's ... " he starts and then remembers that rule about confidentiality.

Inara touches his arm gently. "Not physically sick. " She takes a deep breath. "He's ... well, he has a problem. With intimacy."

Simon's cheeks start to burn and the heat just keeps right on going. Down his neck, onto his chest. "What kind of problem?"

Inara's face is too composed, too serene. Her veneer of tranquillity is wafer-thin and Simon glimpses the maelstrom below it. He watches it swirl as she searches for suitably bland words and fails to find them. "He beats up his lovers. Badly."

For a minute or two they don't speak. Lost in their separate worlds. Then Inara laughs – a hollow, mirthless sound. She takes a sip from the delicate cup in her hand. "Don't you think it's ironic? That the two people on this ship qualified to help the Captain – given their professions – are the very last ones who should try?"

"I don't understand."

"Yes, you do. Doctors are supposed to remain emotionally detached from their patients just as Companions are required to maintain a certain distance from their clients. I don't think either of us could claim indifference where Mal is concerned.

As is his wont, Simon seeks sanctuary from the tidal wave of shock, revulsion and sadness that threatens to engulf him on the solid ground of scientific enquiry.

"Has he always ..? I mean I understand some men ... well, they find it ... um ..."

He doesn't know how to put it. The whole idea is so completely absurd. Horrifyingly absurd.

"I don't think so."

Her eyes are so full of pain a terrible thought suddenly occurs to Simon.

"How do you know?" he asks slowly, not sure if he wants to hear her answer.

Briefly Inara considers whether she should tell him. She decides it's too late to worry about things like that now.

"Zoe told me. From what she said, he was fine before the war. And during it. It was afterwards ..."

Post traumatic stress disorder, Simon thinks.

"And did Zoe say ... I mean ... was there more than one incident because if it was just the once it could have been for any number of ..." He's babbling, trying to find excuses, reasons. Trying to make this be Not True.

Inara cuts him off. "It happened on more than one occasion."

Obsessive, compulsive disorder? Wasn't that one of the conditions Simon diagnosed River as suffering from because of the way she only wants to draw nesting dolls? He remembers what he said to Kaylee about the pictures the mechanic was so impressed with.

"It's a compulsion. Caused by whatever they did to her at that school. Mostly probably something she associates with some kind of traumatic event. She doesn't like these dolls, Kaylee. She's just compelled to keep drawing them. She can't stop."

And he remembers Kaylee's reply. "Well - that the case – you ever think maybe someone should do it for her? Stop her, I mean."

Ni tamade de tain xia suoyou de ren dou gaishi! Now he has two patients with psychiatric disorders and he's out of his depth. And those two patients are the most import people in his 'verse. It's like a Greek tragedy. He rises from his seat.

"Thank you for telling me," he says quietly. "Now if you'll excuse me ..."

"Certainly." They both need to be alone and Simon needs time to get absorb all of this. "Simon ..?"

"Yes."

"I'm very sorry."

"So am I."

He steps out onto the catwalk as if in a trance. Tracey died up here and now Simon feels like he might be doing the same.

"You are such a boob." River is standing in front of him, rolling her eyes impatiently. "Don't you remember the old saying?"

What? What in the 'verse is she talking about? "Old saying?"

"He can't crawl Simon."

He stares at her. She knows. How can she possibly know? He sighs. "I'm not sure I can carry him, mei-mei. I don't think I'm strong enough."

She laughs brightly. "Well, you ain't weak. An' that's not nothin'."

Simon goes cold. She sounds just like Mal.

Chapter Text

The recording is a patchwork of inexpertly recorded second- or third-hand waves but its content is clear enough. With the sound turned way down low, Saffron plays it through again, checking she's got every last detail right.

The first voice is that of a Federal Agent. "Thank you very much, Mister Niska. You have been most helpful. We will feed your December coordinates into our databank and expand the search from there. Fortunately we have several waystations in the Georgia system that will have picked up their trajectory, even if the ID they're flying under is an assumed one."

A sweet-faced little old man with wire-rimmed spectacles nods. "Is pleasure. Our agreement is solid, no?"

"Absolutely, Mister Niska. Our targets are the girl and her brother. The Alliance is more than happy for you to take, uh -," There's a pause whilst he flips through some papers - "Malcolm Reynolds, once we have them in custody."

"Is good."

There's a crackle and the recording loses video. "They're heading for Saint Albans."

"Good a place as any. Get that hundan Reynolds on screen. Wanna make sure that crate's still intact. I'm getting those gorram organs back if I have to kill everyone on board that junker Firefly in the process."

Saffron tucks the piece of paper onto which she's transcribed the salient information inside her shirt and smiles to herself. Malcolm Reynolds may be too full of self-righteous crap to turn that pretty boy and his moon-brained sister in for the reward on their heads, but Saffron sure as hell isn't. She casts a quick glance at the naked man sprawled out on the bed. Black skin over tight muscles sure is pleasing to look on. He's as streamlined and dangerous as this ship of his. Normally she'd rob a man after lying with him – or before if he was as dumb as Malcolm Reynolds – but she decides against it on this occasion. Took forever for the Goodnight Kiss to take effect on him after he finally allowed her to kiss him on the mouth – and even now she's not sure how deep under he is. After the unseemly uses he put her body to earlier, she doesn't want him coming after her with all kinds of hurt on his mind.

To be on the safe side, she reroutes his fuel line before creeping out into the early morning light.

* * * * *

In Simon's fantasy all Mal needs to be cured is to know that Simon cares for him. He's every bit as passionately intense as Simon's always imagined him, but love has made him whole again and it's not pain he wants to make his medic cry out from. Simon's hand moves faster, his back arches, he breath catches, he shudders and stills - the moan in his throat a half-formed name. Wetness seeps between his fingers and squeezes out from under his eyelids and now he feels pathetic, weak. He wishes he didn't feel the need to do this – or rather, he wishes he was strong enough to resist the need. Because it doesn't help. His ability to conjure the face he wants to see is frustratingly unreliable and each lonely climax leaves him emptier than before.

His door slides open, banging loudly into the endstop and making him jump. He snatches at the bedclothes in a frantic attempt to cover himself. It's River - head tilted to one side and a knowing look on her face. She sighs and rolls her eyes. "You know, it isn't altogether wise ..." she begins, horribly lucid and bratty-little-sisterly. "Not if you're going to leave your door open."

Simon sits up, arranging the blankets carefully to preserve what's left of his modesty. "I'm sure I've heard that said," he replies wearily, remembering one of several humiliating experiences at school and the man-to-man chat with his headmaster that followed. "Did you want something?"

Her eyebrows knit together in confusion and her eyes cloud over as she slips away from him again. "How ugly men can be ..."

Is she judging him? Is she appalled he can't control himself better? She was so young when they took her away – who knows whether they let her develop normally. "River ..." he begins, wanting to explain, "It's perfectly natural. Healthy, even. Men of my ..."

Her head snaps round. "Should have fought!" she spits angrily. "Stupid bitch!" And then just as quickly as it came, her anger goes. She sinks onto the bed beside him, deflated. All Simon can do is put an arm around her and listen to her quiet sobs. He promises himself get back to trying to find a cure for her just as soon as she calms down.

* * * * *

Mal ain't no different from other men. It's not like he never thinks on it. Jus' tries gorram hard not to an' directs his energies elsewhere. Which is why this morning he's polishin' his weaponry with a vigour that'd impress even Jayne. 'Course it would be Inara that catches him.

Woman's even got the gall to tell him he's doin' it wrong. Leans over him an' rearranges his tackle, saying "Every well-bred petty crook knows the small concealable guns always go to the far left of the place setting."

Mal grunts. Guess if anyone knows the right place for a fella's pistol it'd be Inara. An' she needn't think he di'n't notice the way she slipped 'petty' into that comment. He ain't no ....

"Got a distress call coming in," Wash announces as he pokes his head into the room. "Folks asking for help."

Mal gives Inara a superior smile. "Really? Folks askin' for help? From us petty crooks?"

Wash's eyes dart from the Captain to the Companion and back again as he tries to work out what the hell's going on between the two of 'em. "Well ..."

"Maybe I should take that right away," Mal says with a touch of swagger, grinnin' at Inara.

"Well," Wash says again, more carefully this time, "It's for her."

"Hunh?"

"They didn't ask for you, Mal," the pilot explains. "Call's for Inara."

Mal is dumbfounded, Inara quietly triumphant. "I'll take it in my shuttle."

"This distress call wou'n't be takin' place in someone's pants, would it?" he tosses after her.

The look she gives him hovers somewhere between distaste and pity.

He stares at the table. Weaponry looks kinda lifeless. He snatches up a large gun and cocks it with a flourish. "Bwaah!" he growls, really wantin' to put lead into someone right now.

* * * * *

It's uncanny. No, it's more than that – it's like it means something beyond what's on the screen in front of him. As if their being on this ship was meant to be. Simon gives himself a mental shake. That's absurd! He doesn't believe in fate. He's a scientist, gorramit! This is all just coincidence, poetical coincidence maybe, but coincidence nonetheless.

He realizes he's begun pacing the floor, adrift on a sea of random thoughts and feelings. He needs to focus, touch something concrete, real. Automatically he reaches into a drawer for a handful of surgical instruments. Scalpels and retractors can never be too clean. Simon sets the autoclave and its familiar low whirr is soothing. He sits down in front of the screen again and studies the neat table of three column he's drawn up: Symptoms, River, Mal. There's nothing neat or tidy about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in real life, but filing its manifestations into boxes on a computer screen gives Simon some sense of control. He leans forward, resting his chin on his hand and his elbow on the counter top to review his data.

#1 – SLEEP DISORDERS. River: Check. Her wakefulness often disrupts Simon's sleep. Mal: Check. The Captain doesn't appear to need much sleep. He's almost always the last one of Serenity's crew to head for his bunk at night and in the mornings he's usually finished breakfast by the time the others start stumbling bleary-eyed and yawning into the kitchen. Simon's fairly sure he's heard him prowling the ship during the small hours on occasion too. On nights when things have gone badly. Or when they've gone too well.

#2 – APPETITE CHANGE. River: Maybe. She was never a big eater. Always fussy, picky. She doesn't like the standard fare on Serenity of reconstituted protein and claims she can see things in it, smell things. Mal: Maybe. There doesn't seem to be much wrong with the Captain's appetite but Simon hasn't known him long which means he has no idea whether Mal eats more or less than he used to.

#3 – IRRITABILITY. Mal: Check. Grouchy, bad-tempered, mean, that's the Captain. Although he can also be funny, considerate and kind ... but Irritable? Yes. River: Check. The memory of her slashing Jayne with a butcher's knife isn't going to fade from Simon's memory any time soon. And he's constantly on edge when she comes into the infirmary, given her propensity for flinging carefully arranged medical supplies around the room.

#4 – ANGER. River: Check. She doesn't confine her outbursts to the hurling about of objects – her repertoire now includes cussing. And the things she says! Even Jayne raises an eyebrow at some of her more colourful oaths. But it's the venom underlying them that makes Simon's blood run cold. Mal: Check. There's a lot of anger in the Captain. Simon knows that better than most.

#5 – DEPRESSION. River: Maybe. She cries more readily than before and about odd things too – like apple pieces and ghosts and a child's lost voice. Does that mean she's depressed? Or simply sad? She still dances, still laughs. Mal: the checkbox is empty. Simon wouldn't say the Captain is depressed. According to his medical encyclopaedia, the depressed patient is less active than the norm. Mal, if anything, is more active than most people – never content to sit, he always has to be doing something. Or planning something. As for the other symptoms – unhappiness, guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts – well, Simon would need to be as empathic as his sister to even make a guess at whether Mal suffers from any of those.

#6 – EXCESS AROUSAL. Mal: Check. See above. River: Check. She wakes suddenly, instantly alert. Her hearing has become more acute, Simon's sure, and her vision too. She sees and hears things she really shouldn't be able to. And her reactions to them can be extreme.

#7 – EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT. The pricking behind his eyes when he came to this question surprised Simon. They used to be so close, he and River, but now she seems constantly just out of reach. Sometimes she looks right through him, as if he doesn't exist for her any more. Regretfully he had to check the box for River. Mal: Simon eventually went for a Maybe. Anything short of Mal kissing the life out of him feels like indifference to Simon, so he might well have ticked the box. But Mal's love for Kaylee is openly and warmly expressed. His bond with Zoe is as solid as the walls that surround them. He even has warm enough relations with Wash and Jayne and the Preacher. It's only Inara and Simon he repeatedly keeps pushing away.

#9 – OVERLY PROTECTIVE. Mal: Maybe. Because Simon's criteria are not the same as Mal's. He thinks the way the man puts himself at risk to prevent harm coming to his people could well be considered overprotective. On the other hand, it might be standard Captainly procedure. River: Maybe. She was always vaguely maternal towards Simon, as if she were the elder sibling. She adores Kaylee and will round angrily on anyone who upsets the mechanic, Simon included. And there's her concern for Mal. He can't crawl, Simon. A new theory suggests itself. It could be River wants to protect other people because she couldn't protect herself ...

#10 – NIGHTMARES/FLASHBACKS. River: Check. Oh God, the nightmares River has! Sometimes Simon has to resort to smoothers to stop her screaming from waking the entire ship. Scarier still are the times when she loses touch with reality during waking hours, when her eyes take on that far away look and her mouth starts to contort with fear. Trying to imagine what she's seeing is too painful ... Mal: Maybe. He doesn't sleep much. See #1. The reason might be that he's afraid of falling asleep, afraid of what will fill his head when he's not in control of his thoughts anymore.

#11 – AVOIDANCE. River: Check. For some things at least. She doesn't like the infirmary and has become unduly anxious at the sight of needles. Although after seeing the scan of her brain, Simon's hardly surprised. She has every reason to avoid them. Even so, he thinks that still counts as avoidance. Mal: Simon eventually decided to check the box. Initially he thought the Captain's problem was more one of throwing himself into dangerous situations rather than avoiding them. But then Mal's need to keep Inara at arm's length came to mind. Despite having feelings for her, Mal won't let Inara get close ... As Simon looks at the screen he remembers having been pulled close then pushed away himself and a hot flash of something like excitement – hope- goes through him. He reasons it quickly away.

The autoclave clicks onto the next stage of its cycle and falls silent. Gradually Simon becomes aware that he's not alone. There's someone standing just behind him. Is it to late to clear the screen? Oh shit ... please don't let it be Mal.

"Mmm," Book murmurs, taking a closer look. "Could be a touch of survivor guilt too."

"My sister has done nothing to feel guilty about!" Simon declares hotly.

"Never meant to imply she had,"the Shepherd replies. "Just pointing out that some people find it easier to feel guilty about a bad situation rather than admit they were powerless to do anything about it."

Simon searches the older man's face. "Are you talking about my sister? Or the Captain?"

"Talking about all of us." They turn to see River, poised on the threshhold, all solemn eyes and sad mouth.

 

* * * * *

Mal likes her voice. Got a calm to it, despite the story she's tellin' Inara. A strength too.

"Ain't barely more'n a child her own self," the woman is sayin'. "But she wants this baby. Trouble is, Rance Burgess – him as owns this moon an' most of the folk on it – wants it too. Plannin' to cut it out of her if he has to – or so he says."

Mal hears Inara gasp."He wouldn't ... surely?"

There's a bitter laugh. "Wou'n't put anythin' past Rance Burgess. Man's a monster. Now, I ain't afraid of facin' down one man – even a monster – but he got followers, sorry excuses for men, jus' longin' for a chance to earn his favour. Me an' the girls ... well, I knew there wa'n't no way we were gonna win a fight against a gang of armed men .... but then I got word you were in the area ... I'm imposin', but I got no-one else to ask ..."

It's all Mal can do not to burst into Inara's shuttle an' answer for her. Will they help this woman an' that poor pregnant kid? Damn straight they will! He grinds his teeth with rage at the notion of a man stealin' a woman's child – her future – away from her. Ain't no way he's gonna stand by an' let that happen, whatever 'Nara says next.

"It sounds like something this crew can handle. I can't guarantee they'll handle it particularly well ..."

"If they got guns an' brains at all ..."

"They've got guns."

Mal'd bridle at that if he weren't already plannin' ways of dealin' with the monstrous Rance Burgess. Plenty of time to worry about Inara insultin' his intelligence after he's explained a few things to that ruttin' hundan. One thing at a time. That way there ain't no complications.

"I suppose you heard all that," Inara accuses him without bothering to look round.

Gorramit – how'd she know he was listenin'? "Only because I was eavesdroppin'," he admits lightly, before turnin' deadly serious. "Your friend sounds like she's in a peck o' trouble."

"She is," Inara replies, equally serious.

Mal's already decided he's gonna do what he can to help. Don't really need to discuss these folks' status as whores nor how they're gonna pay for his services. In fact, he ain't at all comfortable the way them points somehow got into the same sentence. "Won't be needin' no payment," he tells Inara, when she offers him her own money.

"Mal. Thank you. I'll contact Nandi at once." There's gratitude in her tone an' it's all he wants. But even that little gets snatched away. "But you will be paid. I feel it's important we keep ours a strictly business relationship." She turns away so he doesn't see the pain saying that and meaning it causes her.

Mal blinks. He wa'n't gonna ask for more than they have, for more than the notion she got some regard for him. "I'll speak to the crew," he tells her. Strictly business-like.

* * * * *

"All I'm saying," Gaunt says, snapping on a fresh pair of latex blue gloves, "Is that wet-work missions are so much simpler."

"But less challenging. And ultimately less satisfying. Anyone can bring a target in dead. Retrieving them alive and functional – that takes skill."

"There are seven other people on that Firefly."

"Seven – seventy – it doesn't matter. None of the others are of any consequence."

* * * * *

Mal runs into Simon at almost the exact spot in the corridor where a couple of months ago the Captain pushed his medic up against the wall and kissed him. Which means his "Ah, Doc – jus' the man I was lookin' for" don't come out quite as breezy as he'da liked an' instead has both of them wishing they were someplace else. But since they're here, Simon concentrates on looking doctorly and Mal reciprocates by acting Captain-like.

"Wanted to have a private chat 'bout the job 'fore speakin' to the others," he says, carefully keepin' his distance. "Friend of Inara's – well, she runs a whore-house, ain't no other way of puttin' it. Apparently. One of her girl's is pregnant an' the father reckons he's got more of a claim to the baby than she has. Gorram wangba dan's plannin' to ride in an' take the child from her. Them of the crew as wants to is gonna stop him."

"Of course," Simon agrees readily. "Not that I'm much good with a gun ..."

Mal laughs and slaps the boy's shoulder before recallin' his No Touchin' policy's there for a reason. "Ahem. No, Doc, I di'n't mean that. Not that I'm not grateful for the offer. Want you to bring your doctorin' kit – if you're agreeable. Make sure mother an' child's doin' okay."

It's Simon's turn to smile. "Well, that's a relief. And of course I'll help. In any way I can."

"Good." Mal nods, proud of him. Touched. Then he remembers to add, "Oughta make it clear - ain't no money in it."

The information doesn't change Simon's mind but it does make him wonder about the Captain's motivation. Then he puts two and two together and gets five. "I... um, I sha'n't be wanting any ... um ... recompense for my services."

Mal looks blank and then his eyes go wide as the light dawns. "No. Me neither. No – uh- recompense. My only interest in this is ensurin' that baby stays where it belongs. With its mother. Family – that's the most important thing in the whole gorram 'verse to my mind."

They've reached the stairs leading down into the cargo bay now and can see the rest of the crew gathered below. Mal goes on ahead, Simon following behind, mulling over the meaning of the Captain's last remark. River takes his hand as he goes to join the others. "Family man at heart," she whispers. "Likes babies."

* * * * *

Once inside the Heart of Gold, Jayne's like a kid in a sweet shop. He leers round at the girls an' almost don't know where to start. Almost. "Can I start gettin' sexed already?" he asks Mal impatiently.

Surprised by a twinge of jealousy, Kaylee sighs wishin' it were as easy for a girl to get some play. At her side Simon's as stiff an' formal as ever. Even here. Maybe 'specially here. Smell of sex in the air seems to be makin' him all manner of twitchy. Keeps glancin' across at Mal, probably hopin' the Cap'n'll change his mind an' order 'em all back on ship. The atmosphere in this place is makin' Kaylee twitchy too. Been too damn long. She nudges Wash. "Look! They got boywhores. Ain't that thoughtful? Wonder if they service girlfolk at all?"

"Let's not ask." Wash takes the words right out of Simon's mouth. Because the medic really meant what he said about not being paid for his services, boywhores notwithstanding. Simon was never interested in one-night stands.

"Isn't there a pregnant woman I'm to examine?" he asks, hoping to change the subject.

But Kaylee goes right on staring at the pretty boys. Wash is fascinated. "You'd really lie with someone being paid for it?" he asks her.

The mechanic shrugs. "Well, it's not like anyone else is linin' up to – you know – examine me." She shoots a sideways look at Simon who pretends not to notice. He's going to have to talk to her. It's not fair to carry on like this ...

"Man, my John Thomas is about to pop off an' fly around the room, there's so much tasty in here!" Jayne confides with a wide grin.

"Would be you get your most poetical about your pecker!" Wash observes dryly.

Kaylee don't find it funny though.

A couple more girls enter the room, one much more pregnant than Simon had expected. She's almost full-term. "You'd be the doctor?" the other one asks, politely deferential.

"Yes," Simon replies. "And this is Petaline?"

Kaylee looks at Simon then Jayne without neither of 'em noticin' an' her belly feels real empty. "Everybody's got somebody," she muses, all wistful an' forlorn. "Wash, tell me I'm pretty."

The pilot understands a lot more than people give him credit for. Sees a lot more too. "Were I unwed," he assures her, "I would take you in a manly fashion."

"Cos I'm pretty?" Kaylee insists, gazin' into the distance after some dream she ain't never had.

"Cos you're pretty," Wash confirms.

* * * * *

Mal likes the way Nandi stands – like a woman who ain't gonna move till she's good an' ready. His Momma used to stand like that – rocksteady, rooted in self-belief. Di'n't matter what befell them nor how hard the winds blew across Shadow, Momma wa'n't goin' nowhere.

"So I take it reason don't enter into this?" Mal asks, but it ain't really a question.

"Not with Rance Burgess. The man is a taker."

"You think the kid is his?" Zoe asks. Family's always been important to her.

Nandi does what not many got the nerve to - looks her straight in the eye. "I think it's Petaline's."

"But the blood test ..." Mal's disappointed to hear Inara start to argue. Family ain't just about blood. It's about people trustin' each other, lookin' out for each other ...

"Well he did favour Petaline pretty exclusively," Nandi concedes, "But she had others. Fifty, fifty – not that it matters. The man ain't fit to raise a cactus plant. His barren prairie shrew can't bear him an heir so he takes it into his head he's gonna pull it outta us." She pauses. "That's not gonna happen."

An appreciative smile tugs at the corner of Mal's mouth. "I see that's the case." He likes this woman. Gets the feelin' a hurricane could hit this place and she'd still be standin'. Can't think of much in this 'verse she cou'n't cope with. Makes him proud to think she's lookin' to him to help her out of her current troubles.

* * * * *

Rance Burgess reminds Mal of Atherton Wing, which don't exactly endear the man to him. Only Burgess is worse – much worse. Wing was jus' some fancified self-indulgent dandy with an overinflated opinion of hisself – Burgess, on the other hand, got an overinflated opinion of God's opinion of him. Way he talks morality, you'd think he had a direct line to the Almighty. Book oughta be here ...

"I don't think I know you ..?" Burgess is sayin'. Man's smile's kinda creepifyin' too. Puts Mal in mind of Niska.

He suppresses a shudder and extends his hand, "Name's Malcolm – Malcolm Reynolds." Now what in the name of diyu induced him to give his real name? Momma's old sayin'? Tell the truth an' shame the devil? "And might I say she's quite a beauty."

Burgess looks pleased. Men who put their wealth on display like to have it admired. "Thank you." He withdraws a laser gun from the holster round his hips and hands it over for Mal's perusal. "You ever have occasion to handle one, Mister Reynolds? Silk trigger active return bolt laser," he adds, assuming Mal will be impressed.

Mal weighs it in his hand. Insubstantial. "Lighter than it looks," he comments, makin' it sound like tha's a good thing. "Thought it'd have more heft to it."

Burgess smiles that reptilian smile again. "Don't let that fool you. Won't find technology like this short of the Alliance. And even their issues don't yet have the auto-adjust. Had that one crafted special."

Mal raises an eyebrow. "Di'n't think firearms such as these were generally legal – not for the private owner, I mean."

"My husband makes a distinction between legality and morality, Mister Reynolds," Mrs Rance Burgess replies, speakin' for the first time. Mal takes the opportunity to size her up too. Don't much like what he sees neither. Too much focus, too many sharp angles all pointin' in the one direction. An' such dryness – drier than an empty well.

The rest of their conversation ain't of much interest to Mal. He's got what he came for. And now he jus' wants to get out of here.

* * * * *

"Captain Reynolds, I understand." Nandi's voice is warm, sympathetic even. "You have your people to think of, same as me. An' this ain't your fight."

Mal is taken aback, as much by her tone as her assumption. "Don't believe you do understand, Nandi. I said we run." He pauses, waitin' for the offer to sink in – but she just holds his gaze steadily, eyes not sayin' a damn thing. "We. My people. Your people. An' whatever bits of precious you got you can't part with. We load up Serenity an' leave Burgess in the dust."

Straight an' tall, she takes a step towards him. "Captain Reynolds ..." That voice is soft an' hard all at once an' full of knowin'. "It took me years to cut this piece of territory out of other men's hands. To build this business up from nothing ..."

"Nandi -"

"It's who I am," Nandi interrupts firmly. "And it's my home. I'm not going anywhere."

"He'll kill you." Mal warns her. Warns them all. But ain't a one of them as'll take his offer. Least of all that poor pregnant girl, if the firm set of her mouth is anythin' to judge by. An' she's just a kid. Just a kid. Another one Mal got a chance at savin' – two, countin' the baby. "No Miss Nandi! I ain't leavin' the Heart of Gold. Ain't leavin' you ..." she cries.

Nandi's chin lifts ever so slightly. "Rance Burgess is just a man. And I won't let any man take what's mine," she vows.

She was just a kid but they took her anyway .... It's haunted his nightmares for years, filling his nights with impotent rage .... And always there's the serpent's voice telling him that maybe it wasn't like that. Insinuating that she didn't fight because, well ... hiss, hiss ... And sometimes his anger turns on her, on her vulnerability and her inability to save herself. She should have fought them, gorramit!

"I doubt you'd do different, in my position." Nandi's certainty brings Mal back to the present.

He stares at her, then shakes his head wryly. "Well, lady, I must say ... you're my kinda stupid."

The tension in the room eases and, now it's decided they'll stay and fight, Mal automatically starts preparing his troops for battle. Listening, Simon can't help but admire his determination, even as he wonders about the wisdom of this course of action. He watches as Mal turns from one person to another - ordering, cajoling, persuading and encouraging - and feels so proud of him. It makes him doubt Inara's story. How is it possible that a man who's prepared to risk his own life to help a group of defenceless women he's only just met, be the type who'd use his fists on any one of them he took to bed? It doesn't make sense. Beside him on the sofa, Petaline goes rigid, a hand on her swollen belly.

"It's starting!" River announces excitedly.

Mal nods. "Well, that's a sure fact. But time is on the enemy's side so ..." He stops abruptly when Petaline lets out a howl of pain. His eyes go wide. "Oh. It's starting ... Okay ... It's starting!" To Simon's amusement and Mal's shame, his tone is a mite panicky. "No-one panic ... it's goin' to be fine," he says, mostly to his own self.

Simon smiles gently at him, "I got this one, Captain." It feels good to be the calm one, the one in charge. It doesn't happen often anymore.

* * * * *

Wash reckons his wife's using military tactics on him. Going for a full-out attack on his weakest line of defence when he least expects it. Or else why would she be talking about starting a family when they're supposed to be laying a trip wire right before they go and get themselves killed? "I'm just not sure now is the best time to bring a tiny helpless person into our lives," he argues.

"That excuse is gettin' a little worn, honey," Zoe replies in a tone that's more likely to have her husband shielding his tender parts than thinking about putting them to good use.

"It's not an excuse, dear," he counters defensively. "It's objective assessment. I can't help it if it stays relevant."

"I don't give a good gorram about relevant, Wash. Or objective. " Zoe says, pausin' from the task of kicking dirt back over the wire. "And I'm not so afraid of losin' a thing I won't try havin' it." Her tactics change with a smile. She fingers her husband's collar tenderly. "You and I would make one beautiful baby. I want to meet that child one day. Period."

There ain't much Wash can say to that, she knows. An' if she's outmanoeuvred him – well, tha's all part of the rules of engagement. Zoe always did want a baby, a family. Her an' Mal both.

THEN

"Two," Zoe said firmly, just before the tell-tale whine of a seeker had all three of them divin' for the floor at once. They braced themselves for the inevitable fall of plaster and masonry, shieldin' their heads with their arms.

"Two?" Mal scoffed, ignorin' the fact that a large piece of lintel had only narrowly missed him. "Jus' two?"

Zoe blinked against the fallin' dust and coughed. "Yep. Two'd suit me fine. You?"

Outside all was quiet again. Looked like the airstrike was over. Mal stood up an' brushed hisself down. "Four. Or five. Five, most like. Or six. Six would be a nice round even number." He reached down a hand to Cody Bain and yanked the private to his feet.

Zoe's smile was skeptical. "'s clear you was an only child, Sir. You got any idea what it'd be like tryin' to raise six kids?"

Mal glowered at her. Di'n't much care for bein' told his dream was impractical. Whole purpose of dreams was for them to be impractical – larger than life. That way, somewhere between what a man got and what he wants, he might achieve somethin' worth havin'. He turned to Bain who was keepin' unusually quiet an' fiddlin' with a button on his sleeve. "What 'bout you, Cody? How many d'you plan on havin'?"

Zoe took one look at the other man's face an' cringed for him. Mal could be so gorram insensitive! For a while Bain was speechless. Then he realized the sergeant really hadn't the slightest idea as to what he was feeling. No idea that this talk of babies and families had been slowly ripping his heart out. He gave Mal a weak smile. "Kids? Hadn't really thought about it, Sarge."

* * * * *

From the snatches of conversation driftin' up from the yard below, seems like Jayne ain't exactly hatin' this job. Mal grins at Nandi. "That man is gonna use up all our credit 'fore we've earned it."

She smiles. It ain't like she wasn't expectin' some enthusiastic acceptance of the services her girls offer. "Well, after you've saved our lives, maybe you can do some chores," she suggests.

"I'm a fair hand with a mop," Mal claims, makin' her laugh. He likes the sound. Rich and buzzin' with life.

"So your legend tells." She takes out a case of small handguns and places it on a table. "Truth is, I'd expected more of you to be taking payment in our trade."

Whole idea of that is all manner of funny! "Well, we're an odd conglomeration," Mal tells her, pickin' up one of the weapons. "Got a preacher, a married fella an' the doctor .." Mal's eyes travel down the length of the barrel of the gun in his hand. "Well, he'd have to relax for thirty seconds to get his play and that'd be more or less a miracle ..." His fingers tighten round the shaft. No. Don't think on it. Direct your energies elsewhere. "These are fetchin' little pieces ..."

Small talk about guns comes easy enough. Only then Nandi takes aim an' fires a question at him."I mean when are you plannin' to avail yourself of some of our trade? My girls is clean an' kind-spirited."

Mal swallows an' keeps his eyes fixed on the weapon in his hand. "Well, I got the job in mind. After, I'm sure I'll ... trade. They're a fine bunch."

Nandi ain't convinced. "You ain't looked at a one of 'em as long or as lovin' as you looked at those pistols. You're not sly, are you? Cos I got my boys ..."

Why does everyone keep assumin' he's sly? He ain't got nothin' against folks bein' sly – i's jus' that he ain't[. Then he reminds hisself there's no need to get tetchy. Nandi's jus' being accommodatin'. It's her job after all. "Sly? No. I lean towards womenfolk. Just one thing at a time. Never like complications."

Nandi seems to accept that, but then she's pryin' into another corner of Mal's life he'd jus' as soon leave undisturbed. "She's a hell of a woman, ain't she? Inara?"

"Oh yeah, she's a cherry blossom, no denyin'. 'Spect you know her better'n I do, comin' up together an' all," he says casually.

"I imagine I do," she agrees. Turns out she's not wrong. Mal di'n't know 'bout 'Nara wantin' to be House Priestess. Nor about her hatin' complications. The information's unsettlin'. Makes things between them feel more ... well, complicated.

 

* * * * * *

By nightfall, Petaline's patience with being in labour is wearing thin. She's sweaty and tired and all she wants to do is go to sleep. Her cheeks are red and her dark hair clings in damp tendrils to her face. She lets out a blood-curdling scream – part pain and part anger.

Simon quits his examination of her cervix. "You're not completed dilated yet," he explains carefully. "Should be pretty quick, but don't force it. These contractions are still preliminary."

His patient glares at him and wails again. "What's he sayin'?"

Inara takes her hand and squeezes it. "It's going to be a little while, sweetie." Long and difficult though this is, Inara envies the girl. Not everyone has this degree of freedom, of choice. Most of the time, Inara manages to shut it out but sometimes ...

"It hurts!" Petaline protests. "This child wants to be born, I know it."

"Can you grab the green vial from my bag?" Simon asks Inara. "We can dull the pain some ..."

A flicker of something passes between Doctor and Companion and he realizes he was wrong to doubt her sincerity.

"How many babies have you actually delivered?" Inara asks, and the sense of the poetical Simon's experiencing intensifies. He should probably get some sleep before he becomes as crazy as his sister.

"As the primary? This would be my first. You?" He asks. And again there's the feeling they're talking about something else. Someone else.

"My first too." Inara confesses.

"Mine too," River pipes up. This is exciting. A new life just waiting to start! Now, if only she can make her brother understand ...

Simon sighs. "It's going to be a long night."

"You'll do great, Doctor," Inara tells him, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek in a gesture of support, faith, solidarity.

Liking nothing better than a well-executed metaphor, River hasn't take her eyes from Petaline's belly. "Who do you think is in there?" she asks.

* * * * * *

"Amen," the little gathering echoes.

Book smiles benignly at them. Who'd've thought there'd be such simple piety amongst folk like these? "Not much more we can do tonight," he remarks as some of the girls begin rechecking the guns and ammunition. "I think it best we all get some rest. Is there ... is there a room I can lie down in?"

One of the girls name of Emma casts him a sweet but sultry glance. "Alone?" The question makes the others turn their heads. They're all looking at him. Lovely girls, each one as sweet as she's willing. There was a time ...

 

THEN

It wasn't marked as The Road to Damascus when the man who one day would be known as Book set off down it. Mostly likely because it was the flight path between the Kowlan Federal Base and Beylix and therefore not a road at all. Except in the figurative sense. It was a journey he'd made many times before, so there was no reason to suspect it would show him anything new. Border moons like Beylix were a magnet for the 'verse's less salubrious individuals and Federal agents visited them frequently. That day he and his sergeant, Shen Uriah, were on the trail of slavers, the righteousness of their cause burning brightly in their hearts.

So brightly, he didn't see the darkness in him. Thought it was light too.

Because there was a time when Book wasn't a Shepherd. A time when the only rules he followed were his own. And he had just two: Get the job done and Look after number one. Didn't mind taking short cuts to achieve the first nor taking more than his share to satisfy the second.

Shen Uriah's wife came under the second.

He ordered Uriah into the warehouse first. Nothing unusual in that. He was the Captain and Uriah the Sergeant. The lower ranking officer was always considered more expendable. Uriah died and he didn't.

And then the scales fell from his eyes.

* * * * *

The trouble with rice wine is it goes down so smooth an' easy a fella only starts thinkin' he's had enough when he's had way too much. Mal passed that stage a while back. Which explains why he's kissin' Nandi's mouth an' burnin' to kiss her other places too.

"I want you to bed me," she tells him, voice hitchin' with desire an' makin' him harder than he's been since Si -... since the last time he kissed someone.

"Guess I mean to," he replies, strokin' her hair.

Nandi searches his face. "I ain't her," she reminds him.

"Only people in this room are you an' me," Mal promises thankin' every star in the 'verse for that. When he looks at Nandi, she's the only woman he sees. Ain't no haunted eyes accusin' him of some nameless crime, no eyes full of pain he's the cause of. Makes him feel safer than he has in a very long time.

Nandi hands him another drink. "So my child," she teases, "How long has it been since your last confession?"

"Longer than I care to say."

She looks up at him through her lashes. "You gonna remember where everythin' goes?"

"Let's jus say I plan to take it real slow." An' he does. At least at first. Their next kiss ain't without passion, but it's still measured, controlled. It feels good – safe – an' he relaxes into it, lettin' Nandi guide his lips an' tongue through a wet, tantalizin' dance that leaves 'em both a mite short of breath an' eager for more. His hand cups the back of her head and tangles into her hair. A gentle tug an' her chin lifts, exposin' her throat to a blaze of quick, fiery kisses. He lingers over a pulse point, feelin' the rhythm of her heartbeat quicken under his tongue as he sucks, gently as first, then harder. Her fingers dig into his arms in an unspoken demand for more an' he can't hold back the urge to nip the skin between his teeth ...

That makes her chuckle, throaty an' low. She pulls back a fraction. "Think we best take this somewhere more private." Her eyes narrow meaningfully.

"Could be you ain't wrong," he agrees, surprised by the dark vibration he hears in his own voice.

The side-room she leads him into is dominated by a large brass bed. The sight of it makes Mal a mite sweaty an' suddenly he's thinkin' this is gorram stupid an' mayhaps dangerous, but then Nandi's mouth is on his again an' it's warm, firm an' sure. He clings to that feelin'. Nothin' to worry about after all. Runnin' hands that have started tremblin' down her back, he pulls her closer. She sighs softly into his chest an' tugs his shirt free of his pants. Mal can take a hint. His fingers scrabble for buttons, hooks, zippers – an' find nothin'. It most surely has been way too long.

Nandi chuckles again. She moves back a pace an' in one graceful movement steps out of her dress. She ain't wearin' nothin' else. Her skin glows golden peach under the low light an' her eyes burn green an' hungry. Mal swallows. Her breast are fuller than he'd expected an' the neat triangle of wiry hair curling down between her thighs is a reddish brown.

Mal realizes he's starin' and that Nandi's watchin' his reaction, a smile of satisfaction playin' over her lips. He flushes and looks down at his boots.

"Mal -" She wraps both arms round his neck an' now he can smell her – damn near taste her. His heart pounds in his chest an' he freezes. It's very hot in here. Nandi must read his discomfort because she kisses him lightly and starts slowly undoin' his shirt buttons, never takin' her eyes from his. Her hands slide up his chest, over his shoulders an' down his arms an' the shirt is gone. A finger circles one nipple an' the ground under Mal's feet don't feel so solid anymore. An' when she starts unzippin' him, he's grateful to feel the edge of the bed against the back of his legs. Nandi drops to her knees and pulls off his boots. For a moment she crouches there, hands on his thighs and Mal's breath hitches in his throat when she issues a gentle order to "Lie back."

The room starts to spin. He can't do this. What if ... Wo de ma! He has to get up, get out of here ... But she's inchin' her way up him, pepperin' his body with kisses an' then her tongue is in his mouth, strokin', probin' an' he loses track of whatever it was he thought he should be doin'. Her hands are pushin' his pants down over his hips an' it's been so long an' she ain't no kid an' no smart-mouthed boy nor no Guild-registered Companion neither an' maybe, just maybe ...

"You okay with this?"

He opens his eyes to find her searchin' his face, waitin'. God, he could plunge into her so easy, so thoughtlessly, an' jus' let instinct take over. But now he's scared of what that instinct might be. "I ..." He can't find the words to tell her how afraid he is, can't even look at her. Tips his head back over the pillows an' looks at the wall instead. Sees bars, a kinda cage. An' a sort of freedom – a way out ... He reaches up an' grips the rails of the bedhead with both hands. "Could you, uh ... " He looks pointedly at his wrists, "Would you ...? Not 'cuffs mind. Had more'n my fair share of 'cuffs courtesy of the ruttin' Alliance ... 'Less you got nothin' else ..."

Her eyes don't betray the incredulity she feels, but Nandi waits a second or two too long before getting up an' takin' a few lengths of silk from a drawer. Expecting him to change his mind at any moment, she ties both his wrists fast to the brass bars above his head. But he lies there quiet as a lamb, albeit one expectin' slaughter. Nandi reads people pretty well an' she's gorram certain this ain't Mal's style. Got no notion what he's playin' at though. "That all?" she asks, scratchin' a nail lightly down the sensitive centre of his palms an' makin' him close his eyes against the clamour from other, more needful body parts for their share of that gentle torment. "You want a blindfold too?"

"No! Wo de ma Nandi – no. I wanna see you." Jus' you, Nandi. Not nobody else. Wanna stay out here in the light ...

"So," she traces a finger along his hip bone, "You ain't lookin' for me to hurt you neither?"

His response to that is all manner of funny, like she knew it would be. His eyes go wide with shock an' he tries to sit up, realizes he can't an' turns a mite panicky. Then he sees her wicked little smile an' growls. "Gorramit, woman ..."

"Shhh. I got other plans for you anyhow, Malcolm Reynolds," she breathes into his ear, as she straddles him, makin' him shiver with the delight of it. Practiced, sure hands move unhesitatingly over his body, seekin' out all the usual places a man likes touched an' findin' a few unique to Mal. Her mouth follows, slower, an' she licks an' sucks an' nips until he's buckin' up against her an' close to beggin'. Her hips slide an' roll him till he's nearly in her and she catches the moan she draws out of him in a kiss. She pushes down onto him an' rises up again by minute degrees, over an' over again, lettin' him ever so slightly further inside her each time – drawin' it out till Mal's blood is screamin' an' he knows he's close ...

This ain't right. He was never one to take without givin'. Nandi deserves more from him than this. "Stop," he manages to grind out. "Nandi ... you gotta untie me."

She blinks. "Now? You don't wanna finish first?"

He grits his teeth. "No. What I want is for you to untie me. Qing."

Eyebrow still quirked in surprise, she reaches up to unfasten his bonds. "You are a strange one, Malco-" she begins, but he grabs her and crushes his mouth down on hers, swallowin' her little murmur of approval hungrily then the deeper sighs of pleasure evoked by caressin' her breasts. When her breathin' becomes ragged, he pulls them both into a sittin' position, her astride him again. He strokes her back lightly as he enters her, relishin' the texture of her sweat-soaked skin. Holdin' her hips steady with one hand, he slips the other between her legs an' moves his fingers till he hears her purr an' feels her tighten round him. Keeps on movin' 'em till she throws her head back and comes with a long gaspin' moan. The sound detonates every star in his 'verse an' for an instant he's lost – floatin' an' empty where he oughta be full. In this darkness there's no-one but him. He'd wanted, he'd hoped ... He opens his eyes an' Nandi's gazin' straight into his soul. He knows she don't see herself there ... He takes her face between his hands an' kisses her mouth, tryin' to ignore the taste of ashes, tryin' to say sorry an' thank you all at once ...

* * * * *

When Mal awakes next mornin', Nandi's watchin' him. Her smile is the first thing he sees. It all comes floodin' back in a rush. The smell, the taste an' the feel of her ... Renci Fozu, she ain't bleedin' nor cryin' nor nothin' bad. Only lookin' at him with kindness an' a hint of recognition. He opens his mouth to speak but she silences him with a finger pressed to his lips.

"Wa'n't lookin' for nothin' more from you than I got, Malcolm Reynolds," she says firm an' serious. Then her eyes twinkle and her lips curve. "An' what I got wa'n't nothin' ..." She kisses him, almost chastely, and embraces him like a friend. No – more like a mother.

"Best we be gettin' ready to face Burgess," Mal says, 'cos talkin' business hides a multitude of regrets. He pulls on his pants an' boots, picks up his shirt. "I'll see to my people." He kisses her hair, the way he often does with Kaylee. He likes this woman, he really does. An' he's all manner of grateful to her for showin' him he ain't the monster he'd feared. She just ain't ... jus' don't ...

He closes the door behind him, looks up an' sees someone who is ... does ... He gulps.

Inara is caught between jealousy and fear. There's nothing she can do about the former, except pretend it isn't there. But the fear ... is Nandi okay? She scrutinizes Mal's face, reading nothing there but awkwardness at having been caught in a state of semi-undress.

"I was jus', um," he stutters as he pulls up his suspenders and buttons his shirt. There's nothing in his voice to suggest he's done anything other than have sex – other than the excruciating embarrassment that only Mal could feel about having had a little pleasure.

"I had to tell Nandi about the ... It's near time to ... Big fight today." Oh, that was gorram masterful. Might as wear post a sign: Spent the night beddin' your friend, 'Nara.

"Mal," she sighs. "Please."

He oughta shut up but he can't. "Hey, no. I've got, I've been up thinkin' ..."

"So you took to bed with Nandi. I'm glad," she interrupts him, amazed to sound like she means it.

"Thinkin' an' ponderin'," he rambles on before managin' to process her words. "Glad?"

"Yes she's a dear friend, and probably in need of some comfort about now," Inara elaborates, at least as much for herself as for Mal. He's more'n a mite confounded by her sanguine demeanour. "One of the virtues of not being puritanical about sex is not being embarrassed afterwards. You should look into it."

"So, you're okay? Well, yeah. Why wou'n't you be?"

"I wouldn't say I'm entirely okay," she admits an' he finds hisself hopin' ..."I'm a little appalled at her taste."

She's calm, haughty and untouchable. Until she makes it to the safety of a room where she can close the door and be alone. Then she crumples to the floor, hurting more than she would have ever thought possible. Sobs shake through her. Zoe wasn't wrong. Loving Mal leaves a woman bruised and bleeding.

* * * * *

Simon hopes Petaline's baby inherits his mother's lung capacity. Her screams are certainly loud and healthy – and have the medic's nerves twanging like bowstrings. How Inara stands it, he can't imagine.

"You're stronger than this," the Companion tells the girl, making River lean in to listen more closely. "I can feel it in your grip. Petaline – look at me ..." Of course! Inara was trained in the fine arts. Her medium is classical music, her style baroque. Strict rhythm contains the rhapsody, making it more poignant. Exquisite. "This is just a moment in time. Step aside and let it happen." River would applaud her performance but at this moment Nandi enters the room and the temperature drops. Even Simon feels it.

"How is she, Doctor?" Nandi asks him.

"She's at ten centimeters. Not long."

"Inara," Nandi touches her friend's shoulder and as Inara turns towards her River's ears fill with accusations and claims and rebuttals and sadness. She recoils from the agony of it. "I thought it was just him that ..."

No music now. Just the hollow faltering rhythm of a broken heart. "Nandi, believe me, I'll be fine."

As Simon rummages through his medkit in search of scissors, River's hand dives into the bag too and she clasps his tightly. "Mal," she answers simply to the question that's still only beginning to take shape in his mind. "Kissed a girl but made the other one cry."

Her brother's mouth falls open. Mal and Nandi? Mal and Inara? But what about ..? Neither of them is ....

"All the cuts are on the inside," River explains.

* * * * *

Ain't no sight of Burgess outside which makes the sound of laser fire down the hallway downright worryin'. Mal leaves the window and chases after Nandi. He bursts through the door, leadin' with his gun only to find he's too late. He sinks down beside her lifeless body an' all he can think is that he did this, that somehow he's responsible. He had the temerity to step out of his self-imposed prison an' the gorram stupidity to congratulate hisself on gettin' his control back. Thought he was master of his own self once again. But he led her into this. Killed her. Killed a little more of hisself.

Inara's eyes are brimful of tears. He always makes 'em cry, despite only wantin' to make 'em happy. She's in need of comfort 'bout now, but he daren't. Things are bad enough already. Inara's look darkens an' at least he can give her what she wants, if not what she needs. Rance Burgess – his ass hauled back here to face justice. Oh yeah – that he can do.

* * * * *

Serenity's crew take their places amongst those of Nandi's girls who are strong enough to attend her funeral. Another funeral, so soon after the last. Simon sees the self-recrimination etched into Mal's face and wonders how much loss the Captain can take. His arms feel empty; he wants to hold him, shield him from the worst of this. But of course he can't. All he do is feel for him.

Lucy's voice has a haunting quality – most fitting for a funeral. "I once was lost, but now I'm found ..." River nudges Simon hard in the ribs. He glares at her. "Was blind but now I see." She stares back, widening her eyes meaningfully. He doesn't understand.

* * * * *

On the walk back to Serenity, Inara comes to a decision. One she should have made months ago. She can't stay here. Not when staying makes her want so much she can't have. She hesitates on the catwalk, astonished at how completely her long years of training have failed her. Amazed at how much she loves this ship, its crew ... its Captain.

Mal catches up with her. He leans on the railin' and stares bleakly ahead, not knowin' where to start. How to tell the woman beside him he's in love with her but it's complicated? How to tell her he slept with Nandi cos she made him feel safe whereas Inara makes him feel dangerous? Or how Simon touches somethin' in him even she can't reach? How to explain any of it?

"I'm glad you were with her. Her last night," she says. "I am."

"I ain't. Hell, I wish I'd never met her," he answers bitterly. "Then I wou'n't've failed her."

Inara is kind, too kind. Tells him it ain't so. He don't merit her kindness. If she knew the half of it ... perhaps she should. He takes a deep breath, reaches for the support of a rail. "Inara, I ain't lookin' for anythin' from you. I'm just – uh - feelin' kinda truthsome right now." Preacher reckons confession is good for the soul. "And – uh - life's too damn short for ifs an' buts and maybes."

Don't Mal – please don't. Don't make this harder. "I learnt something from Nandi," Inara interrupts. "Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them – that's what kept them together." Just like you keep us together. "When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it. You can't break away and you never want to ..." Inara made promises – vows – and she can't let herself be tied. At least, no more than she already is. He will haunt her wherever she goes. But Inara is strong too. "There's something that ... that I should have done a long while ago and I'm sorry – for both of us - that it's taken me this long ..."

For an agonizingly hopeful moment Mal thinks she might reach out for him. There ain't nothin' hurts worse than hope.

"I'm leaving."

He watches her go. Numb. Mute. Then he turns in silence and walks down the empty corridor to his bunk. The bed is cold and hard.

He wa'n't broken before. Else now there wou'n't be this splinterin' inside him. Wou'n't be this black despair nor the crumblin' of half-repaired dreams. Somethin' deep in him snaps an' his gut twists like somethin' savage is tryin' to claw its way out. Somethin' ugly an' savage he can't fight. Or don't want to no more.

His back straightens an' he makes up his mind.

"Where the hell is that boy?"

Chapter Text

Half way down the staircase it occurs to Mal he ain't so much lookin' for his medic as huntin' him down. An' that his intentions ain't exactly honourable. Oh, he don't feel guilty about it. Why should he, when the boy's been makin' it clear he wants beddin' for months? No – all Mal's doin' is takin' advantage of what's on offer. An' if the boy wants any more than that, if he ends up gettin' hurt, then that ain't hardly Mal's fault, is it? Only a ruttin' backbirth would imagine there could ever be anythin' more than a quick grapple between the two of them. The Doc can't ... surely? Ain't he supposed to be in the Top Three Percent?

Mal shrugs, dismissin' the niggle of conscience at the back of his mind. He reckons he's earned this. Been through more'n enough - done more'n enough for Simon Tam an' his sister - to deserve a little payment. A reward. It ain't really like he'd be takin' advantage .... So why in the name of suoyou de dou shidang is he suddenly thinkin' about the Special Hell? Gorram preacher an' his religiosity! Mal don't abide by those rules no more. Lives by his own code these days, a code which he thinks is worth ... Anyhow – he's got this naggin' suspicion Book ain't no Shepherd ...

The infirmary seems less of one without the Doc in it. Weird, Mal muses. Everythin's neatly stored away, every surface sparklin' clean. Dumbass boy an' his obsession with order. Life ain't neat an' tidy; it's messy – complicated. Not clean an' pressed an' buttoned-up-to-the-neck. Maybe Doctor Tam ain't so smart after all. Too much brain, not enough common sense. Core born an' bred, he's got no understandin' of how the rest of the 'verse operates. Knows nothin' of how most folks gotta struggle to survive, how they gotta fight to lay hands on the smallest of necessities – an' fight to keep 'em. How in the good gorram did someone like him end up a trauma surgeon? There much call for one of them on the central planets? 'Bout the most trauma you get there is not gettin' a seat in your favourite restaurant or maybe breakin' a nail.

The boy shoulda been in Serenity Valley – plenty of trauma there. Blood an' death an' worse ... Mal realizes his own nails are diggin' into his palms an' his teeth are clenched. Mayhaps Simon wou'n't be so ruttin' superior an' smart-mouthed if he'd seen what Mal's seen, felt some of that pain. It sure might help him understand what he's dealin' with.

Mal reaches the passenger dorm an' stops, arrested by the creepifyin' possibility of li'l sis burstin' in on him an' her brother at the most inappropriate juncture. That'd be a real annoyance. Shame she can't jus' melt away for the night. Forever even. She's always gonna come first in Simon's life. Jus' like Serenity an' her crew are always gonna come first in Mal's, the Captain reminds himself. Well, they got that much in common at least – people dependin' on them.

Mal frowns.

Some days it's a real burden.

Days like this when he wants to be thinkin' about his own needs rather than other people's. Gorramit – if only it was jus' him an' Simon on this boat. If he could have the boy all to himself ... Lock the others away in their quarters, till he's had his way with him. Don't wanna run the risk of the others findin' out. Wo de ma – what if Inara caught him sneakin' into the Doc's bunk? There's no way he'd be able to persuade her to stay after that. An' no hope she'd come back some day if'n she did leave. Which'd mean Mal would never be certain she was okay. Job like hers – always putting herself in the way of danger an' into the beds of men who see her as nothin' better than an expensive whore - one day she might pick a rotten apple from the barrel ... If he could, Mal would seal her in that shuttle rather than ever let that happen.

Only thing he can think of worse than Inara findin' him here is Kaylee comin' round that corner. He can picture her face all too clearly. Her eyes'd be bright with tears held back and she'd try real hard to be brave an' happy for him. An' all the while that sweet, gentle heart of hers would be breakin' in two. Kaylee's so gorram full o' sweetness, she's jus' askin' to get soured up. One day she's gonna find out people got darkness in 'em, kind of darkness she can't even imagine. Tian sha – he ain't sure whether livin' in dread of that day might not be worse than it arrivin'. At least then he wou'n't be constantly tryin' to shield her from it ...

This is what comes of lettin' people in instead of shuttin' 'em out. Shoulda stuck to Zoe an' Wash an' Jayne. Mal don't have to worry about them. Not about what they think, nor about keepin' them safe. Zoe and Jayne can take care of themselves - an' who exactly is gonna mess with Wash if it means havin' Zoe to contend with? Not no-one.

Mal slides the door to River's room open a fraction an' peers inside. No sign of her. Where'd she go? See – this is exactly what he di'n't want. He wanted simple, he wanted in-and-out, he wanted easy. Now he's gotta worry about where that moon-brained mind-readin' genius has disappeared to.

An' worry about what it'd do to brother to lose her.

Simon wakes with a start. That was River's door. Thinking he might have heard a thump or two as well, he switches on the bedside light and pushes himself up from his pillow, listening intently. But there's nothing, absolutely nothing. So why does he have this prickling certainty that there's someone outside his door? Someone not entirely wishing him well? Dear God, please don't let River be in knife-wielding crazy mode again. Tension in every muscle, the medic gets out of bed and clad in only his thin grey sleep-pants, he steps out into the hallway ...

Nothing. No-one.

He crosses to River's room and looks inside. She's not there. Fighting back a rising sense of foreboding, he tries to convince himself it's a game and that she's hiding from him. "River ..?"

* * * * *

"We're all just floating."

Floating on the fathomless waters of time and space - sometimes pitching up, shipwrecked and desperate, on someone else's shore and sometimes dragging a drowing man from the sea.

Floating in and out of each other's lives on the tide of change and chance. And constantly meeting ourselves: the person we used to be, the person we're going to become. The person we wish we weren't.

Some people believe that's nothing more than coincidence. And some think it's all part of God's plan.

And some think none of it means a damn thing.

* * * * *

River awakes, instantly alert. Was the voice in her head or outside it? It's so hard to tell nowadays where she ends and others begin. Especially Mal. She knows him better than he knows himself, knows what he thinks he wants and what he actually needs. He needs Simon – but not like this. Not when Simon's not ready for it. Not when Mal wants to give in to the darkness.

She throws back the sheets and jumps out of bed. Time to rescue them both. Create a distraction.

It ought to be easy. After all, she already walks on Mal's feet and hears through his ears.

She's very close to him, even if he doesn't see it.

* * * * *

He was here. Outside the passenger dorm. The commons area is still full of the ghosts of his thoughts and they're rushing into River ...

... showing her Kaylee, sittin' on the couch with Simon. Her bare legs an' feet are in his lap and he's strokin' them absent-mindedly like they've been intimate for years.

Kaylee is laughin'. Mal loves to hear her laugh. The sound chases away some of his shadows. "You couldn't possibly have!"

Simon dips his hed shyly and a slow smile creeps across his face. "I wish I was lying. I just – well, we'd all just made surgeon, that was it. We were the elite, the world was ours, you know ..."

"So you had to be naked," Kaylee finishes for him, although she's shaking her head in disbelief.

"Naked," the Doc confirms. "And on top of the statue of Hippocrates. And – can you just picture me?"

Mal can. Did. Stood here doin' jus' that an' quiverin' a little.

"Naked. I'll have to conjure up ... It'll be tough." Kaylee fakes a frown of effort, then beams at Simon, tapping her toes against his chin. River smiles wistfully. Mal is a good man. Just broken, is all. "So the Feds came?"

"No. There were no Feds." Simon pauses and rolls his eyes. "Until I started singing."

Kaylee bursts into laughter again. "Oh no – what were you singin'?"

"This is not funny," Simon chides her, all mock sternness. "This is a morality tale about the evils of sake."

River loves a good story and Mal told this one well. So well, in fact, that he almost convinced himself that Kaylee and Simon belong together. He was jus' creepin' silently away when ...

... all of a sudden, the two of them look up, Kaylee's face a silent accusation of betrayal that Simon puts it into words. Cold, hard words. "I would be there right now." The smile slips from River's lips. She's confused now and unsure if these recriminations are in Mal's head or her own. All she knows is she doesn't want to be here. She heads for the stairs and escape as, behind her, Simon and Kaylee resume their conversation as if she had never been there.

 

* * * * *

He loves this ship. It's more home to him than any place he's been since ... Serenity may not win any beauty prizes but her walls aren't bare – they're richly clothed with memories. Like this spot right here. River reaches out her hand, homing in on the panel where the heat from two bodies ardent with need still lingers. A special place. A crossroads. Maybe even a door. She stares at her hand for a moment, surprised not to recognize it. Well, that's downright morbid an' creepifyin'. She sways, feeling nauseous. Mal is making her dizzy and she's glad to step down into the mess where an earthy conversation between Jayne and the Shepherd grounds her.

The mercenary is regarding Book with ghoulish fascination. "They don't cut it off or nothin'?"

The Preacher smiles that worldly smile of his. "No. I'm more or less in tact. I just direct my energies elsewhere."

"You mean like masturbatin'?" Jayne asks without a trace of embarrassment. Or delicacy.

"I hope you're not thinking of taking orders yourself," the Shepherd replies mildly.

Jayne laughs. "That'll be the day!"

Then he turns and looks directly at River. Regret and shame pour off him. "I got stupid. The money was too good." Was that an apology? An excuse? A plea for forgiveness. And if so, from who? From whom, River corrects herself.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, Book doesn't seem to have heard. "I don't give half a hump if you're innocent or not," he sneers, "So where does that put you?"

River is shocked. Why does Mal torture himself like this? And then she remembers, or realizes for the first time. She was just a kid, but they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.. Doesn't matter a half a hump whether Mal was innocent or not; he feels guilty.

* * * * *

In the foredeck hall it's as peaceful as a deserted beach on a desert island. The waves lap against the shore, rising and falling like breaths. In and out. Flesh in flesh. And it's beautiful.

When Wash and Zoe kiss time stands still and the 'verse empties, till it's only them and all eternity. For ever and ever. Mal envies them. Always did want everything and forever. River feels his ache for the healing touch of someone who loves him. Someone who could wash away the taint of blood and death and hurt. She wraps her arms around herself briefly, sighing - nearly whimpering - with need and the picture changes. Someone is screaming inside her head and a girl is bleeding. She staggers backwards. So much darkness in him. He's not right. She can't go with him ...

But here he is anyway, outside the entrance to the shuttles.

"I appreciate your not saying anything," Inara is saying quietly.

"I don't," he answers her bluntly. "So make up your mind."

Inara understands what he did. She just doesn't comprehend. The Companion turns her head and pleads. "I'm a big girl. Just tell me."

Mal steps back, wishing he could. Tell he who he really is, what the Real Mal is like, but the moment for that's passed and he's too ashamed and scared to try to get it back. What good would it do? What's the point of any of it? "None of it means a damn thing."

* * * * *

River lurches down the stairs and into the open space of the cargo bay. If Serenity's walls are hung with memories, her deck panels are carpeted with the past. Today the carpet is one of fallen leaves. The shadow of autumn. Autumn on Shadow. This is where Mal lived. Before. When he was a boy. When he played out in the fields all day long, making toys out of anything that came to hand – broken farm equipment, stones, sticks ...

Something snaps under the sole of River's foot and she bends down to inspect it. It looks familiar. She picks it up, weighing it in her hand. Lighter than it looks – she thought it would have had more heft to it. "Just an object," she tells herself. "It doesn't mean what you think." And then she smiles, because that was a ridiculous thing to say. Objects alwasy mean what you think.

Suddenly everyone is shouting at her. Kaylee, Simon, Mal.

"Get it away from her!" Mal yells at Simon.

The medic is only vaguely aware that the Captain is implying that somehow this is Simon's fault. "Just put it down!" he urges River.

She stares at him, bewildered by the whirlwind of fear and agitation surrounding her. Following the others' gaze, she looks down at her hand and gasps. She's pointing a gun at Kaylee, and the mechanic looks petrified. But she must know River would never hurt her; Kaylee is Mal's beating heart. "Kaylee ..?"

Simon's scolding of River is cut short by Mal who snatches the gun from her hand. "Fully loaded, Safety off." he points out, after checking it. He glares at Simon. "This here's a recipe for unpleasantness. Does she understand that?"

"She understands," River answers. "She doesn't comprehend."

"Well, I'm glad we've made that distinction." Mal don't know who to be madder at – River, Simon or himself. He waves the weapon in his hand in River's face and says slowly, as if she were stupid, "No touchin' guns, okay?"

River looks at him sadly because she's never seen a man more in need of touching nor one more scared of it. "No touching," she repeats. Because that's what he means. What he really means. She can see them – all the people who've tried to reach out to him, all the ones he's pushed away – hear their voices in her head.

"River -" Simon calls after her as she takes to her heels.

She doesn't stop. "It's getting very crowded in here," she cries in exasperation before running off..

Mal turns to Simon. "I thought she was on the mend." There's that accusing tone again, harder this time, only more under control.

"The medications are erratic," Simon attempts to explain "There's not one that her system can't eventually break down and you have to recalibrate ..."

"I want a lot of medical jargon thrown at me," Mal interrupts, "I'll talk to a doctor."

Simon does a double-take. "You are talking to a doctor."

Mal looks surprised. Tamade – he'd forgotten, he'd actually forgotten for a moment there. He was thinkin' of Simon as somethin' else, something more."Yeah, okay," he says, pulling himself together. "Point is, it coulda been you she mighta shot jus' then -" Mal don't wanna think on that possibility to hard. Why's it every time he cares for someone they end up in danger? "The doctor," he reminds himself. Because the boy's safer that way. "- As you jus' made note of. An' who exactly could fix you? Not nobody. We're in deep space, Doctor. Corner of No and Where. You take good care of her - " Take good care of yourself too. "Cos we're very much alone out here."

* * * * *

If it weren't for the reaction of the others – Kaylee's pained reluctance to tell her story, Jayne's professional jealousy – Simon might think that guilt over Nandi's death had toppled the Captain into psychosis and that this whole thing was another sadistic joke at Simon's expense. Simon knows he has to think about what happened between Mal and Nandi at some stage – about how it throws what Inara told him into doubt and what the hell that means – but he can't do it right now. He has more pressing things on his mind.

Zoe just suggested River might have been turned into an assassin.

"She's just a kid ..." he says quietly.

Just a kid. Mal stares at his medic, wondering if he's some kind of reader too.

"She just wants to be ... a kid," Simon insists.

Yeah – an' that poor kid on Hera jus' wanted to fight for freedom an' look what happened to her. They took her ... she was just a kid, just seventeen, the youngest of the ones who survived ... but they took her anyway. And he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.

Mal looks into Simon's eyes – sees the pleadin' in them an' wants more than he'da thought possible to reassure the boy. Only he can't. "I wish it were that simple," he says sadly, wishin' all of it was gorram simple. Wishes he could live simple, be with the person he wants to be with but he can't be trusted. He's dangerous. An' so, as it turns out, is River. More ruttin' complications.

"Yeah - an' if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak," Jayne grunts. "What do we plan to do 'bout this?"

"Well, that's the question ..." Question Mal's got no good answer to.

"I don't think she'd ever hurt any of us," Simon says.

An' he ain't jus' sayin' it – he believes it. Trouble is, the boy got no understandin' of what people are capable of. Mal's only gotta think about the way the Doc trusts him to know that. Wishes he was more worthy of that trust. Not so long ago, he was plannin' to put the boy's body to all manner of unseemly use. Makes him more'n a mite ashamed. Mayhaps that means he ain't so bad, nor so beyond savin' ...

"Maybe you're right." The Captain pauses and looks round at the rest of his crew. "Well, I ain't makin' a decision till I've thought on it a while. We hit New Melbourne ..." - New Melbourne – where Inara's decided to walk out of his life an' never come back - " ... in three day's time. We'll see who -" ... she's gonna go an' he can't ask her to stay ... He takes a deep breath and focuses. "We'll think of what to do then. It's late. Let's get some rest."

People start movin'. Mal expects Simon to stay behind an' argue with him. Had been picturin' the boy gettin' all heated an' then flustered an' conciliatory. Instead he's one of the first out of the door.

Mal feels oddly disappointed.

* * * * *

Simon doesn't know whether to be angry, anxious or hurt by the realization that he still doesn't belong on this ship. He's only here under sufferance and only as long as Mal says so. And right now Mal is thinking about letting him go – thinking about dumping him and River on some out of the way ball of mud. Simon sighs. He'd better find River and try to explain it to her.

"Simon!" Kaylee's calls after him.

Anger gets the upper hand. It's visible in the way he moves. "I gotta go check on my assassin."

"Simon, please – don't be mad," Kaylee begs and he turns to see her looking embarrassed and guilty. "I had to say something." She looks so genuinely apologetic that Simon's temper instantly subsides.

"I'm not mad at you," he replies gently. "It's just ... she loves this ship. I think it's more home to her than any place she's been." He omits to add it feels like home to him too. Because home is where the heart is, right?

That's the kind of thing Kaylee believes in. Only she wants to believe Simon's heart is hers. "What about you?" she asks.

Simon's not an idiot. He knows what she's driving at, but he'd rather avoid more unpleasantness tonight if at all possible. "I'm ... I thought the hospital was home. I was really making a difference there... and embarrassingly large stacks of money, and I could've... I would be there right now if she hadn't... if they had just left her alone. "

"Is it so bad here?" Kaylee pleads.

Simon shakes his head, shrugs. "I don't even know if the Captain'll let us ..."

Kaylee takes a tiny step closer. "No, but – isn't there anything about this place you're glad of?"

Suddenly Simon feels ashamed – ashamed of having been such a coward, of having used Kaylee's crush on him to his own advantage. He has to tell her. It's only fair. He reaches out a hand to stroke her cheek in the hopes that it will somehow soften the blow when he tells her that he can't give her what she wants. When he tells her he's in love with someone else. He takes a deep breath, opens his mouth to speak ...

.... and Shepherd Book appears. Kaylee jumps back and Simon tries to look like nothing was happening. "Good night, you two," the Preacher says and continues on his way down the corridor.

"Uh – I ..." Simon tries again. He wants to get this over with, he really does.

Kaylee gives him a weak smile. "No, yeah ..."

She's already backing away and he can't hurt her like he knows he's going to if he can't offer her some comfort too. If he can't stroke her hair or whisper soothing words to her like he does with River. The moment has gone. "Good night," he says quietly.

"Don't let the space bugs bite!" Kaylee chirps automatically then rolls her eyes at havin' said somethin' so ruttin' stupid.

Simon wishes he could love her. Because she is so very loveable.

* * * * *

How in the good gorram is a man supposed to sleep with a decision like this one weighin' heavy on his mind? There's no point even tryin'. Mal knows coffee ain't gonna help none, but it can hardly make his restlessness worse. He picks up his empty mug and ascends the ladder out of his bunk..

At night, Serenity is all Mal's. Time alone with his ship is somethin' he cherishes. Sometimes he talks to her an' sometimes he jus' listens to her breathin'. The steady hum of her engines brings him a kinda peace he don't get from anythin' else.

But tonight Serenity's not peaceful. She feels ... unhappy. Very unhappy. Like somethin's crawled under her skin an' is gnawin' on her insides. Mal shakes his head at the fanciful thought. That's how he feels, not Serenity.

His mind returns to the decision he has to make. River's a problem an' no mistake. But she's also a kid. Just a kid. An' one Mal can mayhaps save from the Alliance. If only he could figure a way for her to stay without puttin' the others at risk.

Mal looks up and starts as suddenly a figure emerges from the hallway that leads to the airlock. As the figure turns around, Mal realizes with a jolt there's something about this man he recognizes. Realizes he's been dreadin' this encounter for years.

This fella di'n't come down no chimney. He's always been here. Like the Black an' the darkness.

Wo de ma! - he's come for River.

No-one's takin' that kid anywhere, Mal vows, aiming a punch at the intruder's jaw but the fella's too fast an' blocks Mal's attack easily.

A fist drives into Mal's ribs and the certainty that River's dangerous refuses to go away. Mal struggles to retaliate, but an elbow smashes into his face. She can't be controlled. She's gotta go.

Go? Go where? The Tams wou'n't last a day on most of the backwater planets far from Alliance control. No, River'll have to stay. Her brother too. The intruder kicks Mal sharply in the thigh, and the ground beneath his feet quakes. If Mal don't get rid of River, who knows what damage she'll do next.

Nerves in the small of Mal's back spasm under the impact of another powerful punch. River coulda killed li'l Kaylee earlier.

But it ain't River's fault. The Alliance cut up her brain. An' why? So they could turn her into a tool to serve their purpose? Well, they ain't havin' her. Mal takes a deep breath and puts all he has into the solid blow he lands on the side of his combatant's face. For a split second, it looks to've worked. The fella reels an' spins, but then he's lungin' at Mal with a boot that strikes him dead in the middle of his chest, knockin' all the air from his lungs. It would be different if Simon could fix her. Or if he'd jus' keep better control of her.

Mal was wrong. There's no decision to make, cos he don't have any options. It ain't a question of what he wants to do; it's a question of what he has to do. Where the safety of his crew's concerned, he really ain't got no choice.

River and Simon get left behind the next time they make planetfall.

A final punch knocks Mal unconscious.

* * * * *

All manner of terrified, Kaylee is tremblin' from her head right down to her toes. She stares at the man before her, too stunned an' scared to move or even cry out. Who is he? What does he want? An' ... "How did you get on ..?"

"It strains the mind a bit, don't it? You think you're all alone ... Maybe I come down the chimney, Kaylee ... bring presents to the good girls and boys. Maybe not, though ... Maybe I've always been here."

Suddenly Kaylee feels sick. "What do you want?"

Instead of answering, the man looks at the engine. Feels a kind of fondness for it. "That's her beating heart, isn't it? You pull off anyone of a thousand parts, she'll just die. Such a slender thread ..." The thing's vulnerable to all manner of damage, being exposed like that. Oughta be protected by a heavy duty casing. Need a thick skin to get through this life. Less chance of getting broken that way. Leaving the engine open's just asking for trouble. And trouble don't need no second invitation. "You ever been raped?"

Kaylee freezes. She wishes she could scream but it's all she can do to stammer, "The .. the Captain ... is right down the hallway ... He... he can hear you ..."

The man in unconcerned. "The Captain's locked in his quarters. They all are. There's no-one can help you." A beat. "Say it." Cos we're all alone in this 'verse, little girl, no matter what lies we tell ourselves to the contrary. Everyone's on their own. And not a one of them matters.

"There's ... there's nobody can help me," Kaylee repeats in agonized defeat. Somehow sayin' it out loud makes it feel true.

He looks pleased at that, almost relieved - this hateful, inexplicable man. "I'm gonna tie you up now," he says matter-of-factly. "And then you know what I'm gonna do?"

Kaylee can only imagine. She can't speak. She's in desperate need of a pee.

She shakes her head and tries not to cry.

"I'm gonna give you a present. Get rid of a problem you've got. And I won't touch you in any wrong fashion, nor hurt you at all, unless you make some kind of ruckus. You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain't nothing but a body to me, and I can find all unseemly manner of use for it. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Turn around and put your hands behind your back," the man orders an' even if she was brave enough, Kaylee don't think she could resist. As he binds her wrists together, all hope of survivin' this evaporates. He's goin' to rape her, kill her .... But his voice is calm, gentle even. It takes a while for the full meanin' of his words to register. "Now tell me, Kaylee ... Where does River sleep?"

* * * * *

Responsibility is a heavy burden, Book reflects as he rinses the shaving foam from his face and pats it dry. Especially when it's taken seriously. Doubly so when it's shouldered alone. Doesn't matter how strong you are nor how brave – sometimes it's too much. Sometimes you need someone else, something else to lean on. Draping his towel over a shoulder and fastening his wash-bag, Book wishes he could find the right words to convince the Captain of that. The man takes on too much, accepts problems not of his making and tries to fix them. Even the ones that can't be fixed. And that leaves him feeling all manner of useless, because the Captain fears if he doesn't fix them, no-one will. Malcolm Reynolds can't leave anything in the Lord's hands any more. Can't? Won't. Book sighs. When the Captain stopped being able to get angry at God for all that's wrong in the 'verse, he was left with only himself to blame.

Jubal Early's mouth curls into a knowing smile as he watches the Shepherd make his way down the hallway. That outfit ain't foolin' no-one. That ain't a preacher. What that is is a man with a dark past that no amount of religiosity nor talk about the Special Hell can quite cover up.

No wonder he keeps lookin' over his shoulder.

Early launches himself at the Preacher, sliding down the staircase handrail, heavily shod feet first. They slam into Book's head and the Shepherd crumples to the floor.

 

* * * * *

A light sleeper at the best of times, Simon rouses immediately at the sound of a heavy thump in the passenger dorm. Please don't let it be River, he prays as he opens his door and looks out into the hallway. The Captain has enough reasons to get rid of them as it is. He really doesn't need any more. Simon opens River's door but her room is empty. Tamade! "River?" Oh God, where is she? And, more to the point, what is she doing?

Simon doesn't have time to consider these questions because without warning a weight descends upon him from above. Legs – legs? - wrap around his neck, making it difficult to breathe. They twist and fling him forwards and onto the ground. To his own immense surprise, Simon springs instantly to his feet. When did he develop reflexes like this? Has being on Serenity changed him so very much? He reckons the tell-tale buzz of adrenalin and throws himself at his attacker, grabbing the taller man by the throat. Only to see a pistol pointing directly between his eyes. Instinctively he back off.

Brown eyes look Simon slowly up and down and the medic realizes his feet and chest are bare. Whoever this stranger is, he seems to appreciate Simon's state of undress. The realization is unsettling.

"Doctor Tam," the owner of those penetrating brown eyes says, like he's ticking Simon's name off on some list in his head. "Why don't you sit yourself down?"

Simon resents the implied order. "Rather die standing."

The stranger sighs. "The intention is not for you to die. The warrant doesn't specify any particular need for you to be alive but ..." He gestures with his gun for Simon to sit and is reluctantly obeyed.

Jubal Early finds this defiant boy's submission particularly sweet.

He's all manner of pleasin' to look on too. Smooth, muscled torso, strong arms, delicate feet and long, shapely toes. Damn near good enough to eat. But right now Early's got the job in mind. After ... well, he's sure he'll -

"Are you Alliance?" Simon demands.

"Am I a lion? ... I don't think of myself as a lion. You might as well though – I have a mighty roar."

Simon struggles to make sense of the exchange that follows. Whereas his own thinking is ordered, direct and purposeful, this stranger's conversation is random, leaping from one idea to another. He talks like most people dream. And he's clearly out of his mind. A lunatic. And a bounty hunter.

"I''m a bounty hunter," he announces just seconds after denying it. "I'm named Early. I'm known to some. Been tracking you since the Feds were tipped off on Ariel."

Ah, it's all being to make sense now.

"She sleep with anyone?" Early asks suddenly. "She grapple with any of the crew? She might be in their quarters,"

"No!" Simon cries. The very idea of it is absurd. She's just a kid!

"Maybe she does and you don't know about it."

To Simon, that sounds like an accusation. As though he hasn't been taking enough care of his sister. It's true his mind has been elsewhere of late but this man can't know that. Simon hugs his knees to his chest. "This is insane. I'm not going to help you find her in any case," he declares firmly, meaning it.

The bounty hunter gazes at his gun and invites Simon to admire the beauty of its design. Objects are so much less troublesome than people. Objects have purpose, a right to be here. People – well, not many of them got the strength needed to pursue a purpose. Simon Tam does – that much is clear. You can see it in his eyes. It's what keeps the boy sane after giving up so much. Shame then that old Early's gonna have to steal that sense of purpose away from him and turn him into another confused, lost soul floating round the 'verse in search of meaning.

"You're gonna help me," Early states calmly, "Because every second you're with me is a chance to turn the tables, get the better of me, and it's the only chance your sister has. Maybe you'll find your moment. Maybe I'll slip. Or you'll refuse to help me, I'll shoot your brain out, and then I'll go upstairs and spend some time violating the little mechanic I got trussed up in the engine room. I take no pleasure in the thought but she will die weeping if you cross me."

Simon stares at him in disbelief. What kind of a wangba dan would use Kaylee as a bargaining chip? "You're out of you mind," he diagnoses quietly.

Early shrugs. "That's between me and my mind."

* * * * *

Now his initial shock has worn off, Simon finds himself getting angry. River is a person – a living, breathing, human person, and as such deserves compassion and understanding. She's been through so much, been so terribly damaged, and yet no-one seems willing to make allowances for her odd behaviour. Jayne, Zoe, Mal – even Kaylee – expect too much of her. She's broken and Simon's trying his best to mend her but it will take time. God oly knows how much.

"The people you're planning to sell her to cut her up in a lab like this," Simon snaps at Early as the bounty hunter scans the infirmary. "Tortured her. A teenage girl." He doesn't seem to be listening. Simon goes on. "Not some bandit on a murder run, an innocent girl -"

"You ever been shot?" Early interrupts.

In the face of cold indifference, Simon's fire dies back a little. "No."

"You oughta be shot," Early declares, making Simon start at the implied threat. But Early continues with his musing. "Or stabbed. Lose a leg. To be a surgeon, you know? Know the kind of pain you're dealing with. They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don't make surgeons get cut on. That seem right to you?"

Oddly, Simon finds himself thinking Mal might have asked the very same question.

* * * * *

Inara doesn't like having her space invaded nor her home treated like it's just another part of the ship. She made that clear to Mal from the very start. She watches with quiet rage as Jubal Early pulls back curtains and looks behind furniture.

"This is pointless. You know that," she says eventually.

Like he ought to know that. It don't endear her to ol' Early none. "Two hundred thousand seems fairly pointed to me," he replies. "Money like that, I could retire. Not that I would. What's life without work?"

Inara decides to try another approach. One that consists of persuading Early his search is futile. "Serenity is a smuggling ship. I've been here a year, I couldn't name all the places she might hide."

"I don't have a year," he growls, increasingly irritated by the Companion's manner. Seems to think she don't have to do as he says. That makes him all manner of mad. He turns to Simon. "Your sister's becoming a real annoyance."

"I feel for you," Simon says, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his voice.

Inara admires the medic's spirit. Mal has tormented and humiliated him since the day he first came aboard Serenity and yet has never managed to knock the fight out of him. And Simon will never let Mal have the last word. He may be young and inexperienced, but there's a quiet strength to Doctor Tam that Inara finds appealing. She knows Mal sees it too. It's the reason he offered him sanctuary in the first place. The Captain likes strength – it's weakness and vulnerability that make him afraid.

Early ignores him. Boy's got a smart mouth. No need for Early to go encouraging it. Instead he addresses Inara again. "I'm not gonna waste any time threatening you, because I think you believe I will kill people if someone upsets my plan. I'm gonna seal you in though. You just sit." Don't want you going nowhere. Your place is here.

"You can still walk away from this. I know you're tired ..."

There ain't much in this 'verse that makes Jubal Early angrier than being told what to do. Especially when it's someone who thinks herself better than him that's doing the telling. He brings the back of his hand and the gun in it down hard across her face to silence her.

Even though the taste of blood is filling Inara's mouth, she still can't believe he actually hit her. He split her lip. And somehow she knew he would, if she provoked him. She shrinks back against her pillows, pulling up her covers to conceal her exposed legs from his gaze. "Don't go visiting my intentions," Early snarls. "Don't ever."

Don't ever .... don't ever tell me ...

Renci Fozu – they sound exactly the same.

Early is staring at her with something like hatred. As if she has something he wants. "Man is stronger by far than woman," he remarks, ushering Simon out of the shuttle. "Yet only woman can create a child. Does that seem right to you?"

Good God, Simon thinks to himself, the man wants children! Whatever kind of a father would someone as unbalanced and dangerous as Jubal Early make?

* * * * *

Early's patience is running out. In frustration he declares loudly, "Now I know you're on this ship, little girl, so here's how it goes. You show yourself and we finish this exchange, or your brother's brains'll be flying every which way." He pauses and directs an apologetic smile at Simon. "You understand, I'm on the clock here, it's frustrating ..."

Cos what the boy don't know – although he oughta be smart enough to work it out – is that Jubal Early ain't the only person like to be going after the reward on River's head. Two hundred thousand's gonna attract all manner of undesirables. Probably including that red-headed whore he picked up a few weeks back. He knows she went through his stuff , used his Cortex link. She may have had the wit to try to cover up the fact, but he could smell her on his things. Her dirty whore scent was everywhere.

"You're wrong, Early," a disembodied voice tells him.

It takes the bounty hunter a second or two to realize the voice is not in the room but coming over the comms system. "I'm not wrong, dumpling. I will shoot your brother dead if you don't ..."

"Wrong about River," the voice insists. "River's not on the ship. They didn't want her here but she couldn't make herself leave, so she melted. Melted away."

Through a fog of pain and confusion the words reach Mal and he stirs. Truth can do that.

"They didn't know she could do that ... but she did." Early doesn't understand, nor comprehend, so River clarifies. "I'm not on the ship, I'm in the ship. I am the ship."

Simon doesn't know what to make of this either. Except that his sister is alive somewhere. "River ...."

* * * * *

Even if she weren't bound hand and foot, Kaylee would be paralyzed by fear. She can't even cry. She's all alone and no-one can help her. In the whole of her life, she's never felt so lonely.

"Kaylee?" At first she's not sure whether the voice is real or whether she imagined it. "Kaylee – can you hear me?"

It is real! It's kind an' gentle an' it's River ... an' how can Kaylee speak to River when she betrayed her?

"River?"

"You're afraid."

Afraid. An' guilty. It all comes pourin' out. "He tied me up ... I don't know where he came from, he just ... I told him where you were, I'm sorry ... I didn't know what ..."

"Shh. I'm fine," River tells her, her reassurance wrapping comfort around Kaylee like an embrace. "Only I need you to do something for me. Gotta be brave ..."

Kaylee ain't sure she can be. "I'm tied up. I can't ..."

River dismisses the excuse. "Got tools," she points out, cutting off further argument. The way the Cap'n does. "Something sharp. I'm right here."

Some of her confidence seeps into Kaylee and she draws strength from it. Enough to wriggle into a sitting position and start scooting across the engine room floor on her butt in search of a needle file.

* * * * *

"You hurt people," River or Serenity states calmly. There's no blame in her voice. Just objective assessment.

"Only when the job requires it," Early qualifies.

"WRONG. You're a bad liar. You crawl inside me uninvited and you hurt my crew. I see all that passes -"

"I only hurt people," Early interrupts hotly, "Cos they keep getting in the way of finding you!" He jabs his weapon towards Simon. "Tell her!"

Simon raises a bored eyebrow. "What am I, your advocate?"

Early's eyes narrow. "You are starting now."

Simon tilts his head to one side, as if considering carefully what to say. "He's really very gentle. And fuzzy. We're becoming fast friends."

"You folks are all insane!" Early explodes in exasperation.

Simon shrugs and sits on the console. "Well, my sister's a ship. We had a complicated childhood."

It's all slipping away from him, Early realizes. Reason ain't helping none. Maybe the threat of violence will. "Doesn't anybody care that I have a finally crafted gun pointed at this boy's head?"

Still not sure what in the good gorram is happenin' Mal's stomach twists.

"I care," someone says, an' Mal can't be altogether certain that someone wa'n't him.

River smiles to herself. At last, he's finally admitted it to himself. And what he's admitting to isn't just wanting or desiring – it's about far more than that. "I need you to do me a favour, Captain," she tells Mal.

"There was a guy," Mal mumbles, draggin' himself to his feet. "He was very blurry. You gotta be careful ..."

He's afraid – for Simon, for her. That's good. For a while he was lost in the woods, but he's chosen the right path.

Then the oddness sinks into Mal's consciousness. "How come there's a guy? And how come you're all of a sudden the ship?"

It's complicated, Captain. We keep meeting ourselves. That's how it works. River knows he's not ready to follow that line of reasoning. Yet. "I know you have questions ..."

"Yeah, that'd be why I just asked them," Mal responds.

"But there isn't a lot of time," River continues. "Captain, I need you to trust me."

It's a big deal for him, River knows, to trust her – especially her – when he can't even trust his own self. She waits.

"Am I dreamin'?" Mal asks, cos it seems like the only plausible explanation.

"We all are," River answers. In her mind she sees him roll his eyes. "Don't make faces."

He's quiet then and listens to her plan. Agrees it's a good one but there's just one thing botherin' him. "How do you know what this guy's gonna do?"

"I'm very close to him. He doesn't even see it."

* * * * *

One of the advantages of having empathy hard-wired into your system is the ability to put yourself completely inside another person's head. See the 'verse the way they see it. See the way they see themselves. Mal's head is full of gou shi, River realizes. On good days, he thinks he's sick, troubled – and on bad days, he thinks he dangerous and out of control. On good days he compares himself to River; on bad days to Jubal Early.

She knows he's listening when she starts talking to Early, knows he'll understand her words. She only hopes he will comprehend.

"It's okay, Early, I'm going with you. Don't belong. Dangerous. Like you. Can't be trusted. Everybody could go on without me, not have to worry. People could be with who they wanted to be, be with the people they wanted ... live simple. No secrets." She hears Simon's pained 'No' and loves him for it. Wishes he could see what she sees. "I'll be fine. I'll be your bounty Jubal Early. And then I'll just fade away."

"Well, finally," Early sighs with relief, "Something goes according to -"

The rest of that sentence is knocked out of him by Simon. They fall to the floor together, wrestling. Simon is determined but Early is bigger, heavier, meaner. And he's armed. He pulls the trigger of his gun and white hot agony bursts into Simon's leg and swells, building and spreading until all there is of him is pain.

River screams.

Early looks down disdainfully at the medic writhing on the floor. "See?" he says, somewhat gratified. "That's what it feels like." He peers out into the hallway – just in case. No-one. "You just hang on darlin'," he tells River. "Early's on the move."

He gets all of three yards before Simon hurls himself at him. The medic even manages to land a few punches before Early beats him off. This time he regards the recumbent body with a something like respect. "Spirited boy."

"River ..." Simon pleads and even speaking hurts, "Don't let him .. don't let him do this ..."

"Have to," she says firmly and then, more gently, "Have to." Have to show him, Simon. Have to let him go so far and no further. Have to make him see he's doesn't have to be this way.

* * * * *

"You made the right move, darlin'," Early assures River. "Best for you to go with old Early."

From behind him a voice crackles, "You think so? Some of us feel differently." And Mal certainly does. He don't want to get rid of River. He wants to save her. He was crazy to ever think otherwise. But Early? Well Mal wants him to get the hell off his ship. A hard shove into his chest with both hands and the job is done. Early spins off an' away like so much space trash.

An' meanwhile River drifts back down onto Serenity's hull, fallin' like an Autumn leaf in the wind. Soft as gossamer and just as strong. Biosteel, like her brother. "Permission to come aboard?" she asks formally.

Behind his mylar visor, Mal smiles. "You know, you ain't quite right?"

River smiles back. After all, she's seen inside his head. "It's the popular theory."

"Get on in there. And give your brother a thrashin' for messin' up your plan," Mal only half-jokes. He's feelin' strangely angry at Simon for havin' got himself shot. The boy could've been killed. Needs someone to explain the seriousness of that to him.

River shakes her head indulgently. "He takes so much looking after."

* * * * *

Mal stands in the infirmary doorway with Inara. He wants to be sure Zoe can remove the bullet lodged in Simon's thigh, but he don't feel calm enough to get that close to the boy yet. Gotta cool down some first.

"You got the bullet," he hears Simon tell Zoe. "Okay, I'm gonna pass out for a minute, but you're doing great."

Mal can't help but smile. Simon Tam's got a real nice way of leadin' and gettin' shot in the leg don't seem to have affected that smart mouth too badly.

Mal turns to Inara. "So, we live to fight another day."

"Any chance that xiong meng de kuangren might survive?" she asks.

Mal shrugs. "Air he had left, chance'd be one in about ... a very big number. Ain't odds I'd play." She smiles grimly and the light on her face shifts, makin' the cut on her lip stand out. It's ironic, when Mal's tried so hard to avoid her ever gettin' hurt like that. "How's your lip?" he asks, reachin' out a hand so he can steady her face whilst he examines the injury.

Inara pulls back and a look passes between them.

She knows. An' now Mal knows she knows.

She turns an' he lets her go, knowin' in his heart that before long she'll be gone for good.

He hopes at least they can part as friends.

* * * * *

It's late now, but Simon can't sleep. The analgesic he self-administered an hour ago has made him light-headed but hasn't alleviated the throbbing pain in his thigh at all. And as if that weren't bad enough, the medcot is unbelievably hard.

Mal can't sleep either. It don't matter none that Jubal Early's gone now. He managed to board Serenity without Mal knowin' about it. Tha's shaken Mal's confidence in his belief that at least on Serenity everythin' was under his control. An' it's made him real twitchy.

So he decides to do another round of the ship jus' to be sure there ain't no other stowaways.

Mal's boots ring out on the metal staircase and he pops his head around the infirmary door. "You still awake?" he asks Simon.

The medic pulls a face. "It would seem so. Although it's been a strange day. Maybe it was all a dream. In fact, perhaps I'm dreaming now."

Mal grins. "Don't you go gettin' all philosophical on me, Doc. Bad enough havin' to listen to your sister. You hang on there. I'll go get somethin' for what ails you." And he disappears again.

About half an hour passes and Simon decides Mal isn't coming back. He also decides he's not spending another minute on this medcot. Wipe-clean plastic surfaces only seem like a good idea when you're the doctor. When you're the patient, you realize they've been designed for the sole purpose of making you sweat to death.

Wincing at the pain shooting up and down his leg, Simon slithers out of bed, determined to get dressed and into his own bunk.

When Mal returns a few minutes later, bearin' a bottle of engine-room wine he was hopin' might take the edge of both their insomnia, it's to the surprisin' sound of Doctor Tam cursin' like a welder. "Hey - what ...?"

"Shit and damn and rutting hell," Simon hisses, stumbling back into the medcot yet again. Whoever would have thought getting sleep pants on could be so difficult? His injured leg just won't do what he wants. Whether that's because of the pain or those damnably ineffective drugs he can't tell. "Tamade!"

Mal strides into the room, heart hammerin'. Why's the boy out of bed? Is he tryin' to run from someone? Mal scans the room quickly. Nothin' untoward. He moves round to Simon's side of the bed, forcing himself to sound calm. "You got a problem, Doc?"

It must be the pain that makes Simon snap, "A problem? Let me see – oh yes! - I've been shot in the leg. And now I can't get these -" he shakes the pants angrily -"on."

Mal gaze shifts from the garment in Simon's fist to his medic's irritated expression. His eyes travel down to the tight grey t-shirt he's wearin' and down further to ... Wo de ma – flesh, naked flesh! He turns away quickly. "Best you get back under the covers then," he suggests, aimin' for nonchalance but soundin' spooked.

"I am not getting back in that bed," Simon tells him firmly. "And the next time we visit a half-way civilized planet we're going to be upgrading this infirmary ..."

We? Mal wonders. "Okay," he says, turnin' his back cos a man can only stand so much temptation. "How about you get yourself dressed an' when you're decent, I'll see you to your bunk?"

Simon's battle with his pants is a lengthy one and more than once he lets out a little groan of pain, but Mal keeps his eyes fixed resolutely on the doorframe. When at last Simon is no longer half-naked, he takes a tentative step towards the door, lets out a howl of pain and nearly crumples.

Mal catches him. "I said I'd help. That bullet affect your hearin'?"

"I can manage," Simon retorts, not liking this feeling of helplessness one little bit. Especially not this close to Mal. He shoves the Captain away and tries to walk again, with the same result.

He can't walk an' somehow Mal can't picture Simon Tam crawlin'. An' when you can't do that, you find someone to carry you. Looks like Simon found Mal.

"Here – though why you gotta be so ruttin' obstinate..." Mal says an' before Simon can object, he scoops him up in his arms. "Whoa!" Boy's heftier than he looks, Mal realizes as his biceps protest against the sudden burden. He's also warm an' muscled an' ... tian a – this was a stupid idea, Reynolds.

Simon is caught by surprise. His arms are clinging onto Mal's neck for support without him knowing how they got there and his cheek is resting against Mal's collar bone. He looks up into Mal's face and something passes between them. Something intoxicating. Simon's breathing speeds up a touch. "I think you should put me down ..." he says quietly. "I'm too heavy."

"No you ain't," Mal declares, tryin' his hardest to keep his entire blood supply from headin' south. It's only a few steps from the infirmary to the medic's bunk. Carryin' him that far ain't like to break Mal. Leastways, not physically.

He sits Simon down on the bed. Suddenly the silence of the ship feels oppressive an' – gorramit- Mal can't think of a single safe thing to say.

"Thank you." Simon offers.

Mal shuffles his feet. "You're welcome." He stands up straighter, tryin' for Captain-y. "Now, you get some sleep or you'll be no good to ..."

There's something almost tangible in the air between them, a solid connection that encourages Simon to be bold.

"You could stay," he suggests. Permission to come aboard.

Mal blinks. "No. I cou'n't. I ..." Ain't quite right ... dangerous ...

"Please." Some of us feel differently.

"Can't." I'm flawed ... hurt folk ..

Simon reaches out and grabs a handful of Mal's shirt. It's the blue one. The soft, worn blue one he's been wanting to touch for months. All it takes is a sharp tug on it and Mal is leaning towards him, his face inches from Simon's.

"Mal ..." Some of us have grown attached ...

Simon's fingertips alight on Mal's cheek and send his nerve endin's into overdrive. The tinglin' radiates into his mouth, fizzin' over his tongue and ticklin' down his throat . His heart's gotta be pumpin' loud enough for Simon to hear an' every bit of him is screamin' with the need to do somethin'. Anythin'. Fight, run, take, have ... only don't jus' stand there.

Then there's a hand grippin' his shoulder an' another cuppin' the back of his head an' he's droppin' to his knees an' fallin' into that mouth again where everythin's as hot an' wet an' sweet as he remembers. Tongue meets tongue, teeth clash an' lips bruise against each other. And it's wonderful.

Mal pulls away, breathin' heavily. Simon's breaths are comin' in short, laboured pants too an' when Mal looks deep into his eyes, only thing he sees there is "Yes". Desire ripples through him along with a somethin' he ain't felt in a damn long time: happiness.

"Gorramit, Simon Tam ..." he breathes, "What in the name of suoyou de dou shidang are you tryin' to do to me?"

Simon makes room for him on the bed. His eyes twinkle. "I'd've thought that was pretty obvious, Captain. I'm trying to seduce you."

Still kneeling beside the bed, Mal shakes his head. "Don't think I ain't flattered ... or that I don't ... but you ain't up to seduction tonight. You've been shot, remember?"

Simon's face falls, makin' Mal feel all manner of mean, until one corner of the Doc's mouth lifts into a wicked grin. "Actually I was planning on you doing most of the work," Simon admits with a little laugh.

"Oh, you were, were you? An' I'd be doin' that because ..?"

"Well, you are the Captain."

An' suddenly Mal can't think of any good reason why he shou'n't do this. Jus' gotta stay in control, is all. It ain't like he'd be takin' advantage because he does care for the boy.

He gets onto the bed beside his medic and stretches out, drawin' Simon carefully against him so as not to hurt his injured leg.

Simon notices that and, impossibly, falls just a little bit more in love with Mal as a result. He wraps both arms around him and kisses him again – harder, deeper, longer – making Mal moan softly into his mouth.

"Clothes," Simon gasps, pulling away and dragging Mal's suspenders down his arms. "Too many of them."

"You ain't wrong," Mal agrees. He pushes Simon's t-shirt up under his chin and bends his head, flickin' his tongue over Simon's nipples.

Simon closes his eyes, almost swooning with pleasure. And then Mal's hand is slipping under the waistband of his sleep-pants and all Simon can think of is how badly he wants that hand to close around him. His breath hitches in his throat as he resists the urge to beg.

Mal's fingers curl into a firm grip him and Simon loses himself to the exquisitely slow pace Mal adopts to start stroking him. His head arches against the pillow as his hips jerk up from the bed and his hands claw at the sheets.

"'m'I doin' it right?" Mal whispers into his ear, already knowin' the answer, but when Simon presses his lips together nods vigorously it makes Mal all manner of happy. He quickens his pace - addin' the occasional twist an' sometimes lettin' Simon feel his nails - and Simon begins makin' incoherent little noises. His eyes are glazed an' unfocused. He's gettin' close, Mal can see it on his face, hear it in the way the little noises turn into whimperin'.

Whimperin'

Where in the diyu is he? A different place, a different time. There's blood an' screamin' an' fear an' Mal's powerless to stop it. All of a sudden everythin's spinnin' and he's spinnin' with it. An' the only thing he can hear is that gorram pitiful whimperin'. He has to make it stop, get it over with – shut the stupid bitch's mouth.

Simon's eyes fly open as Mal yanks his hand away so sharply it hurts. Looming above him, Mal is staring down at him with a mixture of anger, hate and despair. The hand that seconds ago was speeding him towards ecstasy, is now raised ready to strike him.

"Mal?" Simon asks fearfully.

Mal's only response is to grab his shoulder tightly and bring the back of his hand down hard across Simon's stunned face. He barely has time to register the pain before Mal is draggin' his pants off, heedless of Simon's injury and unbuttoning his own. Simon tries to struggle, but Mal is too strong for him. He has Simon pinned and vulnerable. "Shoulda fought, gorramit!" he growls, biting down hard on Simon's neck.

Across the hallway, River shrieks.

And Serenity echoes her alarm. No – wait, that's a real alarm. The proximity alarm.

Mal blinks and shakes his head, glancing rapidly about as if trying to get his bearings.

What in tianna is he doin' in Simon's room? An' why is the boy's bottom lip bleedin'? Oh. No. He can't've ...Aiya huaile.

"Mal!" Wash's voice over the comms is frantic. "Mal – where are you? We need you up on the bridge – ma shang. Looks like we got more company."

Mal darts a look at Simon. Wants to tell him he doesn't know why ... that he can't remember ... that he thought he was okay again after Nandi ... but the medic shakes his head. "Go," he says and, after a brief regretful hesitation, Mal races out of the room.

River is standing in the hallway. "Software can be over-written," she tells him cryptically, and though he understands the words, he doesn't comprehend. He hurries on, taking the stairs two at a time.

River goes to sit beside her bewildered brother. Her fingers flutter around his latest injuries without making contact. "Been going round the prickly pear," she says, like it's some sort of explanation.

"What?" Simon asks. "What are you talking about, mei-mei?"

"The way the world ends."

Chapter Text

To Mal's ears the proximity alarm sounds like a beast in pain. Reminds him of that summer long ago back on Shadow when the rains never came an' almost all Momma's herd died. Such a mournful, desolate sound those steers made. Felt like his whole world was fallin' apart an' there wa'n't nothin' he could do to stop it.

Feels like his world's fallin' apart now too – only this time, he's the one destroyin' it. This carefully patched together little life of broken pieces that don't quite fit ain't holdin' together an' it's all his fault.

His head hurts, his heart hurts, he's still achingly hard an' he ain't sure he's got anythin' left in him to fight this new danger with.

Simon ... What in the suoyou de dou shidang did he do to Simon? And what in diyu was he gonna do to him? He shou'n't never have weakened. Shou'n't never have let Simon persuade him. Gorram stupid boy! He had to keep pushin'. Askin'. Offerin'.

The sudden upsurge of regret and self-recrimination is damn near overwhelmin'. Mal grits his teeth an' swallows it back down, pressin' a hand to Serenity's walls for support till the bile recedes

Can't be thinkin' on it now, he tells himself firmly. His crew's in danger. They need him. He's gotta pull himself together. Gotta carry on.

He takes a deep breath an' starts runnin' again.

* * * * *

Zoe emerges from her bunk, fully dressed and armed, to see Mal racin' up the crew dorm hallway.

Not really surprisin', seein' as how they've got themselves another emergency to deal with.

'Ceptin' the Captain ain't wearin' his boots. Durin' the war, Sergeant Reynolds woulda put a man on a charge for that.

Mal's running up the hallway, not climbing up out of his bunk, and he ain't wearin' his boots.

If Wash hadn't made it sound like they're in trouble of the serious variety, Zoe'd be worryin' about what that means. As it is, she bites her tongue and follows Mal up the ladder that leads onto the bridge, noting the way his neatly darned socks slip on the rungs.

More than once she fears he might fall.

* * * * * *

River presses a dampened cloth to her brother's mouth, making him flinch. She shakes her head wearily at him. "Too soon. Doctors have no patience."

A sad little laugh is all Simon can manage. His lip is throbbing and his mouth hurts more than it should. Far more than the wound in his thigh.

River reaches down and picks up one of Mal's abandoned boots.

Simon stares at it. Mal left his boots behind. Which means he'll be coming back - and *soon* - and Simon's not sure if he can handle that ...

River runs her hands over the boot's worn leather upper and turns it over to examine the sole carefully. A crease appears on her brow as if she's discovered something troubling but then her eyes open wide with delight and she laughs.

"River ..?"

"Walk a mile," she replies in a matter-of-fact tone and tries to force the boot onto Simon's foot, slapping his hands away when he tries to stop her. "Only for a little while," she wheedles.

But there is no way in this 'verse or any other than Simon is going to let her put that boot on his foot. "No, River. Please. I don't think Ma- ...I don't think the Captain would like it."

"Mal," River pouts, dropping the boot and folding her arms sulkily over her chest. "He had his hand wrapped around your penis, Simon. Silly not to call him by his name when-"

Simon's mouth falls open. "What?!"

"When you were going to let him pen-... insert- ..." Dissatisfied with the clinical terms that spring easiest to mind, she frowns, searching for a word that's earthier, more visceral.

"Okay – Mal," Simon concedes hastily before she finds one and makes him die of embarrassment. "Mal wouldn't like it."

Oh God, she knows. How can she? She can't, she couldn't and yet ... Simon can feel his cheeks burning and sweat prickling at his armpits.

Oblivious to his discomfort, River starts pulling Mal's boots onto her own feet. She stands up and takes a few ungainly steps. "Can't dance in these," she says sadly.

"No you can't, " Simon agrees. "They're not meant for dancing, mei-mei. Now, please - why don't you take them off?"

"Forgotten how," she says, gazing down at them.

"River," Simon tries again, putting as much stern brotherly command into his voice as he can. "Take them off."

She smiles sweetly at him. "Okay. He needs them anyway." She pulls them swiftly off and goes scampering out of the room, taking Mal's boots with her.

* * * * *

"What we got?" Mal asks, neatly side-stepping the toolbox which for some reason Kaylee's left on the floor of the bridge – Mal'll have to speak to her 'bout that - to lean over Wash's shoulder and peer anxiously out into the Black.

"Alliance," the pilot replies grimly.

Mal frowns. Ain't no Alliance vessel near enough to see let alone set off the gorram proximity alarm. He pulls his suspenders back up onto his shoulders. "Where, Wash? Cos I ain't seein' 'em."

"There!" Wash indicates a point of light that might just about be large enough to be a ship rather than a star. "Half a click out and closing."

"Half a click?!!" Mal is incredulous. "I ain't interested in boats half a click out." He directs a glower at Zoe that says her husband is an idiot an' she's a bigger one for ever havin' married the jackass in the first place. "An' how come all of a sudden our proximity alarm is?"

Wash looks a bit sheepish. "I reset the parameters Mal. Thought you might appreciate a bit more warning next time we get visitors come a-calling. You know – so you can bake a cake and get the nice china out."

"Good thinkin', honey," Zoe purrs at him, lookin' pointedly at Mal. "Wasn't that good thinkin', Sir?"

Mal ignores the question and continues starin' out of the viewports. That point of light is gettin' larger. Which means it's gettin' nearer. "How d'you know it's Alliance?"

Wash beams triumphantly and indicates Kaylee's toolbox with a nod. "Got our genius mechanic to tweak the radar. Seems by adding an extra antenna you can up your dish feed and if you put a PID loop .." One look at Mal's face tells Wash he's lost the Captain so he decides to cut a long story short. "Well, it means you can get a whole new view of the 'verse. Look." He flicks on the nav screen and the sleek outline of a ship appears. "There she is."

Zoe gives her husband an admiring smile and places a proprietorial hand on his shoulder as Mal studies the screen.

"Looks fast," Mal observes with a growin' sense of doom.

"She is," Wash tells him. "I checked her out on the Cortex. One of the latest high speed pursuit ships. The boat that can outrun that thing hasn't been built."

"Who says we gotta outrun it?" Mal asks. " Don't even know if they're followin' us."

"Outrun what?" Jayne demands breathlessly, as he appears at the top of the ladder. "Who's followin' us? It ain't Reavers, is it?"

"Alliance," Zoe mouths silently.

"Actually, Mal, we do know." Wash pulls a face. "I changed our trajectory as soon as the alarm sounded. They changed course too."

"They're after them fugees, I bet!" Jayne growls. "Again. Only just got rid of one bounty hunter an' now we got more of 'em on our tail. Oughta be *us* gettin' that reward, not some gorram Alliance *hundan*."

"Jayne- " Mal begins, all quiet an' dangerous, but he's interrupted by a crackle over the comm.

"Firefly class vessel Serenity, this is the Alliance Nimrod Diana. You are ordered to cut thrust immediately."

Wash glances at Mal who shakes his head and leans into the mic. "Uh ... we're ain't readin' you so well. Problem with our comm system. Could you repeat that message?" Mal knows his attempt at stallin' them is pathetic, but it's the best he can come up with for now.

"Firefly ... class ...vessel ...Serenity," the voice repeats, slowly and more crisply. "This ... is ...."

"How manoeuvrable are they?" Mal asks Wash urgently.

"You mean, can they do a crazy Ivan? Yeah, Mal, they can. And better than us."

"Ni tamade tian xia suoyou de ren dou gaisi!" Mal curses. It's worse than he thought. He leans into the mic again. "How can we be of service, Alliance Nimrod Diana?"

The voice that answers is different from the first. More imperious and less like someone making a routine request. More like the voice of someone who doesn't make requests at all. "You can cut thrust, Captain Reynolds. And get ready to hand over River Tam and her brother. We know you have them on board. If you give us your full cooperation, you might even earn a share of the reward money for capturing them."

Jayne's eyes light up.

A muscle twitches in Mal cheek. "We in range of their weaponry?" he asks Wash under his breath.

Wash consults the instrument panel. "Not yet. Another half an hour. Could be a bit longer if we're lucky."

Mal sighs and rubs the back of his neck where the tendons are beginnin' to tighten. "Least we got a bit of a breathin' space. Maybe time to come up with a plan ..."

Shepherd Book's head pops into view. "Trouble, Captain?"

"Shit, Mal! We don't wan' 'em firin' on us," Jayne explodes before Mal can answer. "Let's just hand the Doc an' his sis over, collect the money an' be on our way."

Mal rounds on the mercenary furiously. "We ain't handin' 'em over, Jayne. Best get used to that."

Anticipating violence, Book attempts to get between the two men but his quiet "Might help if everybody calmed down some" goes unheeded as Jayne shoves him aside.

"Why the hell not?" Jayne yells. "Someone's gonna catch up with 'em some day an' at least this way we don't come away empty-handed."

Mal's hands bunch into tight fists. "Why you still arguin' with me, Jayne?"

"Cuz somebody gotta! What the hell's so important about keepin' that moonbrain an' her brother anyway?"

"Brought your boots, Captain!" River says brightly, the unexpected sound of her voice making everyone jump. With a flourish she presents the boots to Mal who snatches them quickly away. She watches with quiet approval as he puts them on before deciding to explain "You left them in Simon's room."

Jayne narrows his eyes. "So that's it!" he sneers. "The Doc's turned whore to pay for -"

He doesn't get to the end of his sentence because Mal's fist catches him high on the left cheekbone. Jayne's strong - used to takin' blows - but this punch has all Mal's weight and anger behind it. It twists the mercenary's head round an' his body can't help but follow. Tryin' to compensate by changin' stance only throw shim further off balance an' with a grunt he pitches forward, the bulk of his torso crashin' like a felled tree onto Kaylee's toolbox.

It feels to Jayne like he's been kicked in the chest by a spooked horse. Like all the air's been knocked out of him an' he don't know how to get any back in. Gou shi! He can't remember how to breathe. Just can't remember. He's gonna die ... But then his body takes over an' his lungs go crazy, suckin' in breath after breath an' forgettin' to let it out again. Light-headed an' nauseous, he rolls off the box an' onto his back.

Standin' over him, Mal is shakin'. An' not jus' from rage at Jayne neither. Sometimes the violence inside frightens him.

Book helps the gasping mercenary to his feet and casts a reproving look at the Captain. Surprised once again to find he cares what the Shepherd thinks, Mal hopes it's for the smitin' an' not the other thing.

"D'I hear the proximity alarm?" a sleepy-eyed and tousled-haired Kaylee asks as she pulls herself up the final rung of the ladder. She registers the tension in the air and frowns, lookin' at each of the others in turn. "Wha's goin' on?"

"Jayne lost his balance," Zoe says, stone-cold eyes darin' the big man to contradict her. She's worried about Mal. More worried than she's been in a long time. He oughta be happier if, after all this time, he really has finally taken to bed with Simon. But he ain't - he's twitchier than ever. An' Zoe's got a good idea as to why.

"Oh, you poor thing!" Kaylee sympathizes, touchin' the bruise developin' on Jayne's cheeks with gentle fingertips. She rubs his arm affectionately an' it suddenly dawns on Jayne that maybe everythin's workin' out for the best after all. When Kaylee finds out her precious doctor is ruttin' with Mal, she's gonna be in need of comfort. Comfort that only a real man can provide.

"I'm all right," he grunts with a shrug. "Wa'n't lookin' where I was goin'."

"Better be more careful in future," Mal warns him with an icy glare. "Don't want you fallin' an' breakin' your neck next time."

Jayne recognizes a threat when he hears one. He looks away. "Won't be no next time."

Mal turns to Kaylee. "Get that toolbox stowed away, Kaylee. Don't want any more accidents." The mechanic covers her mouth with her hands when she realizes she might have been the cause of Jayne's injuries and starts to apologize, but Mal silences her with a shake of his head. "Just you go get yourself up to the engine room, xiao mei-mei. Might be somethin' we can do to shake those purple bellies yet."

Glad to have some way of making amends, Kaylee nods and climbs back down the ladder, followed by River who is singing softly to herself something about kings, horses and a wall.

Jayne rubs his chest an' coughs. Mal darts him a quick glance to see if this is further insubordination, but Jayne's expression speaks more of pain than mutiny.

"Jayne - you an' Shepherd Book go see to it that we got plenty of fire power down in the cargo bay," he orders, still with no solid idea of how they're gonna get out of this one but wantin' to keep everyone busy. He turns back to consider the console. "Wash-"

"Uh- Captain!" Book's polite tone turns urgent in a heartbeat and then into a groan when Jayne slumps against him. "Think we may have a more pressing problem."

Jayne has gone a funny colour an' seems to be havin' difficulty standin'. Zoe is already at his side, helpin' the Shepherd to support him. She places three fingers against his throat and her brows knit together. "He's hurt, Sir," she tells Mal, not likin' the sound of the mercenary's breathin'. It's too fast, too shallow. "Hurt bad."

"Best we get him to the infirmary ma shang," Book says, forgettin' his place for a moment. "Looks like we need the doctor."

Mal snorts. "Uh-huh. 's'what I've been tryin' to tell him only he's too much of a dumbass to comprehend. Anyway – the Doc's injured too, remember? Me an' Zoe'll deal with it."

"No offence, Captain," Book replies, mildly enough to mute the edge of steel in his voice, "but might be better if I assisted Zoe." Mal knows the preacher's thinkin' he ain't to be trusted around Jayne right now – an' mayhap he's right - but Book offers another reason. "Think you're needed here on the bridge, Captain."

They hold each other's gaze for a few seconds, like it's some sort of showdown. At length Mal nods. "Could be you're right-"

However at that precise moment Jayne's knees give way completely and he sinks unconscious to the ground. Between them Mal, Wash, Zoe an' Book half-drag, half-carry their patient to the infirmary an' with effort get him up onto the exam table.

"We can take it from here, Sir," Zoe reassures Mal, who's beginnin' to look pretty pale an' anxious himself. "We'll let you know ..."

Mal backs reluctantly out of the room, followed by Wash.

As soon as they're gone, Book turns to Zoe. "This is serious. He needs the doctor."

Zoe presses her lips together and nods. "I ain't arguin' with you, Preacher. You gonna fetch him or shall I?"

* * * * *

"What happened?" Simon asks as, with Book's help, he limps into the infirmary.

Zoe's relief at his arrival is tempered by unease when she sees the medic's split lip and the darkening patch of skin around his mouth. It must be rememberin' how that feels that makes the words "You okay?" tumble out unchecked. A spot of pink appears on Simon's cheeks. Gorramit, she didn't mean to embarrass him. "Sure you can stand on that leg?" she adds hastily.

"I'll manage," he replies tersely, irritated by her obvious pity. "What happened?"

Zoe and Book exchange a look. "He fell," Zoe says flatly.

Simon's about to ask if Jayne hit his head at all when he notices the bruising on his face. "How did he fall?" he asks, slipping a pulse oximonitor onto the mercenary's forefinger. Almost immediately there's a beep from the infirmary computer, alerting Simon to the fact that his patient's blood oxygen levels are low. "How?" Simon asks again, only this time in a tone that demands a full answer because Jayne's lips are blue.

Simon gestures for Zoe to pass him the stethoscope lying on the counter, inserts the earpieces quickly and checks Jayne's heartbeat. It's faint and at 120 bpm far too rapid for a man in such good physical condition. The pain in Simon's thigh starts up again in earnest when he stretches over to slap the sphygmomanometer cuff onto Jayne's considerable biceps. One push on a button has it inflating automatically whilst Simon snaps on a pair of new surgical gloves. Another beep sounds. The mercenary's blood pressure is low too.

"Jumped in with both feet and couldn't swallow them," River sing-songs from the doorway. "Now his heart hurts too. Knows how it feels."

She catches Book's eye and the Shepherd goes cold. There's no question in his mind that the girl is a Reader. And she's just confirmed his worst fears. If he wants to Jayne to live, he'd better tell the Doctor the truth. Or at least some of it. "He tripped and fell. Landed on that big toolbox of Kaylee's. Looked like his chest took most of the impact."

Simon rips Jayne's shirt open to reveal a contusion and minor lacerations to the skin. He runs expert fingers down Jayne's ribcage but finds no obvious signs of fracture. But it's not all good news. The veins in Jayne's neck are distended.

Simon hobbles round the exam table and lifts a tube from the counter. A quick squeeze and he rubs a blob of lubricant over Jayne's chest. "That!" He gestures for Zoe to pass him the ultrasound transducer.

"Blood," River announces.

Zoe can't tell much about what's going on inside Jayne's body from the image that appears on the screen Simon is scanning, but she can tell a lot from the look on his face. This is serious.

"Doctor?"

"Blood," River repeats.

"My sister's right," Simon tells Zoe and the Shepherd. "He has a haemopericardium – that means there's blood building up around his heart so it can't pump properly."

"You have to save him!" River cries, suddenly beginning to panic. "Too much pressure. The shell only protects you when the danger's outside. Save him, Simon. No-one else can."

"Third drawer along," Simon tells Book. "Pass me a syringe. The biggest one. Yes – and one of the blue needles."

"Won't let anyone else," River continues in a whisper because although Simon can hear her, he's stopped listening.

All her brother's attention is on the patient in front of him, not the one in his heart. He passes a sterile wipe over the bottom of Jayne's ribcage and, as Book offers up a silent prayer, he angles the needle and inserts it into a point just below Jayne's sternum.

The others stand in silence as Simon feeds the needle up, feeling for the resistance that indicates he's found the pericardium. There! A little extra pressure and he's through. Biting his bottom lip in concentration he slowly pulls back the syringe plunger. At first nothing ... and then, to his immense relief, a spurt of dark red fluid. Thank every God in the 'verse for that!

"Blood," River says for the third time.

This time Simon smiles at her and nods. "Yes, mei-mei, but he should be all-"

"Not him. You."

Simon looks down and realizes his wound has reopened and that blood is seeping into the soft flannel of his sleep pants.

"We oughta have somethin' to stop that," Zoe says, hunting through cabinets.

"No, we don't. I used it all on Mal and your husband, after we got them back from Niska." Simon has to close his eyes for a second to shut out pain that's not entirely physical. "There's none left."

"Boob!" River laughs and rushes out of the room.

Simon casts an eye over the monitors. Jayne's blood pressure and blood oxygen are coming back up. He's not out of the woods yet – there could be more bleeding – but for now, everything looks good. Simon accepts the wound dressing Zoe offers him and takes a seat so that he can apply it. He's just ripped off the packaging when River reappears, followed by Inara.

The Companion holds out an open box, containing a preloaded syringe. "River thought you might need this, Doctor," she says. "Anahaemofluxin. It should staunch the bleeding and alleviate any pain ..." Her voice trails off as she too notices the injuries to Simon's face but she quickly composes herself. "Please, take it. I have more."

Simon accepts the proffered box with a stiff little nod. "Thank you." He wonders what she's feeling towards him right now. Concern? Pity? Envy? "Thank you," he repeats quietly because he can't apologize – not for any of it.

"Bu ke qi," Inara replies with a perfect, serene smile, even though her heart is breaking.

* * * * *

"They ain't gonna fire on us," Mal tells Wash. "Not till they've got the Doc an' his sis in custody."

Wash's eyes widen as he grasps the Captain's meaning. "But they will after ..?"

Mal nods grimly. "Reckon so. Neater that way. No complications."

"*Gao yang zhong de gu yang*!" Wash explodes. "What in the good gorram are we gonna do, Mal?"

Unaware of their predicament Inara steps up onto the bridge and suggests "Probably something indescribably stupid, if the Captain's previous record is anything to go by" with a sweet, false smile. "Mal-" she continues, before he can respond to the jibe, "I need to know when we'll be making planetfall on New Melbourne. As I told you earlier, I have arrangements to make."

Mal's expression of annoyance turns to one of triumph. "Might have to put those arrangements on hold, 'Nara. Mayhaps for some time. See that?" he asks, pointing at the now greeny-blue circle of light visible through the viewports. "We got company. Again. Feds wanting their toy back."

Inara gasps. "River?"

Mal nods.

"River *and* Simon?"

Mal bites his lip and nods again.

"Serenity's fast ..." Inara begins, because she hates to see him hurting like this – even if it is over the prospect of losing Simon - but Mal shakes his head. "What about a cry-baby, then?"

"Won't work," Wash says sadly. "Not with the kind of scanners they're equipped with. Certainly not at this range. With their scanners, they can not only tell how many people we've got on board, they can make get readings on height and weight. Makes target identification easier."

For a moment they all gaze helplessly at the radar screen, hoping in vain that the rotating arc will sweep away that gorram blip. It doesn't.

"You'd think they'd send more than one ship if River's so important to them," Inara remarks at last, breaking the silence.

Mal does a double-take. "'Nara! You're a genius!" he grins.

"I am?"

"You most certainly are. Wash – m'I right in thinking Alliance hunters don't carry shuttles?"

"Yeah. I mean no. They're designed for speed, not routine transport."

"Brilliant. Inara – need you to do me a favour. Get your shuttle prepped, will ya?"

Inara nods, but doesn't understand. "My shuttle isn't fast enough, Mal. They'll catch us in no time."

"Hope they do," Mal answer cryptically, snapping his suspenders decisively. "Now, where'd that preacher go?"

 

* * * * *

A groan tells Simon that Jayne's coming back round. He moves over to the medcot and puts a hand on his patient's shoulder to keep him lying down. "Try not to move. Everything's all right. You're in the infirmary. You had an accident, but you're fine now."

"I am?" Jayne grunts. "I did?"

"Yes, son," Book smiles down at him from the other side of the bed. "It was touch and go there for a while. Might not have made it, were it not for this young man." He inclines his head towards Simon. "Saved your life."

"He did?"

"He did."

Jayne lets his head roll to one side so he can take a good look at his saviour. Simon ruttin' Tam. Seems to Jayne like the 'verse is mockin' him, havin' one almighty laugh at his expense. He sighs and is about to grind out a word of grudgin' thanks when the Doc's attention is suddenly diverted elsewhere. Jayne sees him catch a breath and flush. He turns his head in the direction of the medic's gaze and sees Mal's entered the room, followed by Inara.

Simon's stomach contracts at the sight of him. When River solved the problem of Mal's boots, Simon had hoped a few days would elapse before he had to see Mal again. Days in which he planned to compose himself. After all, it wasn't as if he hadn't been warned. Even Mal had tried to warn him. What happened was as much Simon's fault as Mal's. But Simon needs time to *feel* that in his heart as well as know it in his head. Because right now he's still feeling hurt and ashamed. And – stupidly - he still wants this man.

Well, at least they're in the infirmary – the only place on Serenity where Simon feels secure and in control. It could have been worse.

"What's all this?" Mal demands of Zoe, deliberately avoiding eye contact with Simon and thereby immediately making it worse. Simon isn't expecting an apology but he does want to see that Mal hasn't just shrugged it off and forgotten about it.

"Thought you an' Book was seein' to Jayne?" Mal presses his First Mate. Truth is, he's all manner of uncomfortable at havin' run into the Doc in here. Was hopin' the next time he saw him it'd be in private where he could try to explain, try to smooth things over. This unexpected public encounter is makin' him tetchy.

"There were complications," Simon answers, in an attempt to get Mal to at least acknowledge his presence. He needs*something* from him, some reassurance that the gap that has opened up between them isn't unbridgeable. But Mal completely ignores him and Simon fears that whatever might have been between them is now irretrievably lost.

Jayne drags himself up into a sitting position. "Nothin' to worry about, Mal. Doc reckons I'm fixed."

Mal regards him stonily for a second. "Right. Good. Okay – as some of you already know, we got another situation in front of us. Feds wanting us to hand River and the Doc over. Now, we ain't got a lot of options. In fact, we only got one."

"What?" Simon snaps. Mal's coldness is suddenly starting to make sense.

This time Mal has to look at him an' when he does he sees the boy's eyes are blazin' with fury. Aiya! Why does he always have to jump to the wrong conclusion? Why can't he ever keep that smart mouth shut long enough to hear Mal out?

"You can't! You know what they did to her. What they'll do to her again if ... " Simon is striding as best he can over to confront Mal face to face. "I won't let you, you tamade hundan!" He grabs Mal by the elbow and lowers his voice. "I'll kill you first."

Mal knows he oughta keep calm cuz this misunderstanding could be easily resolved but Simon Tam gets under his skin like no-one else ever has and instead of explainin' the plan, he roughly prises Simon's hand off and shoves him back against the counter. "Don't make threats you ain't man enough to carry through, boy," he snarls, leanin' in a bit too close.

Simon's nostrils flare and his pupils dilate as he glares defiantly back at him.

Sometimes Inara wishes she didn't read people so well. Times like this. Times when the attraction between these two men is so very, very obvious.

"Stop calling me that!" Simon spits, slamming both hands flat against Mal's chest. Bracing himself against the counter for leverage he pushes hard and Mal stumbles backwards a couple of paces. The Captain blinks in surprise a couple of times before invading Simon's personal space once again.

Jayne's eyes flick from one to the other and he grins to himself sure Mal's gonna kick the Doc's ass again.

"Mal!" Inara cries, "Please – don't."

"I got a plan, Doctor Tam," the Captain says, smilin' brightly as he brushes his hands lightly over Simon's shoulders as if to smarten him up – a patronizing gesture that makes the medic grind his teeth. "Wanna shut up long enough to hear it?"

* * * * *

"Not happy about this, Sir," Zoe tells Mal. "You sure you want Kaylee doin' this? I could-"

"No. Can't be you," he tells her. "They'd arrest you for sure. Or shoot you."

"Still don't like it."

"Ain't a question of likin' it. 's gotta be done, is all."

"Right."

Zoe watches Mal paste a confident smile on his face as Kaylee squeezes River's hand. "Don't worry, sweetie. Cap'n's plan'll work. You'll see. He's zhen de shi tian cai when it comes to plans."

River smiles and kisses her cheek before turning to Book. "Fly away Paul."

The Shepherd suppresses an involuntary shudder and follows Kaylee into Inara's shuttle.

"Fly straight, no fancy stuff an' you'll be able to land before they catch up with you," Mal tells Inara again. "When they board, you act all nice as pie. Ain't nothin' they can charge you with. Not with your credentials. An' the preacher's. Between you, you oughta get off with a warnin'."

"I know, Mal. Don't fuss. We'll be okay."

"Inara ..."

"It's all right, Mal. Really," she lies. "Now go."

Fire and ice, River thinks, wishing everything were different, that someone didn't have to lose.

As soon as the airlock is sealed, Mal hurries up to the bridge where Wash and Zoe are standing by.

"Now," he orders into the comms. "Shi a," Inara's voice responds and Zoe flicks a switch.

Down in the infirmary, Simon holds his breath, waiting for confirmation that the Alliance ship has taken the bait. Looks so damn scared, Jayne feels almost sorry for him. Ain't a life he'd choose – always havin' to be lookin' over his shoulder, tryin' to take care of that moonbrain – all that an' beddin' Mal too. Zao cao! Poor bastard. "Ain't a bad plan," he finds himself sayin' by way of comfort.

Simon gives him a weak, grateful smile. "I hope you're right."

Meanwhile Mal is concentratin' hard on the radar screen. "Come on, come on," he urges. "Wash – they're still after us. Di'n't we oughta be acceleratin'? Or changin' course?"

"We do that Mal and they'll know for sure that we've still got the Tams aboard."

"Yeah, but we ain't ever tried that heat flux trick before. How'd we know it ain't work too good? Could be we did it so good they di'n't even notice Inara's shuttle."

"They noticed, Sir," Zoe interrupts, relaxing visibly. "They're changing course."

* * * * *

Captain Reyes enters the shuttle flanked by two armed men in uniform. "Search it. Thoroughly," he tells them, although he already knows the fugitives have evaded him. The Diana's scanners detected three people on board – just three – and here they are: a Registered Companion, a Shepherd and a young woman of no importance in greasy overalls and close to tears.

"Ident cards," Reyes orders without preamble when his men return shaking their heads.

Inara produces a large leather wallet, containing her Guild Registration Certificate and House licensing agreement.

Reyes sniffs. Everything would seem to be in order. One of his men scans her registration code into his handheld and when a list of names appears he passes it to the Captain. Inara Serra has the highest security clearing and an impressive list of high-ranking clients. Detaining her would mean endless paperwork, with little possibility of a conviction. It would also inconvenience some very powerful men and women.

With a heavy sigh, Reyes turns to the man in clerical garb. His ident card proves even more interesting. The reader gives no details but instead flashes a simple code: 03. Ex-military, continuing operations. The Tam situation is clearly already under control.

Reyes returns the card with a smart salute. Damn his luck! He really thought he was in with a chance of earning that reward money when the Diana's scanners picked up that Firefly's identifier code. Should have known someone would have beaten him to it. When brass turned this into a competition, he was bound to lose.

Kaylee is chewing the skin around her thumbnail nervously. Her papers ain't exactly in order – hasn't had 'em stamped in over a year. Well, not by no-one official. River did her best, but Kaylee ain't sure even her beautiful forgergy's gonna fool the Feds.

But the Feds aren't interested in Kaylee. Reyes allows himself the luxury of a quick glance around the shuttle. Married for seventeen years with four children and a large bank loan to repay, he's never engaged the services of a Companion but that doesn't stop him being curious. He wonders what those sharply pointed brass things on the cabinet are for ...

"Sir?" The polite enquiry brings Reyes' mind sharply back to the task at hand.

"Everything is in order here, Private. Please accept my apologies for having detained you, Miss Serra - Shepherd."

"Not at all," Inara smiles a warm professional smile.

"You have your orders to follow," Book adds, leaning ever so slightly on the word 'your'.

Reyes thinks he understands.

 

* * * * *

Aboard the IAV Unity, Gaunt and Ginger receive Reyes' report with a mixture of frustration and disbelief. The Tams have eluded them once again. Their seemingly brilliant plan to allow a third party to apprehend the fugitives in order to obscure the Corporation's involvement in the affair has failed. More than once. It is time to take matters into their own hands.

" After all, if you want a job doing well ..." Ginger smiles.

Gaunt nods. " ... do it yourself."

* * * * *

Simon's wound has begun to hurt again, but he's too anxious to lie down. He needs to keep busy. That way he won't be racked with guilt about Kaylee, Inara and Book having put themselves at risk for his sake. Well – not as racked with guilt as he would be if he were just sitting in his bunk waiting. So he sets about tidying the infirmary again, resetting instruments and wiping down surfaces.

The metal deckplate creaks and Simon raises his eyes to see Mal standing in the doorway, looking like he's waiting for permission to come in.

"Hey," the Captain says, a touch hesitantly, looking round. "Jayne not here?"

"Apparently not."

Mal flinches at Simon's frosty tone, but then grins. "Di'n't kill him, did ya? Seem to recall you was in a bit of a murderin' mood earlier ..."

Simon doesn't appreciate being made fun of.

"He insisted on going back to his bunk," he explains, ignoring Mal's clumsy attempt at easing the tension between them, "and as all his stats were back to normal, I thought he'd be more comfortable there. I have him on a radio monitor, to be on the safe side, but that medcot is hardly big enough for me, let alone Jayne."

"Yeah, Doc –I heard you the first time. We need a new one, next time we're some place civilized. We'll get one."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh."

Simon smiles and relaxes a little, which Mal takes as his cue to come into the room and close the infirmary door. There's things need sayin'. Best get it over with. He clears his throat and folds his arms over his chest. "Doc – uh – Simon – I – it –." Zao cao, this ain't easy. Mal takes a deep breath and starts again. "Last night – well, shou'n't never have let you persuade me -"

Simon's eyes narrow and he crosses his arms too, shielding himself from Mal's attempt to put the blame onto him.

"Not that I'm sayin' it was your fault-" Mal adds quickly.

"Good."

"Jus' want you to know that it'll never happen again," Mal suddenly promises. "Never." He drops his gaze to the floor for a second. "Ship still needs a medic but if you wanna leave -"

There are so many things Simon wants to say right now that he doesn't know where to start. Things like he knows it wasn't his fault but he's not sure it was entirely Mal's either. And he doesn't want to go, he wants to stay. Not because Serenity needs a doctor but because Mal's here. Because he wants to stay with Mal. Try again.

But then Wash's voice comes over the comm system. "Mal – they've waved us. All clear. Congratulations - your gamble on the ID cards paid off. I'm laying in a course to pick them up now."

Mal walks over to the comm speaker. "Wait up, Wash – where's the Diana?"

"Heading off on a one-eighty, Mal. At full speed too. By the time we complete our orbit, they'll be long gone."

Mal closes his eyes and sighs with relief.

* * * * *

Now that Simon knows the others are safe, he decides to go to his bunk and take the weight off his leg. As he's opening his door, River arrives with a bowl of what she insists is a chocolate frosting flavoured helping of reconstituted protein.

"... gotta land? There a problem with Inara's engine? Kaylee's there, ain't she?"

It takes a while for Simon to realize that Mal's voice is coming over the comm. Wash must have forgotten to switch it from full-ship broadcast.

"It's not the engine, Mal," Simon hears Wash reply. "It's ..." Even though the pilot's voice is tinny there's no mistaking the hesitation in it. "Kaylee? Tell Mal what she said."

Kaylee's voice is fuzzier still and Simon can't really make out what she's saying. Especially as she's obviously crying.

At the end of her tale, he does manage to distinguish the word "Cap'n?" and waits for Mal to reply.

Silence. A silence that goes on and on and on. And then at last Mal's voice – hard, cold, distant. "No, Kaylee. She's gone. Forget it."

Gone? Simon frowns. Who's gone?

"Jolly Roger's down, Simon," River says sadly, knees clasped to her chest as she rocks backwards and forwards, "Yellow flag instead. Sickness aboard. And you're the doctor."

He stares at her, uncomprehending. "What?"

"He's bleeding inside, Simon. Feels like he can't breathe. Feels like he's dying," she whispers, a far-away look in her eyes. "Faint heart ..."

"Jayne? Jayne's fine, mei-mei. Don't worry."

"Not Jayne, stupid! Mal. She cut herself free and made him bleed."

Oh God. Now he understands. Inara has gone. Simon's throat clenches and his chest hurts because now he knows for certain that Mal's still in love with her. How stupid he was to ever think otherwise.

"Going to die if you don't save him." River jabs a sharp finger into her brother's arm.

He shrugs, palms turned upwards. Tears prick at the back of his eyes. "What can I do, River? He doesn't want me."

River tips her head to one side and rolls her eyes. "Gorram stupid boy!"

Simon sighs. "Exactly. He thinks I'm a gorram stupid boy."

"Stupid boy," she agrees. "Stupid, smart-mouthed, shuai, smart an' strong. Worth killin' for. Ask Jayne, if you don't believe me."

"What?"

"Nearly killed him. Twice. Because of you. You're in his heart, Simon. Just like she is."

Chapter Text

Zoe hooks a couple of grenades onto her belt. She ain't taking any chances and she's glad to see Jayne's of like mind. His belt is bristling with fierce-looking blades, he's got two large guns stuffed into his holsters and is cradling Vera against his chest.

"Ready?" Zoe asks.

"Hell, yeah!" he declares, spittin' on the deck-plating for emphasis an' ignorin' Zoe's Do-you-have-to? scowl. "If'n there's any Feds still waitin' for us, I ain't goin' down without a fight."

Mal's boots ring out on the staircase as he comes hurryin' down to join the mercenary and his First Mate. He casts a mildly disapprovin' eye over them. "I ain't expectin' that much trouble."

"Better safe than sorry, Sir," Zoe points out and Mal grunts in resigned agreement.

Serenity's engine tone changes as the reverse thrust comes on and the landing gear extends. Mal stands taller, bracin' himself for whatever awaits them on New Melbourne.

"Touchdown in five, four ..." Wash advises over the comm.

Followed by the others, Mal climbs up onto the mule. The vehicle ain't much to look at after havin' been pressed into service on Niska's skyplex but at least Kaylee's got it workin' again. That girl's a ruttin' genius with machinery an' Mal's eager to have her back on his ship where she belongs. Least she wants to come back.

Not like some.

"Sir?"

Mal starts at the sound of Zoe's voice and realizes that the cargo bay door has already lowered. He turns the ignition and the mule rolls forward out onto the damp, green surface of a planet Mal's already decided he don't much like. Too much water an' that all-pervasive stink of fish. There's a few local folk to be seen – fishermen mostly, them an' fish processors - going about their business. No sign of any Feds.

The mule arrives at a crossroads and Mal looks to Zoe for directions. "Left here, right at the next," she says, consulting her Pos-Loc. "Then straight ahead for about two miles."

They drive on in silence, each envisaging a different sort of disaster having befallen Inara's shuttle. None of them can quite believe this ain't a trap. Those Feds were too easily satisfied with a couple of ident cards. It never normally goes that smooth.

But when at last they locate the shuttle, Kaylee and Book are lounging outside on the grass, looking out for them. Kaylee waves her arms wildly over her head.

Mal pulls the mule to a halt as she runs over to greet him.

"Oh Cap'n!" she cries, flingin' her arms around his neck. "I'm so sorry. I tried to stop her, really I did, but she wou'n't hear none of it. Said she had her plans all set an' she was goin' back to Sihnon." And with that the mechanic buries her face into Mal's shirt and begins weepin' in earnest.

"Ain't no point in cryin', mei-mei," Mal tells her, steelin' himself against her tears 'fore they dissolve him. "Inara's a free agent. Up to her what she does."

Kaylee looks up at him in astonishment. "You ain't even gonna try an' fetch her back?"

Mal shakes his head. "No point." He looks across at the Shepherd. "We good to go?"

Book nods.

Mal turns to Zoe. "Best you pilot the shuttle back to the ship. Never could fly that thing my own self."

The echo of Inara's words falls painfully on Mal's ears. He can't help but wish she'd gone sooner if she had to go at all. Before things between them got complicated. Hell, right now he wishes he'd never met her.

He pushes Kaylee gently away. "You get in with the others now, xiao mei-mei an' I'll see you back on the ship."

Making a valiant attempt to smile, Kaylee wipes her eyes. "Aye aye, Cap'n."

* * * * *

Inara accepts a glass of iced herbal tea from the smartly dressed young man and takes it into the private booth she has rented. Xuefang is evidently a much more civilized planet that its reputation would imply.

"If that will be all, madam?"

"Yes. Thank you."

The waiter withdraws and Inara taps a spot on the screen in front of her. She scrolls down the list of options and opens a Cortex link. The screen changes colour and Inara speaks into the mic. "Planet: Sihnon. House Madrassa. House Priestess."

The booth fills with music as light and sweet as flowing water and Inara relaxes back into her chair. It will be good to get back to the Central Planets where everything is ordered and calm and predictable. And away from this life where everything is complicated and messy, where feelings arise unbidden and refuse to be ignored.

The music fades and a woman's face appears on the screen. "Inara, xiao jie, this is indeed a pleasure."

Inara bows her head. "The pleasure is mine, xiao pengyou."
"You look well, Inara. Your new life has made you even more beautiful. It must suit you."

Inara raises her eyes. "You are most kind. But I find it does not suit me as well as I had expected. I want - I would like to return to House Madrassa. With your permission."

The lovely face on the screen remains serene and impassive even as the perfect mouth speaks the terrible words "I am afraid I cannot give you that permission, xiao jie. Not in the foreseeable future, at least."

Inara goes cold and it takes a huge effort of will to keep the sudden panic filling her out of her voice. "But why?"

"Earlier today, Inara, we were visited by Federal agents– Federal agents – who demanded access to your records."

Inara would argue that her records are in perfect order and that she has done nothing wrong, if that were the point of the House Priestess' remark. But it is not. Companions are required to conduct themselves in such a way that their integrity is never even questioned, let alone subjected to official scrutiny.

She hangs her head. "How long, xiao ma ma?"

The House Priestess answers with uncharacteristic bluntness. "That I cannot say. Your licence has been temporarily revoked. Pending investigation."

Were it not for her training, Inara would gasp. She is no longer endorsed by the Guild? How will she live?

"If - I mean when – you are reinstated we will speak again. But not until then. Dong ma?"

Inara lifts her chin and smiles with professional calm. "Perfectly. Xie-xie ni."

* * * * * *

River presents Simon with an exquisitely detailed drawing of a row of nesting dolls. Another exquisitely detailed drawing of a row of nesting dolls. "It's a compulsion," she tells him brightly.

He sighs and squeezes her hand, trying to make the best of it. "It's beautiful."

River's face clouds over and she pulls away from him. "No, it isn't, you jing chang meiyong de boob! It's ugly and painful and it's gotta stop, dong ma?"

"What?" Simon asks, bewildered, making a mental note to review his sister's medication. "I don't understand-"

River's expression melts from one of annoyance into one of affection. "Gorram stupid boy," she smiles, stroking her fingers lightly over his bruised mouth and cut lip. "Can't read the picture. Needs words."

Simon shrugs helplessly, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of what's been done to her and by his own inability to put it right.

River tugs at his hand. "Quickly, Simon. The scarecrow's coming back."

Although he has no idea what she means, Simon allows her to drag him out of the passenger dorm into the cargo bay just as Mal returns on the mule.

"The others back?" The Captain asks as he pulls into the mule's parking bay, his brisk business-like tone falterin' a mite when his eyes meet Simon's. He looks quickly away. Made the boy a promise. Ain't gonna go breakin' it. "No hitches?"

"Yes," Simon says, noticing the shadows under Mal's eyes and the tight little lines around his mouth. He'd like to comfort him but can't because – much as it pains him to admit it - this is about Inara, not Simon. "They're all safely back on board."

"All but one," River points out, making Simon clap a horrified hand to the side of his face. Hurriedly he tries to shush her, but she won't be silenced. Mal's heart is aching and River longs to soothe the hurt, to explain that it's not what he thinks. "She made a deal," she tells him softly, laying a hand on his arm.

Mal shakes it off and his expression darkens. He glares first at River, then at Simon. For a moment there's an ominous silence, then Mal says bitterly "Reckon she did at that."

"Gorram stupid boy!" River spits in frustration. Words, pictures, music – why does no-one ever comprehend? She closes her eyes and her mind fills with pictures of naked bodies, limbs entwined. A thick, heady perfume fills her nostrils and there's a taste of salt wet on her tongue. And in her ears, the jingle-jangle of coin changin' hands. "No!" she screams and begins hammering her fists against Mal's chest. "Candles and prayers mats!"

Mal catches her flailin' arms an' pins them to her sides. "This gotta stop," he growls at Simon cos he jus' ain't in the mood for this. Not today. Not now.

"I know. I'm sorry. I ... River, mei-mei, please -"

Simon holds his arms out to his sister and Mal watches as they seem to close in slow motion around her. Strong. Certain.

Mal takes a deep breath and stalks away.

River's anger subsides as quickly as it came. "Told you," she smiles at Simon. "It's gotta stop."

* * * * *

"It's not much," Book apologizes, placing the steaming casserole dish down on the dining table. "Afraid our stocks of fresh produce are running mighty low."

"Like to run a deal lower, we don't find a job soon," Mal replies grimly, helping himself to a single ladleful of the dish's unappetizing contents. "Gonna have to introduce rationin'. Till I say otherwise, everybody eats every gorram thing they put on their plate an' no eatin' between meals." He pauses and there's a general murmur of agreement. "That applies to you too, li'l Kaylee. No sneakin' protein bars up to the engine room where you think no-one knows you're eatin' 'em."

Kaylee gasps, flushes and looks down miserably at the large pile of food in front of her. She always eats too much when she's unhappy an' cos of that the Cap'n thinks she's selfish an' greedy. Mayhap she is. Tears well in her eyes and start to spill down her cheeks.

"Zao cao!" Mal snaps. "Ain't you done enough weepin' for one day?"

His sharp words only make Kaylee cry harder.

Jayne slams his cutlery down on the table.

"Hell, Mal, it ain't her fault 'Nara's gone," he says, putting a protective arm around the mechanic's shaking shoulders. "If'n it's anyone's fault, it's your'n."

Mal clenches his jaw and narrows his eyes. "Might wanna watch that mouth, Jayne."

"Tell the truth and shame the devil," River puts in cheerfully.

"River-"

"Might wanna watch your mouth too, missy," Mal snarls. " 'less you wanna be confined to your quarters for a month."

"She didn't mean anything!" Simon defends his sister hotly. "You know she didn't. Don't take your bad mood out on my sister, Mal or .."

"Or what? You'll leave too? Might be best for everyone if you did."

Simon reels back in his seat an' Mal could bite his own tongue off. That wa'n't what he wanted to say. He don't want Simon to leave. Not now. Not never. But he can't make him stay any more than he could Inara. Can't offer him nothin' either. He swallows awkwardly, too agitated an' wretched to know how to fix this. Simon's got an arm around River an' is glarin' at him, Kaylee's nuzzled up against Jayne who's refusin' to be cowed an' Zoe's gazin' at Mal every kind of sad an' exasperated whilst Wash holds her hand. Meanwhile that gorram Preacher's wearin' a knowin' half-smile like God his very own self was whisperin' into his ear.

Everbody's got somebody except Mal. An' that's the way it's always gonna be. Always gotta be. Cos he's dangerous. Hurts people.

The room starts to spin. It's hot and Mal's head's hurtin' like diyu. At least Kaylee's sobs are slowin', fadin' an' turnin' into somethin' quieter. Face pressed against Jayne's chest, she's whimperin' now.

"Mal!"

"Tamade hundan!"

"Captain!"

"Sir!"

Mal shakes his head an' blinks. What? Where? Hunh?

" 's'all right. I'm all right," Kaylee's insistin', although she's huddled even closer into Jayne's embrace. "Cap'n's tired, is all."

Mal realizes he's on his feet but he don't remember gettin' up.

Zoe links her arm through his. "Think you could use a lie-down, Sir," she says firmly.

"Think you might not be wrong about at that," Mal mumbles, offerin' no resistance as she steers him out into the hallway an' off to his bunk.

The rest of the crew stare at each other. Was Mal really about to hit Kaylee just then?

River's head is tipped to one side and her eyes are troubled. She turns to Simon. "He's gettin' worse, isn't he?"

Simon looks down at his plate, aware that everyone is awaiting his diagnosis.

"Yes," he says quietly. "He is."

* * * * *

"Your duties would be mostly of a light domestic nature. Cooking, cleaning, tending to the kitchen garden. Occasionally I may require you to ...."

Saffron isn't really listening to the woman interviewing her. She's too busy congratulating herself on having discovered the only place worth robbing on this whole piece of crap moon and scanning the room for items of value. For a few horrific days there, Saffron was afraid she'd end up spending the rest of her days on Burgess Moon with no hope of ever getting her hands on that reward money for turning over the Tams to the Feds.
The trail went gone cold just after St Alban's, but one evening she picked up a read on Early's ship heading out towards New Melbourne. Unfortunately for her, by then she was out of money and relying on the kindness of strangers – well, not so much on their kindness as their gullibility. Till one of them caught her helping herself to his petty cash and dumped her on this dirt-ball.

" ... I find it hard to manage on my own," Belinda Burgess concludes.

Saffron realizes she's expected to say something and opts for the first things that pops into her mind. "On your own, ma'am?"

Belinda sniffs and turns her head away. "I lost my husband. Just over month ago."

"I sure am sorry to hear that," Saffron says in her most sympathetic tones.

Belinda Burgess acknowledges her condolences with a tilt of her head, but says nothing. There's something about this woman's bearing that tells Saffron that she's not used to the concern or sympathy of others. And yet there's something in her eyes that says she craves both.

"Did he ... did he suffer?" Saffron asks gently.

"Suffer? Suffer?" To Saffron's alarm the other woman starts laughing hysterically. "Yes, my dear. He did suffer. He was murdered. Murdered in cold blood. All thanks to a man calling himself Malcolm Reynolds."

Saffron gasps, despite herself. Malcolm Reynolds was here! A month ago! Her brain starts working overtime. What to tell the grieving widow? What to conceal? She knows she doesn't have a lot of time to play with because she needs to catch up with Serenity and fast. And then it comes to her in a flash of inspiration. She'll cut Belinda Burgess in on the deal. At least until they get the coin. After all, why part with money you don't have to?

"I know Malcolm Reynolds, ma'am," Saffron announces calmly. "He captains a Firefly. Oh – I ain't a friend of his, if that's what you're thinking. He done me all manner of wrong."

Now it's Belinda Burgess' turn to look sympathetic.

"Did you know he's wanted by the Alliance for harbouring fugitives from the law, ma'am?"

"Call me Belinda. No, I did not know that."

"Alliance wants those fugitives back real bad, ma- Belinda. They're offering a reward of five hundred thousand platinum for the pair of them. A brother and sister."

"That's a lot of money ..." Belinda muses. Rance left her well-provided for, it's true, but a woman alone has to seize her opportunities where she can.

"That it is," Saffron agrees. "Like I said, the Alliance wants them real bad. So bad I don't imagine they'd be asking too many questions of anyone who turned them in. Not about the ship they were on nor about what happened to her crew."

At first Belinda Burgess' expression gives nothing away, making Saffron fear she may not take the bait, but then a slow cold smile spreads across her face.

* * * * * *

Mal ain't feelin' a whole lot better next mornin' but he's got Captain-y things to do. Things like findin' a job. Daren't even break atmo till he knows they're goin' some place they're gonna get paid. It's not only the food ration that's low; fuel ain't much better.

He goes up to the bridge and turns on the Cortex screen.

"One. New. Wave. Recorded," the mail system's disjointed synthesized voice informs him. "Sender: Gordon, Monty."

Mal flicks a couple of switches an' Monty's open smile lights up the screen. Mal notes with satisfaction that his old friend's beard is comin' back in.

"Malcolm Reynolds! How you doin', you old son of a gun? Still flyin'? Only just, I reckon, knowin' what a sorry-ass operation you run. Lookin' for a job? Heard you was headed out to New Melbourne. If you're still in that quadrant, send me a wave. Got somethin' for you. A good payer – if you was wonderin'. Send me a wave an' don't forget to say hello to that handsome First Mate of yours for me."

Mal smiles, feelin' a tad happier. That big old grizzly bear always did have a way of savin' Mal's life – literally an' metaphorically.

Mal opens a vid link. "Monty Gordon, you must be a gorram Reader!"

Monty laughs. "Been called a lot of things, Mal, but never that. Now – you interested in earnin' yourself a bit of hard cash?"

"Is the Alliance a gang of liars, murderers an' thieves? Yeah, I'm interested. What ya got?"

Monty leans forward and drops his voice. "Best I don't give you the details in case our encryption ain't all it should be. You far out from New Melbourne?"

"Still in the world."

Monty grins. "Well that's shiny. I'll get you a meet with my contact and let you know the time and place before nightfall, okay?"

"Shi a," Mal nods. "An' thanks. I'm grateful."

"No need to thank me, Mal but since I'm pickin' up the next leg of the run let's just say you owe me a few beers on New Hall."

* * * * *

"Kewu de yun ben de baojun!" River hisses at her brother, bombarding him with cushions and anything else that comes to hand.

Wash ducks out of the way of a ricocheting coffee mug.

"Poor kid," he says kindly, stooping down to pick up the broken pieces. "She having another bad day? When I think what those Alliance hundans did to her, I-"

"I'm afraid this isn't about what the Alliance did," Simon interrupts, dodging another cushion. "It's about her new treatment programme."

A coffee table comes flying past the medic and lands with a splintering crack on the floor beside the pilot.

"Seems to be going well," Wash comments drily without taking his eyes from River and her next missile – the crew's chessboard.

"Too early to say," Simon hedges. "It's only just started."

The chessboard takes flight, complete with chessmen, which scatter noisily across the commons. Wash pulls a face.

"What in the good gorram did you give her Doc?"

"I didn't give her anything," Simon explains, taking advantage of River having exhausted her arsenal to take hold of her hands. "I took her drawing things away."

Wash tugs at his hair. "I'm confused."

All the fight drains out of River and she slumps down into a chair, muttering to herself.

"I realized that I've been enabling her compulsion when I should have been challenging it," Simon explains, taking his sister's hands in his. "It's only by confronting this compulsion of hers to keep drawing Russian dolls that I'm going to understand what's behind it." He purses his lips. "Or at least, that's the plan."

"Gotta have a plan," River says without looking up.

Wash frowns. "Don't wanna tell you your job, Simon, but from the looks of this..." He invites Simon to survey the destruction his sister has wrought with a wave of his hand, "You could end up getting seriously hurt."

River raises her head and fixes Wash with a surprisingly sharp look.

"He will."

* * * * *

"Only the basics, mind," Mal reminds Kaylee firmly, when they reach Maintown. "Nothin' fancy. Jus' what we can't do without, dong ma?"

"Aye aye, Cap'n," she agrees cheerfully turning the small handful of coin he counted out earlier over in her pocket. Beside her River giggles and salutes.

Mal turns to Book.

"Same with the kitchen supplies, Shepherd. Jus' what we need to make the protein ration taste of somethin'." He catches sight of the anxiety etched into Simon's face. "An' keep an eye out for Feds, will ya?"

"Always do," Book answers with a wink at the medic before escorting the girls in the direction of the market traders' stalls.

The bar Mal's lookin' for is in the opposite direction, down a dark alley. Monty's contact thought it'd be better to meet here, out of the way of pryin' eyes.

Simon doesn't like the alley way – it reminds him of one on Persephone he'd rather forget. He doesn't like the bar much either and wishes Mal hadn't needed him to help load the cargo. But the Captain reckoned the sooner they got it on Serenity and got out of the world the better, and Simon could see the sense in that. Besides, since administering the anahaemofluxin Inara offered him, his leg has almost fully healed. He really has no excuse for not helping out.

No sooner are the four of them settled at a table with a mugful of some foul-tasting brew in front of them than a tall, thin man gets up from his seat in a corner and approaches.

"Malcolm Reynolds?" he asks in an undertone.

"Who's askin'?"

"Think you know. Meet me in the back room in five. You an' one other."

As soon as he disappears into a room behind the bar Zoe speaks up.

"Think we can trust him?"

She's got a bad feelin' about this. A sick-in-the-stomach kinda feelin'. So bad this beer ain't sittin' right.

Mal shrugs.

"Gonna have to. Anyhow, he comes with Monty's recommendation. Should be solid enough."

"Need him to be more than solid if we're gonna be transporting explosives to a border planet, Sir."

"Yeah, well Monty says he is. An' we need the money. So drink up an' let's go talk business. You two wait here."

Five minutes later, Jayne and Simon are sitting together in rather awkward silence, uncomfortably aware that many of the bar's other customers are regarding them with, if not actual hostility, then certainly with suspicion.

"I'll be glad when we're back on the ship," Simon says eventually.

"Gotta get the cargo first." Jayne drains his mug. "Wan' another?"

Simon eyes the dregs of what he hoped would be his only drink in this establishment.

"If I have to."

This time Jayne brings back not only two mugs of the house ale but also a couple of shorts. Simon refuses the whiskey so the mercenary downs both, one after the other. A warm glow spreads through him an' suddenly the Doc don't seem like quite such bad company after all. Specially now Jayne knows about ...

"So," he begins conversationally, leanin' back in his chair, "How long you been sly, Doc?"

Simon splutters a mouthful of beer down his vest and stares dumbstruck at the mercenary for a moment until the simple directness of the question strikes him as funny.

"All my life, Jayne," he smiles.

"Right." Jayne nods sagely. "Guess it's a life-time kinda deal, eh?"

"Mostly."

"Right"

Jayne is silent for a while, thinking. Then he asks another blunt question that has Simon spluttering all over again.

"You ain't interested in me at all, are ya?"

"Good God, no!" Simon exclaims, horrified.

Jayne grunts, looking almost offended.

"Not that you're not a very attractive man," Simon finds himself adding hastily. "It's just ..."

Oh shit. How in the 'verse did he end up talking to Jayne like this?

"Yeah, I know," the mercenary says. "I ain't your type. Well, thank God for that! Cos you know I'd have to put a bullet in ya if ya was interested, right?"

Simon smiles. "Obviously."

Jayne stands up.

"Where are you going? The Captain said-"

"Gotta bit o' shoppin' to do. Don't worry, Doc. I'll be back before you've had time to miss me."

And with that Jayne disappears through the saloon doors. Gonna get somethin' real nice for Kaylee. It'll be her birthday in a coupla weeks an' Jayne knows what great store she sets by birthdays. Look at all that fuss she went to for the Doc.

It don't take Jayne long to find what he's lookin' for. The stall holder wraps it up all pretty like an' Jayne hands over more money than he's ever spent on a gift for anyone. He tucks the little package into the pocket of his pants and heads back to the bar -

- where Simon Tam is bein' pummelled by a trio of young fellas with a lot to prove an', in Jayne's assessment, not much to prove it with. For a few seconds he watches the action. Simon's scramblin' back to his feet an' aimin' a punch at the biggest one's jaw. Nearly gets him too, only the little one cracks him over the back of the head an' the Doc goes down again. Looks like it's all over, Jayne thinks sourly. They've had their fun. But no! That gorram feng le medic's haulin' hisself to his feet again an' this time he actually manages to land a punch on the little one. Right. That's e-gorram-nough, Jayne decides. He grabs the biggest fella by the hair and shoves him forwards onto the ground. His ass is jus' beggin' to be kicked, so Jayne obliges.

Simon's other two assailants rush Jayne at once but he seizes both by the scruff of the neck and drives them into each other instead, relishin' the sound of their skulls crackin' together.

At this very moment, Mal and Zoe emerge from the back room. Mal shoots a stern questionin' look at Jayne whose nod towards Simon offers some kinda explanation for the brawlin'. The Doc's on his feet an' clearly only a tad bruised and shaken but that don't stop Mal feelin' an upsurge of murderous rage towards the two youths Jayne's unceremoniously dumpin' on the floor. Then a pang of conscience reminds him that he's done much the same to Simon his own self.

Simon catches Mal's eye and gives him a small self-conscious smile. Mal nods and indicates the door with an urgent tilt of his head. They just about reach the exit when suddenly the rest of the bar's clientele start clappin' an' cheerin'.

Mal and Zoe exchange a look of relief.

"The goods ain't far from here," Mal announces as soon as they're out in the street. "We get it loaded an' we get gone. Already attracted more'n enough attention."

Jayne takes the seat beside Simon. "Di'n't they teach you nothin' useful at that med school o' yours?" he asks.

"Apparently not," Simon replies ruefully, tasting blood in his mouth.

* * * * *

Colonel Steadman is an easy man to please, Inara realizes as he suddenly stills beneath her and a little moan escapes his lips. Easy to please, restrained and a perfect gentlemen. She could have chosen far worse. Particularly now that she has been denied access to the Guild's screening methods.

It was a risk coming here, to his house, but he has been kindness itself, treating her with the utmost respect as though she were still a Registered Companion and not merely a common whore. It is good to know her instincts are still sound.

"That was most enjoyable, my dear," he compliments her as soon as he gets his breath back.

Inara smiles and lowers her lashes. "Xie-xie. It was not entirely unpleasant for me either."

The Colonel brushes aside her attempt at flattery with a kind laugh.

"Well, that's very charming of you, but I'm not such as old fool as to believe you. Beautiful young thing like you needs a man of her own age. I say! I have my nephew staying. I'm sure he's more your type. What about if I .. I mean, if you're agreeable, of course. Poor boy hasn't had much luck with the ladies of late. Think he's a bit self-conscious about that duelling scar even though I told him the ladies like a warrior. You see I'm not as convincing as you'd be. What do you say? You'd be doing him an enormous favour. And me too. Might be able to stop worrying about the lad if ... Sorry, my dear," he breaks off suddenly self-conscious at his own enthusiasm for the proposal. "I'm getting carried away. I'm good for his payment – if you decide to accept the offer."

Inara smiles to conceal her discomfort at such frank talk of money. She supposes it is something she will have to get used to.

"I'd be honoured. But first, if I may, I'd like to freshen up."

Colonel Steadman beams happily at her. "Of course. Bathroom's through that door to your left. What shall we say? Half an hour? An hour?"

A little more than hour later, Inara has bathed, remade the Colonel's king-size beds with fresh sheets and reapplied her makeup.

A knock sounds on the heavy wooden door.

Inara crosses the room to open it. "Qing jin," she murmurs demurely, inviting her new client into the room.

"Well, well," a familiar voice remarks, the surprise in it rapidly turning into something more sinister. "Inara Serra!"

Her mouth falls open.

"Atherton ...."

* * * * *

Taking a breather from unloading the cargo, Simon looks up to see Zoe hesitating over picking up a crate. All of a sudden she straightens up and claps a hand to her mouth.

"Zoe?"

Her eyes are wide as she shakes her head. She looks like she might be sick.

"Zoe?" he asks again. "Are you all right?"

She swallows and takes a deep breath. "I'm fine, Doctor."

"Well ya look terrible!" Jayne informs her cheerily. "That New Melbourne ale too strong for ya?"

"Why don't you leave this to Jayne and I?" Simon suggests as Zoe pales. "It's nearly all done."

"Got what we need, all safe and sound!" River announces from where she's sitting with her back resting against the entrance to her favourite hidey hole.

Well, at least she's not inside it, Simon's pleased to note.

Another wave of acid bubbles up into Zoe's throat and she decides to accept Simon's offer.

Jayne and Simon return to completing their task. This really is one helluva loada crates. Jayne reckons them folk on Beylix mus' either be plannin' to blow theirselves up an' put an end to their sufferin' or else they're plottin' rebellion.

Not that he cares much either way.

He wipes the sweat from his face and glances over at Simon. The Doc ain't flaggin' at all. Under that fancy exterior he mus' be stronger than he looks. Certainly got a few good muscles in his arms, that's for sure. As for the rest of him ... Jayne stops himself Right There.

"Pretty strong for a Core fella, ain't ya?" he comments, helping Simon move the last pallet. "So what I can't figure is why you ain't better at fightin'."

"Not a lot of call for it in the O.R." Simon swings another crate into the hold. "Besides, I don't think I'm really the fighting sort."

Jayne snorts. "Everyone's the fightin' sort when they get their dander up. Even you."

"I don't think so."

"So – you jus' gonna let every dumbass kid between here an' the Rim take a poke whilst you turn the other cheek?" Jayne sneers.

"Well, no-"

"How you gonna stop 'em?"

Simon shrugs. "I don't know."

"I could show ya."

"Uh - I don't know-"

"Aw, come on, Doc! We'll finish off here an' I'll give you a lesson. It'll be fun!"

And, to Simon's immense surprise, it is. Jayne shows him how to block his opponent with one fist and how to land a decent blow with the other, how to centre himself so that's he's not easily knocked over and how to tense his muscles against a punch to the stomach. Simon's a quick learner and Jayne's a good teacher with bags of enthusiasm for his subject.

When Kaylee comes lookin' for River she's horrified to see Simon dodgin' Jayne's massive fist an' aimin' a kick at his shins.

"Simon! Jayne!"

"Just playing," River tells her, beckoning for her to come over and take a seat on the floor.

"Okay, now I'm gonna show ya what to do if yer opponent gets a lock on ya," Jayne declares, grabbing Simon without warning by the neck. "Can you breathe?"

"Not so much," Simon wheezes.

"Good. Gotta make it realistic. Now you gotta throw me off balance, see? What I generally does is stamp on their feet, twist round, knee 'em in the balls an' then smack 'em hard in the face whilst they're still reeling. Think you can do that?"

Simon has no air with which to reply so he just nods and stamps his foot down as hard as he can on Jayne's toes. The pressure on Simon's windpipe eases up immediately and he twists round and breaks free but somehow none of the rest of it goes right. He loses his balance, Jayne loses his and they both end up on the floor laughing.

River claps with delight.

"What in the good gorram is goin' on here?"

Tamade, it's Mal an' he ain't lookin' best pleased.

Jayne gets quickly to his feet and hauls Simon up.

"I'll be in my bunk," the mercenary mumbles and heads for the stairs.

Simon Tam looks mighty pleased with himself, Mal notices.

"Jayne was teaching me how to fight," the medic explains breathlessly, casting an almost affectionate look after the big man.

"Was he now?" Mal's tone is suspicious. "Cuz from where I was standin' it looked like somethin' else entirely."

"What?" Simon's brows knit together. Mal is clearly angry about something but Simon has no idea what. "What did it look like?"

Mal takes a step closer. He's so close to grabbin' the boy an' shakin' him it ain't funny.

"Like you was flirtin' with Jayne," he accuses in a dangerously quiet undertone.

"Flirting?" Simon's voice rises in disbelief and comes out far louder than he intended. "Me? You thought I was flirting with Jayne?"

"Well, wa'n't you?" Mal demands through clenched teeth to stop himself from raisin' his voice too. No need for the whole gorram crew to hear this.

"Would it matter if I were?"

The Captain gives Simon an unfathomable look and then simply turns on his heel and leaves.

Simon watches him go, scratching his head.

Kaylee approaches an' starts apologizin' on the Cap'n's behalf.

"Cap'n di'n't mean that," she assures him. "He's mad cuz he's unhappy about 'Nara goin'. He wou'n't have said that otherwise cuz he knows you ain't sly..." She breaks off, noticin' the way Simon's gaze has dropped to the floor an' the way he's bitin' his lip. "He knows you ain't ... cuz you ain't, right?" Her tone is less certain now.

"Kaylee-"

"No! Don't tell me! Don't you dare say it, Simon Tam!"

"Kaylee-"

"NO!" Kaylee repeats him desperately. "You ain't."

Simon catches hold of her hands, presses his forehead to hers.

"Yes, Kaylee. I am. And I'm sorry. Sorry I didn't tell you before. I should have."

* * * * *

"They're heading for New Hall," Gaunt says, flexing his long fingers. "No doubt about it. Gordon's ship is set to rendez-vous."

Ginger rechecks the datafeed and opens a secure link to headquarters.
"I trust you have good news for me gentlemen."

"Indeed, Director. We have a positive read on Serenity's destination and are altering course for pursuit. River Tam will be in the Consul's possession within the week."

* * * * *

She has such lovely things. The finest of everything. Lace and silk and fur. And none of it means a damn to her. She would give it all up in a heartbeat if he could only find the courage to ask her to.

River takes a paintbrush and ink from the drawer beside her bed – her vast, welcoming bed that always feels empty no matter how many clients she takes into it because the one man in the 'verse she wants has never occupied it. There's not even the ghost of him upon her satin sheets, nor the scent of him on her pillows.

River finds paper in a box near the dressing table. No, not paper. Parchment. Rough to the touch. Like his hands. Strong, like his body. And beautiful.

River blinks aways the pictures forming in her head. These are her dreams, not his. His are the only ones that matter.

She dips the brush in the ink and paints a perfect circle. No beginning, no end. Eternal.

"River?"

"Captain," River replies without looking up. A line, a curve. Lost and found.

"You shou'n't be in here, xiao mei-mei. This here's Inara's shuttle."

"Not really," River replies. It belonged to you. All of it. But you didn't know. Never saw it. "That's why she left."

"Yeah. Well, it was never meant to be a permanent arrangement," Mal says, mostly to himself.

There was a road and it was going somewhere. Somewhere beautiful and scary. And the further you went down it, the more lost you became, until the kinks and twists tangled together into knots you couldn't untie. And now you're really lost. Lost in the woods and unable to see the path. Not even sure there is one anymore.

River lays down her brush and hands Mal the piece of parchment.

"What's it say?" he asks, trying to make sense of the swirls and lines.

"The last bit," River sighs impatiently as if it should be obvious.

"Really?" Mal asks, humourin' her an' turnin' the sheet this way an' that. "Look more like an eye to me."

* * * * *

Trouble with shipboard life is it's real hard to get away from folk. There's only so many places you can go.

Mal's favourite place for seekin' solitude is up on the bridge an' since he knows Wash and Zoe are in their bunk right now, that's where he heads.
Only when he gets there - hoetze de pigu! – he finds the gorram Preacher sittin' in the pilot's chair, gazin' out into the Black, fingertips pressed together, forefingers against his lips.

"You prayin', Preacher?" Mal asks, not botherin' to conceal his irritation at the other man's unwanted presence.

"In a manner of speaking, Captain, " the Shepherd replies evenly. "Praying I'm wrong."

Mal does a double-take. "Wrong? Wrong about what?"

"This." Book indicates a faint read on the long range radar. "Size and speed of an IAV. Coming our way."

"Gorramit," Mal curses, "Tha's all we need!"

"Indeed. Unfortunately Captain, it's not all we've got."

"Huh?"

Book points a finger at the medium range radar screen. "Here. Another vessel. Also heading out way."

Mal's hand moves instinctively to his gunbelt. "Tamade. More Feds?"

"Don't think so. Definitely not a standard Alliance vessel. Couldn't identify it at all, as a matter of fact. Not one I've ever seen before."

Mal quirks an eyebrow. "Can't be many spaceships they di'n't familiarize you with at the Abbey."

Book ignores the jibe.

"They're a ways out yet, Captain. Should be able to get a visual some time tomorrow morning. Not much we can do for now. Best we eat and get some sleep before they get here."

"Eat? Sleep? With the Feds an' some mystery ship on our tail?" Mal scoffs. "Ain't gonna happen."

Book stands and rests a hand on his shoulder.

"Sufficient unto the day, son. And there's not many things look worse after a good meal. I made steak pie."

Mal glowers darkly at him. "Thought I told you no luxuries?"

The Shepherd smiles. "Sometimes you need to feed the soul as well as the body, Captain."

* * * * *

Zoe is the last to take her seat at the dinner table. Simon would ask her if she's feeling any better but Book has started saying grace and old habits die hard. The medic closes his eyes and bows his head. Beside him River stares at Zoe with undisguised curiosity.

Kaylee ain't mad at Simon. Not any more. She's just sad. Feels like she's lost something shiny an' special an' it's left her so empty inside that she could eat the whole gorram pie the Shepherd's made for dinner all by herself. Instead she takes a particularly small portion of food, castin' a sideways glance at the Cap'n in the hope that he appreciates her restraint. But Mal's mind seems to be elsewhere. He's chewing on the inside of his cheek an' frownin' at his plate.

Wash passes the pie to his wife. She takes a small slice, then thinks better of it, cuts it in half and slides one piece back onto the serving dish.

"Less than fifty percent," River declares loudly. "Less than fifty percent of what you need."

"Shen me?" Zoe asks, a mite spooked by the girl's words.

"Eating for two now," River smiles sweetly. She cocks her head to one side and puts a hand behind her ear. Her eyes have that distant look as if she can hear things the others can't.. "Listen! Patter of tiny feet."

Wash gulps. "We're pregnant?"

Zoe is shaking her head, disbelieving and yet at the same time knowing in her heart of hearts that River is right.

"I don't know. We could be. I've been feeling ..."

"Congratulations!"

Shepherd Book says warmly as Kaylee starts to squeal with excitement. Even Jayne grins and comments that Wash must be more of a man than he looks.

"You okay, husband?" Zoe asks with a grin, looking at Wash's stunned face.

He kisses her cheek.

"Yeah. I'm okay. I'm amazed. I'm also scared and a bit queasy. But yeah – okay!" A bright smile lights up his face as realization dawns. "We're gonna be a family!"

Family. The word penetrates River's brain like a knife. Family was all he ever wanted. Lost both of his own – the one from his past and the one in his future - but made this new one and tried to hold it together with the strength of his love. Only now it's splinterin' apart an' each part that breaks away is takin' a piece of him with it.

River squeezes her eyes shut and a silent tear rolls down her face. This family is not enough for him. She can see that now.

"Great!" Mal snaps, shoving his chair back from the table. "Great idea Zoe. It never occur to you to discuss this little project of yours with me first?"

"Sir-"

"I hate to be the one to break this to you, Mal-" Wash's sarcastic tone has an edge of anger to it "-but it's really none of your business. Any discussing of babies will be between Zoe and me, not Zoe and you."

"Fine. Discuss away. Maybe find yourself a new job while you're at it!" Mal yells back. "Oh, this is a fang zong feng kuang de jie an' I don't wanna hear no more about it. I'll be in my bunk."

No-one speaks as Mal snatches up his cup and stalks out of the room.

When he's gone, Zoe addresses Simon.

"He's near to breaking, ain't he?"

"Mental health isn't really my area of expertise. But yes. I think he is."

"Ain't there something you can do? Some drug you could give him – just to calm him down a touch – so he can start thinking straight?"

Simon smiles weakly at her.

"We have some tranquilizers and a few antidepressants that I've been using to try to help River but I doubt the Captain will accept them." He looks around the table at the anxious faces surrounding him and shrugs. "All right. I guess it wouldn't hurt to try. I'll get my bag."

"Thank you, Doctor."

The look of gratitude and – is that admiration?- in Zoe's eyes is almost more than Simon can bear and he hurries off to the infirmary.

River leans across the table to squeeze Book's hand. "That young man's very brave. He's my hero."

* * * * *

Mal starts at the sound of a foot hitting the top of his ladder and lunges for the doorlock button, but it's too late. Daxiang baozhashi de la duzi! The door clangs shut just as Simon reaches the bottom rung.

"Get the hell outa my bunk," Mal growls.

"I will," Simon assures him, refusing to be intimidated by the Captain's scowl. "When I'm sure you're okay. I've brought you some-"

Mal cuts him off by snatchin' the medical bag from this hand an' flingin' it across the room. "Qu diyu cho yade!"

Simon rolls his eyes.

"So – you've added the hurling about of things to your already impressive cussing repertoire?" he observes coolly, deliberately echoing Mal's own words from what now seems so very long ago as he retrieves his bag.

"You ain't funny, boy," Mal snarls, stridin' over to stand much too close.

Simon stays where he is but can't quite maintain eye contact. And that's when he notices his waistcoat – the one he was sure River had hidden from him as a game – lying in a creased heap just under the head of Mal's bed. He blinks in surprise and looks back up at Mal who's staring at the vest as if it might explode in his face.

"What-?" Simon begins.

"I don't ruttin' well know," Mal lies. Badly. "Mayhap that moonbrain sister of yours put it there."

One corner of Simon's mouth lifts slightly. "Mal," he says quietly. "It's all right. Really."

Mal opens his mouth and closes it, suddenly speechless. He was expectin' a shoutin' match an' now Simon's jus' smilin' at him. An' there's no mistakin' the look in his eyes.

But just in case Mal is going to pretend to, Simon places a hand on the Captain's hip. To make it clear.

" Mal-"

"Go. Jus' go."

Simon stays where he is. Doesn't even move his hand.

Panicking slightly now, Mal tries for mean.

"Go an' play at bein' a tough guy with your pal Jayne."

Simon's jaw drops. "You're jealous!"

Damn! "Am not."

Simon swallows a smile. "No, of course you aren't. But really Mal-" he reaches up to feel the tight muscles in Mal's neck. "It's not normal to be so tense. I'm worried about you. Please, let me help."

"Don't need no help."

It never ceases to amaze Simon how truculent and obstructive some patients can be. How they persist in challenging their doctor's authority and in questioning his ability. He watches as Mal folds his arms across his chest in that same sulky way River does when she won't cooperate. Mal is trying to shut him out just like his sister does, but this time Simon isn't going to let him. No matter how angry and difficult he becomes. Sometimes the patient needs to know that the doctor is in charge.

"Yes you do," Doctor Tam tells Mal firmly, suddenly sure of what he needs to do. "You're exhausted. And I'm fairly certain you're suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome."

"Am not."

"Gou shi. You have all the symptoms-"

"Don't start with the medical jargon!" Mal snaps suddenly, taking a step back. "An' I ain't takin' no drugs. We look to have more Feds after us, more bounty hunters an' who knows what else. Need a clear head to deal with that."

Simon barely registers the mention of these new dangers. There's nothing that he personally can do about them anyway, whereas there is something he can do for Mal.

"I'm not offering you drugs."

Mal gives a short hard laugh. "Well, I sure as hell ain't talkin' about it."

"I'm not offering to talk either."

"Huh?" Mal looks blank for a moment and then his eyes widen. "No," he says quietly and then again more loudly in case it sounded like he didn't mean it. "No."

"I think it will help. I want to."

This time Mal's laugh is bitter, sad. "Could be you're forgettin' what happened last time."

"No. I'm not. But this time I have a plan. And besides – I want to."

"No, Simon." Mal's tone has an almost pleading quality to it. "No. Don't wanna be losin' any more of my crew."

"You wouldn't lose people it you didn't keep pushing them away," Simon tells him, moving closer again and taking hold of Mal's upper arms. "Don't push me away, Mal, please. Don't you think I've got a few ghosts to lay of my own?"

Mal feels his resolve crack a little at these words. Never could turn a deaf ear to cries for help. Simon's lips have parted slightly and his eyes are full of longing. Even so, Mal manages to resist.

"I ain't sly, Doc."

Simon closes the remaining gap between them so that their bodies are flush against one another and his smile grows wider because Mal may be saying one thing with his mouth but his body's saying something else entirely.

"I never thought you were, Mal. I've learnt through bitter experience that the 'verse isn't the way I'd like it to be." A beat whilst they look into each other eyes. "But I don't think you're entirely plain either. And you do care for me."

Mal doesn't deny it outright – just asks "How d'ya figure that?"

"You came back for me on Jiangyin. You rescued me on Ariel. And every day you let River and I stay puts everyone else at risk. Why else would you do that?"

"You're on my crew."

Simon shakes his head, his smile wry now. "Jayne's on your crew. And you gave him one hell of a concussion on my account."

Mal looks surprised. "He tell you about that?"

"No. River did. My sister can be perfectly lucid at times." He notices Mal swallow hard. "She said you were going to kill him. Twice." Mal looks away but Simon gently turns his face back so that their eyes meet again. "You do care for me. And I ...." He hesitates, certain Mal will send him away if he says what he really feels. "I care for you."

Mal tries to tell him 'no' but Simon's drawin' his mouth down towards his own an' this ain't right an' it's gonna end badly but Mal ain't made of stone an' this boy is warm an' solid an' Mal needs both of those things right now.

He grabs Simon by the back of his neck an' kisses him fiercely
Simon doesn't crumple like Mal had been expectin' but instead kisses him back every bit as hungrily. He's stronger than he looks and Mal finds he can lean into him without either of them fallin'. And when all sense of reason burns away in the rising heat - when all of Mal's iron self control finally crumbles and he pushes Simon roughly down onto the bed - he finds he's yanked down too.

And that the hands holdin' him are very nearly as strong as his own.

Chapter Text

Tongues. Clawing hands. Mouths and friction.

Tianna.

Dr Tam is struggling in vain to make himself heard over the blood roaring in Simon's ears. The healthcare professional's warnings about staying in control go unheeded by the head-over-heels crazy-in-love young man whose breath is being sucked out of him by the man he's wanted for oh so very long. Reminders that this isn't about what *Simon* wants - it's about what Mal needs – are blotted out by the rush of sensations caused by each movement of the Captain's hands.

Just moments ago – before they were actually touching - Simon's plan seemed so reasonable. Take it slowly, stage by stage. Identify Mal's trigger, confront it, disable it. The perfect treatment programme according to Simon's research.

Only now, overwhelmed by Mal's body heat – underneath Mal - Simon's recollection of the plan is getting terribly fuzzy. His blood supply has found somewhere far more interesting than his brain to flood, leaving him short of breath and unable to think clearly.

And Mal's mouth is relentless. Simon is vaguely aware of his own hands digging into the muscles on Mal's back and the weight of Mal's body on top of him. Everything else is electricity and nerve endings. Thoughts evaporate as soon as they form. Getting closer is the only thing that matters. Touching, tasting, feeling.

Simon's yieldin' and demandin' by turn an' it's drivin' Mal *feng le*. One minute the boy's mouth is openin' up and beggin' to be filled an' the next he's forcin' his tongue into Mal's an' suckin' an' bitin' at his lips. When Mal grinds their hips together, at first Simon seems content enough to move to Mal's rhythm, but before long he's tryin' to force the pace an' take control.

The intoxicatin' thought of lettin' him do jus' that makes Mal shudder even as it unsettles him.

It's Mal who finally breaks the kiss and Simon reels a bit under the sudden oxygen hit to his brain. He looks up into eyes so dark they're almost all pupil and the intent in them makes him shiver. Those eyes. That mouth. Simon wants more of that mouth on his – he wants that mouth on his body – but when he tries to take Mal's face between his hands, the Captain seizes him by the wrists and pins his hands down on either side of his head.

Mal props himself up on his elbows, nostrils flarin' with the effort of trying to control his breathin'. Of tryin' to control himself.

"This is your last chance, boy," he warns, his voice thick with desire. "You walk outa here right now an' we forget all about this. Pretend it never happened. You stay an'-"

He doesn't get any further because all of a sudden Simon brings his left arm across his body, taking Mal's right with it. He follows with a twist of his hips that rolls them both over and now Mal is under Simon, wearing an expression of stunned disbelief. The medic laughs out loud at the small victory and at the way Mal is blinking with surprise.

Mayhap cos the Doc's so polite an' proper in daily life Mal's always assumed he'd be kinda docile in the bedroom. Expected him to be timid, passive. Di'n't expect this.

Simon cups Mal's jaw in a hand, holding him still for a long, slow invasion of his mouth. "I'm not afraid of you, Mal," he breathes into it. and he's not. At least, not enough to want to put an end to this. He knows what may be coming. Knows Mal is sick. But what kind of a doctor would he be if he didn't at least try to diagnose the nature of his problem and treat it?

"Then you ain't very bright," Mal rumbles, turning his head away. "You don't wanna go down this road with me boy."

"Yes. Yes I do," Simon tells him emphatically. "I've got a plan, remember?"

An' then he's crushin' his mouth down on Mal's in another kiss that's all teeth an' thrustin' tongue an' Mal stops resistin'. Surrenders. To Simon an' to the ravenin' hunger within. Hands that are his an' yet ain't find their way to the small of Simon's back, slide under the waistband of his pants an' impatiently seek out skin. They scrabble against a conspiracy of fabric - shirt, shorts – liftin', pushin', burrowin' – until at last Mal's fingers find warm mounds of tight smooth muscle an' Simon inhales sharply, drawin' a rush of cool air against Mal's ear. Simon's tongue follows, tracin' the folds and curves an' funnellin' a torrent of burnin' want down into Mal's very brain.

"Too many clothes." The thought is Mal's but the words are Simon's. He pushes himself up into a sitting position straddling Mal's thighs and runs his hands up the Captain's chest, slipping the suspenders from his shoulders. Then he's undoing buttons, hands trembling slightly as he frowns in concentration.

Mal lies still, watchin' his face.

He really don't wanna hurt this boy.

Mal's shirt is swiftly removed and tossed across the room. Simon sucks in an admiring breath. He's seen Mal without his shirt many, many times before but somehow this is different. Because this time it's okay to trace the muscles with his fingertips and relish the surprisingly soft texture of the Captain's skin. And it's more than okay to bend his head and circle a nipple with his tongue if the way Mal's arching up into him is anything to go by.

"I want you naked, Malcolm Reynolds," Simon declares, his lips moving lightly against the hardening nub.

Mal's voice is slightly strangled as he replies, "Sounds like a plan."

Simon smiles into Mal's chest and slides a hand down to find the waist of Mal's pants. The noises that Mal makes as he slowly, slowly unbuttons them sends Simon's pulse racing and by the time he's pulled them and Mal's shorts off he's harder than he's ever been in his life.

God, but he's beautiful. Not perfect and yet so *absolutely* perfect that Simon can't help but kiss him. Over and over again. Eyes, mouth, nose, throat, chest, belly and thighs. He pushes Mal's legs apart and buries his head between them. "Wo de ma, you smell wonderful," he whispers running his fingers up the inside of Mal's thigh and into his own mouth to wet them.

Mal closes his eyes and his head arches back as Simon's tongue starts exploring him lightly, teasingly at first and then more firmly. Every contact brings heat and wetness, every withdrawal shivering cool.

"*Lao tian ye*!" Mal gasps when at last Simon takes him into his mouth. He's shakin' already, he ain't gonna last ... an' then Simon's easin' a finger inside him an' then another an' no-one ain't never done that before an' Mal ain't sure he likes the way it stings and stretches an' he wants to tell Simon to stop but somehow he can't get the words out because of that thing – zao cao that thing! - that Simon's doin' with his tongue an' all of a sudden Mal don't want him to stop at all, not now, not never, cos this feels good, so ruttin' good ... this havin' Simon's fingers deep inside him, teasin' some place Mal di'n't even know he had, some place that's throbbin' with need an' it's loosenin' Mal's failin' self-control, floodin' him with too much feelin', too many sweet sensations to be able to keep track of any one of them an' Mal ain't gonna be comin' quiet an' restrained like he normally does, he's gonna be thrashin' about an' hollerin' an' ... an' ...

Mal's body convulses and goes rigid. His hands twist in Simon's hair an' he hears himself sayin' all manner of stuff that don't mean nothin' – stuff like God an' Yesu an' baobei – as he comes in shudderin' hot pulses down Simon's throat.

Simon swallows, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and stretches out, still fully clothed, if a bit rumpled, next to Mal. He pulls the Captain's limp body into his arms and kisses his forehead.

Still tremblin' a mite, Mal starts to apologize. "Sorry. Shoulda oughta warned you - let you know I was gonna-"

"Come?" Simon's eye twinkle. "You think I didn't know? I'm a doctor, Mal and I'm a man. I knew."

"Oh."

Mal is silent for a while. He feels strange. In his head an' in his body. Ain't never come quite like that before.

"That thing – that thing you did, Simon – that thing with your fingers. What the hell was that?"

Simon laughs. "You really aren't sly, are you?"

Mal grimaces. "Don't know what the hell I am," he admits, strokin' Simon's face, pleased beyond words it ain't got no new marks on it. He smiles brightly, hopefully. "Looks like your plan mighta worked."

Simon's own smile disappears and his face becomes serious. "I don't think so, Mal. We just haven't identified your trigger – whatever it is that evokes a violent response in you - yet."

"Yet?"

"Yet."

Mal looks sheepish. "What I see you're forgettin' of, Doctor Tam, is that I'm an old man. Think I might need a few."

"I should look in on River anyway," Simon reassures him, getting to his feet.

Mal catches Simon's wrist in one hand and places the other over the obvious bulge in his pants. "Don't you want me to get you off too?"

Yes, Simon does - more than he's wanted anything in his life - but somehow he finds the strength to take a step back and out of Mal's reach. Because even the simple pressure of his hand is nearly enough. Nearly enough for Simon to lose control of this situation completely and utterly.

"I most certainly do," he says forcing a grin and ignoring the way his body is protesting at the loss of contact. "and I'll be back later. Why don't you get some rest so you're ready for me?"

Mal don't wanna let him go but he ain't ever gonna to ask the boy to choose between him an' his sister so he grunts a reluctant agreement and rolls onto his side.

Simon climbs the ladder and heads not to his sister's room but straight to his own. He locks the door and quickly undoes his pants, positively vibrating with lust. So incredibly turned on that it takes only a few jerks to have him spilling hot and wet all over himself and struggling against the urge to cry out.

He falls back onto his bed, breathing heavily, and waits for his heartbeat to return to normal.

A quick wash down and a change of clothes and he's ready. Back in control now that he's taken the edge off his hunger for Mal.

When he returns to the Captain's bunk, he finds him lounging, still completely naked, in his battered old armchair.

And he's looking all manner of cocky.

"Brought my medicine, Doc?" Mal leans back, arms crossed behind his head, and grins broadly.

"Cos I'm feelin' a mite feverish. An' I got this swellin' I think you oughta take a look at."

Simon smiles fondly at him. "Mal ..." he begins, wanting to tell him, warn him, that they're not out of the woods yet, but he looks so relaxed and happy that Simon finds he can't bring himself to. Not yet.

"You ever gonna take them clothes off?" Mal demands as Simon stands there hesitating. "Or do I gotta make you?" He reaches out a hand, picks up his gun from the table and levels it at Simon. "Shirt. Off. Now."

Simon rolls his eyes. "Very Freudian."

"Shirt," Mal repeats, gesturing with the pistol. "Off."

"Okay, okay. The shirt is coming off now." Simon swiftly unbuttons the front and cuffs and drops the garment onto the floor.

"Pants," Mal demands. "Lose the underwear too."

Simon is sure being ordered around shouldn't be so arousing. He's no more meek and submissive than Mal is, and yet Mal's commanding tone is making him tingle. He steps out of his pants and shorts and is about to cross the room when Mal stops him.

"Stay where you are, boy. I wanna look at you."

Instantly Simon is hard again. His balls tighten and he's aching to be touched. He takes a deep breath to try to calm his response to the feel of Mal's eyes on him, but it's only partly successful.

"Turn round."

*Oh God*. Simon feels like he might explode if Mal doesn't touch him soon. He looks down at his own hands and sees they're shaking. This isn't part of the plan. He's supposed to be calm now – strong and in control – not weak with want and need.

And then Mal is standing behind him, skin on skin, his body hot and hard against Simon's back, one arm around his waist. With his other hand he begins trailing a light caress down Simon's arm, making the medic close his eyes and shiver with pleasure.

Mal kisses his hair, breathin' the smell of it in deep before nuzzlin' Simon's head to one side so's he can nibble at his ear an' neck. Gorramit, he don't only smell good, he tastes good too. Almost as good as he looks. How the hell does this boy keep his body so perfect? Mal flattens the palm of one hand against Simon's chest, smoothin' it over the planes of muscle. His other hand he places lightly on Simon's stomach an' slides it down, gradually applyin' more pressure until the boy gasps. Mal smiles to himself and wraps his hand loosely around the heat of Simon's erection. He don't know what in the 'verse he's done to deserve this but he sure is grateful to have it.

"So," he murmurs against the nape of Simon's neck, "About that swellin' that's troublin' me, Doc. You got somethin' for it?" He grins again as Simon quivers against him.

"I don't know," Simon answers unevenly because, as if the words weren't enough to dissolve him, now Mal is brushing a nipple with one thumb and the head of his *ji ba* with the other. "You could try finding out."

Mal spins him round and kisses him hard. "Guess I mean to."

"Bed," Simon tells him firmly, when Mal finally lets him up for air, in a determined attempt to restore the balance of power between them. "Now."

Mal smirks at the urgency in his voice. "All right, Doc, I get it. You're in a hurry. Can't wait to have your wicked way-"

"*Bizui*," Simon interrupts, surprising himself as much as Mal by delivering a smart slap to the Captain's backside.

Mal grabs him by the hair. "Just for that," he promises darkly, "I'm gonna take this so ruttin' slow you're gonna be beggin' for it."

"I don't beg," Simon informs him haughtily, despite the disturbingly delicious image that's forming in his mind.

"Reckon you will," Mal replies with such total certainty that Simon wonders if his sister might not be the only one able to see inside other people's heads.

He pushes Mal gently away and forces himself to remember the plan.

"I think," he says, all medical seriousness again, "It might be better if you do what you normally do. It's the only way we're going to work out what the problem is."

"What I normally do?" Mal asks, a touch sadly. He sinks down onto the bed and his shoulders sag. Wo de tian – he don't wanna do what he normally does. The notion that he might scares him. Mayhap it's not too late to put an end to this. He stares down at the floor.

"This ain't exactly normal for me, Simon. Not sayin' I ain't ever done it before but I ain't in the habit of beddin' menfolk."

Simon sits beside him and takes his hand. "In that case," he suggests, "Do what you'd do if I were a woman."

Mal raises an eyebrow.

"And try to ignore the obvious differences. What do you normally do?"

Mal looks away again, struggling with the words. "Turn into a ruttin' monster," he says at last. "Remember?"

At medacad, Simon could never understand it when his fellow students wept over a patient. He decided early on in his career that the best way to help his patients was to remain objective, detached. But right now, he could cry for Mal. He looks so lost and empty and dejected. Only Simon won't cry. He won't indulge himself. He's going to stay professional and help Mal get over this.

"Yes. And that's why I'm here. We're going to fix this, Mal," he insists gently but when Mal refuses to meet his eyes, he tries a tougher approach. "Now, unless you want to suffer this disorder for the rest of your life, drop the self-pity and concentrate. What do you normally do?"

There's a spark of anger in Mal's eyes when he looks up. Good. Simon can use that fire.

"For God's sake, Mal," Simon persists. "Answer me!"

Mal seizes him by the shoulders and presses him down onto the bed covers.

"Not talk so much," he snaps. "Leastways, not about 'normally' and 'differences'. Kissin'. Reckon I normally start with kissin'."

He covers Simon's mouth with his own and kisses him angrily. Thoroughly.

"Kissing is good, " Simon all but purrs as Mal's mouth moves to his jawline, down his neck and along his collar bone. "Very good. Then what?"

Looking down into the undisguised affection in Simon's eyes, Mal's rage ebbs away and a surge of tenderness rushes in to replace it.

"Then? Maybe somethin' like ..." He runs a hand up Simon's side, from hipbone to ribcage and then over his chest. He homes in on a nipple and rolls it between his thumb and forefinger. "You still with me, Simon?" he asks as the medic closes his eyes and goes very still.

"Mmmm."

Mal grins. "Good. Cos then most like I'd do this." His hand moves to Simon's thighs and slips between them. Simon's eyes open wide only to flutter closed again as Mal's fingertips start moving in small hypnotic circles, lightly at first and then more firmly. Simon's thighs part involuntarily and Mal's hand pushes back further.

"Mal-" Simon catches his wrist.

"Don't worry," Mal tells him softly, "I got some."

Simon watches breathlessly as Mal reaches up to take a small tube down from the shelf near his bed and as he squeezes out a large blob of clear, glistening gel onto his hand. Simon's heart is hammering. He can't quite believe this is really happening. Up until this point he might have been dreaming but the prosaic necessity of lubricant suddenly makes this very real.

He's about to have sex with Mal.

Oh God. He feels dizzy, almost sick with anticipation, and yet horribly impatient as Mal slicks his fingers and squeezes out another blob of gel.

Simon scoops it from his palm. "Please. Let me."

A smile tugs at the corner of Mal's mouth. "Okay." He leans back and waits as Simon warms the gel in his hands - rubbin', twistin' an' slidin' them over each other, slow an' deliberate. Fingers interweavin', palms slidin' one against the other.

Mal realizes his mouth's gone dry.

An' then it's difficult to know anythin' for certain, because Simon is strokin' his hand up the length of Mal's erection, from base to tip an' jus' when the sensation oughta stop it don't cos his other hand is strokin' him downwards. Up an' down, up an' down an' there's no respite from the build up of tension. It goes on an' on an' on ...

Mal bats Simon's hands away and rolls him onto his back. "My turn," he declares, skimmin' his hands over Simon's chest an' stomach. "Most definitely my turn."

Been a long time since he's done this, cos to tell the truth, he never much cared for it. Only did it a coupla times back in the early days with Cody Bain but his heart was never in it and Cody soon took the hint. An' yet, for some reason that Mal don't fully understand, he really wants to taste Simon. Tentatively, experimentally he mouths the head of Simon's cock. Sharp an' salty with an edge of bitter. Mal points his tongue, flicks lightly at the ridge an' the muscles in Simon's thighs tighten. When his hips lift from the bed, Mal slips a hand under his ass, distractin' the boy with a bit of light suction to work a finger inside him.

Simon's head rolls to one side and he exhales deeply as a little tremor goes through him.

Mal slides a second finger in and starts seekin' out that place that it turns out can melt a man's spine when it's hit right. It ain't easy, tryin' to find the right balance between gentleness and pressure. How come Cody Bain never showed Mal how to do this? How come he never demanded it of him? Mal fervently wishes he had cos he wants to make Simon see stars that exact same way he did. He wants to make the boy come so hard he forgets his own gorram name. Now, where in the name of Fozu is it?

Mal twists his fingers and pushes them in a little deeper. Simon gasps and his hips buck. Right. That must be it. Mal pulls his fingers back a fraction and tentatively presses them forward again. Simon moans deep in his throat. Yeah. That's definitely it.

"Like that, don't ya?" Mal lifts his head to murmur against Simon's ear, as he takes up a deliberately slow rhythm of tiny movements.

Simon doesn't reply. Can't. The excitement winding his nerves into ever tighter coils has robbed him of the ability to speak. All he can do is rock himself on Mal's hand and try to breathe.

"Please ..." he manages to whisper at last.

"Please, what?" Mal asks, absurdly proud of Simon's unprecedented inarticulacy.

"Please ..." Simon repeats, unable to form any other word.

"Thought you di'n't beg?" Mal teases gently. "You want me in you - that it?"

"Please ..."

Mal thrusts his fingers a mite deeper an' harder. Simon gasps again an' clings to Mal makin' strange little noises.

Mal's throat tightens. "Simon-" he begins, then stops, because the words are too hard to say an' words don't mean nothin' anyway. They get blown away. Can't hold onto words.

Instead he dots kisses on Simon's eyelids an' with his free hand holds Simon's hips steady so he don't accidentally tear nothin' pullin' out of him. As he withdraws his fingers the noises spillin' from Simon's mouth change, rise in pitch. They're no longer deep an' low from pleasure but high and thin and nasal - complainin'. Whines, almost. Whimpers.

Ta shi suoyou diyu de biaozi de ma! That hurt! The sudden blow takes Simon's breath away and yanks him back into the here and now. He thought he was ready for it, but he wasn't. What was it Jayne said about fighting? You gotta to expect the unexpected an' anticipate a little pain. Simon should have paid more attention.

But there's no time to berate himself, because Mal has raised his hand again and there's no way Simon's going to let him hit him twice. He grabs Mal's arm with both hands and pushes it back as hard as he can. Unfortunately, his hands are still too slippery with lubricant to get a decent grip and Mal shakes him off.

"Stupid bitch!" Mal hisses, seizing Simon by the biceps hard enough to leave bruises. The Captain's eyes are glazed and unfocused and Simon can tell that his mind isn't here in this room at all. Tianna, what in the 'verse is this about? What in the name of God did Mal do that he's so haunted by it?

"Mal! Stop it!"

A shadow passes over Mal's face. "Can't," he snarls, trying to get hold of both Simon's wrists in one hand. "Can't."

Mal's hands still have a coating of gel too and Simon takes advantage of the fact to pull free of his hold. He flips over onto his side and tries to wriggle off the bed but Mal snatches at him, clawing his nails down Simon's pale skin and raising angry red marks.

Pale skin, dark hair, bruises and long scratches. It's always the same. Always ends this way. Gotta get it over with is all. Try not to think about the bitter taste nor the crushin' guilt. Jus' get it over with.

Mal grits his teeth, seizes Simon by the hips and drags him back up the bed, using his own weight to keep him from getting away again. He's trying to force Simon's legs apart when his head is wrenched violently backwards.

Simon has him by the hair.

"Mal! Stop it!" Simon shouts again, tugging Mal's head to one side and shoving him over onto his back.

"Can't!" Mal spits, clambering back on top of Simon again and making another attempt at pinning him down.

Simon has no choice. He has to do this. He doesn't want to, can scarcely bear to think about it and yet he has to. Never hit a man with a closed fist. Ensuring he's not going to fracture his own thumb, he brings his arm back, takes a deep breath and punches Mal hard in the mouth.

The Captain blinks - once, twice – and jerks backwards. Still astride Simon's legs, he sits back on his heels, shakin' his head, disoriented, and stares down at Simon, tryin' to make sense of the agony on his medic's face an' the pain in his own.

"Simon? What ..?"

An' then it call comes floodin' back – why he's naked, why Simon's naked. His eyes fall on Simon's lip. Bruised again. He don't remember doin' it but knows he did. Horrified, Mal squeezes his eyes shut and covers his face with his hands.

"Mal." Simon is stroking a hand down his thigh. "I'm sorry. I had to."

Mal shrinks away from the caress and climbs off him. "Go. Please. Go."

"I'm not going anywhere, Malcolm Reynolds," Simon replies firmly as he sits up. "I'm your doctor. And I am not terminating your treatment half-way through."

"But I hit you, Simon, an' Lord knows I'm like to do it again!" Mal exclaims, cos sometimes Mr Top Three Per Cent ain't so smart as he imagines an' needs things spelt out to him.

Simon raises his eyebrows. "You've done it before," he points out. "And at least this time, I hit you back." He attempts a grin, encouraging Mal to do the same.

The Captain rubs his jaw. "Yeah, you did at that," he concedes, the suggestion of an impressed smile deepening the lines around his eyes. "But I don't see how you an' me knockin' nine hells out of each other's gonna help."

"Let me worry about that." Simon stretches out and pats the empty space beside him in invitation. "Come back to bed, Mal."

He's so ruttin' gorgeous like this – all tousled an' flushed an' willin' – that Mal finds himself doin' jus' that. Even so, his dismay at havin' struck the boy has cooled the Captain's ardour some. "Not exactly up for it, am I?" he jokes, self-consciously.

Simon gives him the nearest thing Mal's ever seen to a leer on that proper face of his. "No. But I am. In case you hadn't noticed."

Despite himself, Mal laughs. "Yeah. I'd noticed," he says, cuppin' Simon's balls lightly in one hand. "Suppose you want me to do somethin' about that?"

"Uh huh," Simon murmurs, because Mal's gone ahead and started doing something about it already. His hand is warm and firm and tight around Simon, his rhythm perfectly in synch with Simon's need to thrust.

"Oh God."

Simon arches up from the bed, moanin' and Mal realizes he's gettin' hard again too his own self. Hard and desperate to be inside this body. Still pumpin' Simon slow and steady, he positions himself between his legs, liftin' one up round his waist to open Simon up enough for him to push two fingers into him at once. Simon's breath hitches in his throat an' for a moment Mal fears he's bein' too rough until a small moan of pleasure tells him otherwise.

Mal can't wait no more. He's comin' about as unglued as his medic jus' from watchin' the boy writhe an' squirm between the sensations in his cock an' his ass. Mal ain't even really thinkin' when he grabs Simon's hips with both hands an' pulls him closer.

"Mal-" Simon pants.

"Right here," Mal grunts. "I got ya."

Simon's fingers dig into Mal's thighs as he rides the sting of penetration an' Mal swallows back a cry, forcin' himself not to move. He wants this to last an' there's too much feelin' bubblin' up inside for him to control it any other way.

Frustrated by the lack of movement, Simon tries to urge Mal on, but Mal's not ready. Even so it takes all his concentration not to surrender to Simon's attempts to get him to drive deeper inside him.

Simon huffs in disappointment and when Mal fails to take the hint, he makes a sharp little noise of complaint at the back of his throat.

It wasn't planned. Simon didn't know that that would do it, but as soon as Mal strikes him, he knows he's found it. The trigger. And oddly, that thing River said about the way Mal's world ended springs into his mind. Not with a bang, but a whimper. His sister is an absolute genius! His heart beats faster with excitement, exhilaration and he can't wait to share this revelation with Mal.

However one look at the Captain's face tells Simon the red mist has descended again. Mal is staring – not at Simon, but through him – as he relives the horror that's tormented him for years. There's no point in Simon trying to talk to him or reason with him.

"I'm sorry," he says out loud, meaning it more than he'd ever thought possible, as he punches Mal again.

Because of the awkward angle, his aim's a little off centre this time and instead of his fist connecting with Mal's jaw as he intended, he catches him just below the eye.

Mal yelps with pain, pulling back and out of Simon so rapidly it makes them both wince.

Simon gets quickly to his knees and enfolds Mal in his arms.

"It's okay. Really. It's going to be okay," he soothes, combing his fingers through Mal's hair and smiling at him tenderly.

"It's the noise," he explains. "I think there's something about that noise I made that triggered a traumatic flashback. Does that make sense to you? Can you think what it might be?"

Mal's eyes are huge and desolate. "No."

"You said something earlier. You called me a 'stupid bitch' – although I don't think you were really talking to me. I'm usually a 'stupid *boy*'. I think you were remembering someone. A girl. Was there a girl, Mal?"

The implication of the question hits them both at the same time. Mal recoils an' all he knows is he wants out of here. He don't wanna face this but his medic is holdin' onto him tight an' ain't lettin' go.

"What happened Mal? Try to remember. I know it's hard but you need to talk about what happened."

For a second Mal stares at him blankly and then a picture starts taking shape. He scrubs at his eyes with his fists and looks away.

"She was just a kid," he whispers hoarsely. "Just a kid."

The hairs on the back of Simon's neck stand up. Oh God, no. Please, no.

"What happened to her?" he asks, fighting to keep his voice calm, neutral. "Tell me, Mal."

"Raped," Mal's voice is so quiet now Simon thinks if it had been any other word – any word other than the one he was dreading – he wouldn't have heard it.

"You .." A wave of disgust and disbelief cuts Simon off mid-question. He tries again. "Are you telling me you raped her?"

"Might as well've done. Cou'n't stop them," Mal replies. His eyes have that same terrified, faraway look that fills River's at times and Simon can see he's drifting away into his own special hell.

"Them?" he presses, trying to keep Mal with him.

But Simon's voice is distant, fadin'. Tamade – Mal can still see them. Still see their faces and the savagery in them. *Brutal desire. Voracious self-gratification. Eyes glazed, unfocused in the heat of sensation. Mouths hanging open loosing bestial grunts with every thrust into her. Faces florid and dripping sweat. and then the hideous predictable grimace that signalled release ... ugly ... repellent. Zao cao!

Mal can still see her too. Still hear her. Sobbin', pleadin', whimperin'. The nightmare ain't faded not one jot over the years. Goes on and on, just like her ordeal seemed to. On and on, with him powerless to stop it an' prayin' to a God he no longer believed in that they would hurry up an' finish. All five of them. Get it over with.

"Mal."

Someone is sayin' his name.

"Mal!"

Louder now an' nearer.

"Mal!"

He's shakin'. No he ain't. He's bein' shook. Mal stiffens, readyin' himself for a fight but suddenly everythin' clears an' he's lookin' into Simon Tam's searchin' blue eyes. The wave of relief Mal feels at seein' him is followed by a swell of shame. What in the good gorram will the boy think of him now?

"I should've protected her, Simon. Or died tryin'."

"Tell me what happened, Mal. Tell me all of it."

Mal chews on a thumbnail, staring dead ahead an' afraid he's gonna be sick. Then he feels Simon's hand movin' in small comfortin' circles on his back an' his touch is calmin', groundin'. Mal swallows and turns to him. "Don't know if I can. Ain't never told no-one about it, Simon. Not even Zoe ..."

The disclosure makes Simon's heart skip a beat but he warns himself sternly not to read too much into it.

"You can tell me," he says quietly.

Mal nods an' tries to compose himself by concentratin' on the warmth of Simon's hard on his back an' the look of gentle understandin' in his eyes.

"We thought it was all over when they finally sent their medships in," he says at last. "An' I was so ruttin' thankful – so pathetically ruttin' thankful - to see 'em – to see gorram Alliance troops! Thought it meant I wa'n't gonna lose any more of my men ..."

Simon listens aghast as the full story of Serenity Valley and the Browncoats' surrender comes tumbling out of Mal's mouth. Inwardly he rages at the petty stupidities and deliberate cruelties inflicted by the Alliance on the shredded remnants of the Independent Army. and when Mal starts grinding out the horrifying tale of that young girl and what was done to her it makes him want to scream and yell - throw and smash things - but that would hardly be professional and it won't help Mal. So instead he sits silently at Mal's side. Just listening and trying to bear it quietly. Like Mal has done for all these years.

"I was her sergeant," Mal concludes. "It was up to me to take care of her. An' I di'n't."

"It wasn't your fault," Simon insists. "There was nothing you could have done."

Mal gives him a weak smile, grateful but unconvinced. "That's a kindness. But it don't change the fact that I failed her. She was just a kid!"

"And how old were you? Twenty-seven?"

Mal frowns, trying to work it out. He's felt so gorram old for so long. "Twenty-six. Just," he realizes with some surprise.

"Younger than I am now," Simon points out. "The 'verse failed her, Mal. The Alliance failed her. Not you. You tried. Sometimes that's all you can do."

The boy's thinkin' about his sister, Mal can tell. That little crease between his eyebrows always appears when he's frettin' over River. Simon Tam's done everythin' a brother could do for his sister – an' more besides – an' yet he still punishes himself with the notion it ain't enough.

Somethin' sharp pierces Mal's chest. Somethin' he can't – won't – name. Instead he leans forward an' presses his lips to Simon's.

"What happened to your sis – that wa'n't your fault neither," he tells him, running a finger down his cheek.

"I know. But I still feel I ought to be able to fix her. Make her the way she was. Before."

"Mayhap you will," Mal suggests, an' then – cos he so wants to comfort this boy – he kisses him again, longer this time and deeper.

"I wish I could believe that," Simon sighs, adding with a bitter laugh "You know, at the beginning – when we were first on Serenity - I used to dream I'd found a cure for her. I'd wake up happy, elated .... and then I'd realize it was just a dream. For a while I even tried to do without sleep because I was so frightened of dreaming and waking up full of hope only to find that nothing had changed. Stupid, eh?"

Mal ruffles his hair. "No, not stupid. Understandable. Not a big fan of sleep my own self. Too many gorram nightmares."

They're quiet for a while. Simon rests his head on Mal's shoulder. "If we're not going to sleep," he begins slowly, laying a hand on Mal's abdomen, "We'll have to find something else to do."

Mal puts a hand under his chin and tilts his face up. "Not sure that's such a good idea," he says. "Don't wanna mark that pretty face no more than I already have."

"But we have to, Mal," Simon insists, trying and failing to not notice that Mal just described his face as pretty. "I need to know if we've correctly identified your trigger. If my diagnosis is incorrect, the treatment may not have been successful."

"Hunh?"

Simon laughs at Mal's bewildered expression and snuggles in closer against him. He slowly walks two fingers up from the Captain's navel to the top of his sternum and then even more slowly slides his middle finger back down again, looking up at Mal through his lashes. "I need you to make me whimper, Mal. Think you can do that?"

Mal swallows. Gorramit, but Simon Tam's persistent an' he's got an unnervingly direct way of speakin' about things Mal normally hedges around that's all manner of arousin'. Not to mention the way his eyes are borin' into Mal's.

Mal swallows again an', in a vain attempt at hidin' the effect Simon's havin' on him, crosses his legs."Don't think that's altogether wise," he begins but Simon ain't listenin'. Boy's leanin' across him for that tube of lube again, arm outstretched, the dark hair beneath ticklin' Mal's cheek an' the smell of it so heady Mal can almost taste it.

Oh, Mal's goin' to the special hell all right!

He pulls Simon's arm back, grips his shoulders from behind an' pushes him face down onto the bed. Chucklin' at the little squeak of surprised delight that gets him, he runs a hand down the length of Simon's spine from the back of his neck to the curve of his ass.

"You insist on doin' this, I reckon it might be safer with me behind you," he says, reachin' up for the lube. He applies a good coatin' of it to himself and works more inside Simon.

Because Mal's in too much of a hurry to have bothered with niceties like warming it first, the gel is cold and it makes Simon jump. A little noise escapes his mouth too. Not exactly a whimper, but close. Close enough to make Mal freeze for a second. He can see her, hear her. It's hot, there's that smell ...

"Mal?"

"Simon?"

An' the moment is gone an' all Mal's aware of now is the way Simon's pushin' back eagerly onto his fingers.

This time it might even be all right.

"Wanna get on your hands an' knees?" Mal suggests, spreadin' Simon's legs an' kneelin' between them.

Simon looks back at him over his shoulder to ask with a grin "Are you always this romantic?"

Mal slides an arm under his medic's stomach an' hauls him up onto all fours. "No," he smirks against his ear. "You're special."

Simon's answering laugh turns into a gasp as Mal enters him in one slow movement. His head arches back against Mal's chest and he squeezes his eyes tight shut against the prick of tears.

"You okay?"

"Mmm, I'm-" Simon begins, only to lose the ability to speak yet again as Mal starts thrusting into him. It's overwhelming, this sensation of fullness and heat, the knowing that this is Mal – Mal – inside him. Tianna - the way he moves, his ragged breathing, the smell of him ...

Simon could come from this alone but now Mal is changing his position and Simon's too and his next stroke takes Simon's breath away, the pleasure of it is so intense. He tries to tell Mal to slow down but the only sound that comes from his mouth is a stream of little moans and whimpers because Mal's not slowing, he's moving faster, slamming in harder and deeper until Simon's so full he could burst.

"Mal. Please. God. Oh. Mal."

Whoever'd've thought tight-wound, panty-waisted, prissy Doctor Tam would end up here like this – naked an' wailin' on Mal's bed? Not Mal, tha's for sure. Nor Simon neither, Mal'd wager. An' yet it feels so absolutely right – almost like it was meant to be. They're about as perfect a fit as Mal came imagine – an' not jus' physically neither, although that's not nothin'.

Mal sits back on his heels, pullin' Simon with him so that he's half-sittin' on Mal's thighs. Holdin' him close with an arm across his chest, Mal takes the boy's cock in his hand.

"Gonna make you whimper properly now," he promises, with a sharp nip to Simon's shoulder.

Simon shudders and fights for breath but he's not in control of himself any more. Mal is. His hand is moving faster and faster and he's tilted Simon forward a little so that he can still manage to thrust into him hard. Simon is struggling and shaking and making little pleading sounds but Mal doesn't stop or ease up at all. Faster, harder, deeper until orgasm pounds through Simon's body, making him scream out Mal's name.

The feel of Simon's body going into spasm in his arms, the hot wetness of his semen on Mal's hand and the way the boy's near sobbin' his name would be enough to push Mal over the edge but now the muscles in Simon ass are pulsin' - clenchin' and releasin' around Mal - an' it's like nothin' Mal's ever felt before. He closes his eyes and lets the swell of sensation lift an' hold him suspended between tension an' release for an agonizingly long second until the wave breaks and he breaks with it, splittin' and spillin' deep inside Simon.

If Mal were anyone else he's be makin' all kinda promises an' demands right now, talkin' about forever an' other such *gou shi*. Instead he fastens his lips to the side of Simon's neck and sucks hard on the skin until the aftershocks coursing through him subside.

"Wo de tian, Simon," he pants as they fall forwards together. "You're one helluva doctor!"

Simon rolls onto his side to face Mal. Boy's hair is clingin' in damp tendrils to his face an' his cheeks are pink from exertion an' passion. An' there's somethin' much too knowin' about the way he's lookin' at Mal. Like he can see beyond Mal's light-hearted words into the gaping abyss of need within him.

"I'll get you to write me a reference when I start looking for another job," he replies with a smile but it's not exactly a joke because Simon needs to know. Needs to know there's more to this than simply him being Mal's doctor.

A flicker of pain passes over Mal's face but he blinks it quickly away. "You ain't gonna be lookin' for another job for a long damn while, boy," he declares, drawing Simon into a kiss. "Besides, who else'd have you?"

Simon laughs and spoons in against him. "Not many who'd be as good at it as you, I suppose. Is that the right answer?"

"Good enough," Mal answers sleepily. He puts an arm around Simon's waist and murmurs into his hair "Xie-xie."

"What for?"

"This. That. Everythin'. Cou'n't have done that with anyone else. Wou'n't've wanted to."

Mal's words make Simon so painfully happy he doesn't trust himself to reply, so he just squeezes Mal's hand and closes his eyes.

Within seconds they are both fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Mal awakes to find the sheet covering him is stuck to his belly. He peels it back, wincing as it rips out a few hairs. Beside him Simon stirs. His eyelashes flutter briefly, before he rolls over onto his side and resumes snoring softly, his lips in a satisfied curve even in sleep.

Boy ain't lily-white an' pasty all over this mornin', Mal thinks guiltily as he traces a finger down a long scratch on his back. Torn an' bruised an' still smilin', gorramit! A flashback to the night before is painfully vivid in Mal's mind. Wo de ma! He still can't quite believe it – even with the evidence before him. He smiles ruefully to himself, surprised by a dull ache in his jaw. Putting a hand to the side of his mouth, he discovers a cut on his lip and a chuckle bubbles up in his throat. No – the Doc never was weak. Knew it the moment he laid eyes on him. Pushed him hard that day an' ever since – testin' the instinct that told him someday that spoilt rich boy would be a man he could trust his ship an' his crew to, if'n he had to. Never thought he'd wind up trustin' his own self to him.

Simon yawns, rubs his eyes and blinks. "Mal? Oh." He blushes and the smile left over from his dreams widens.

Mal hooks a wayward lock of dark hair behind Simon's ear and as he does so is overwhelmed with tenderness for this irritatin', determined and – yes – beautiful young man. Lifting one of Simon's hands to his mouth, he turns it over and kisses the palm.

"I ain't promisin' anythin' an' I still lean towards women ... but, uh, d'you wanna do it again?"

Simon looks at him, considering. "Or-" he runs a hand up the back of Mal's leg "- this time I could-"

Mal heads off the unsettlin' suggestion with a kiss. "What part of 'I lean towards women' do you not understand?"

"The part where you have lubricant. Beside your bed."

Mal huffs, not so sure of his ground now. "All that stuff up there - had it in the war. Never got round to throwin' it out."

"Very frugal of you," Simon mock-approves. His eyes sparkle. "So what you're suggesting would be a repeat of last night?"

Mal nods, then grins. "Without the hittin' one another. That suit you?"

Simon's arms snake up around his neck. "Very much."

And for the first time, Simon sees how dazzling Mal's real smile is.

* * * * *

"No doubt about it, gentlemen," Commander Chang reports. "The vessel is definitely also in pursuit of the target and she's faster than us. She'll be upon them within a matter of hours."

Gaunt clasps his hands together behind his back and turns to his colleague. "The time for intervention is upon us. Early was one thing but these ... " he pauses, as if unwilling to say the word - "these women are another entirely. Unpredictable."

Ginger sighs. "Indeed. One knows where one is with simple avarice, even when it's tainted by sadism." He turns to Chang. "We will require your fastest pursuit vessel."

"Your fastest armed pursuit vessel," Gaunt amends.

* * * * *

"Have a bit of a lie-in this morning, Sir?" Zoe asks and even though it's still relatively early, she looks pointedly at her timepiece.

Mal tries to keep his grin within normal parameters. "Somethin' like that. Not that it's any business of yours." He strides over to the coffee pot and pours out two large mugfuls.

"You make any breakfast? We got any eggs left?" he continues, looking around hopefully.

Zoe turns a delicate shade of green.

"Feel like I could eat a horse."

"A whore?" Jayne asks, his attention momentarily diverted from polishing the weapon in his hand until he realizes his mistake. "Oh."

Zoe ignores him. "Certainly have a spring in your step, Sir," she observes coolly. "Must've slept well."

"Yeah, I did at that. The Doc gave me somethin'."

One of Zoe's eyebrows lifts ever so slightly. "Wondered how you got the black eye, Sir."

There's a pause as they exchange a look. Then the comm system crackles into life.

"Mal? Got some information on our tails for you," Wash's disembodied voice announces.

With a sigh of irritation, Mal places the mugs he'd been plannin' on takin' back to his bunk down on the counter an' heads off to the bridge.

* * * * *

"The larger one's definitely an IAV," a dispirited Wash is telling Book, as the pair scrutinize the radar screens. "And it's locked onto our trajectory. As for the other one – well, your guess is a good as mine."

"Oh, I dare say his guess is a lot better than that, Wash," Mal remarks, joining them on the bridge. "Preachers're famous for their spaceship recognition."

A glance at the Captain's face and Book's benign smile turns knowing.

"What?" Mal demands. "What?"

Wash spins his chair round, looks up at Mal and his mouth falls open.

"WHAT?!"

"You-" Wash gestures vaguely with a hand near his own face "- you got a thing. Well, several actually."

Mal's eyes narrow at his pilot's feeble efforts at lookin' concerned and serious. "So?"

"Nothing," Wash says quickly turning back to the radar screens. "Uh - we've got an IAV making slow but steady progress towards us. And this other thing, moving a lot faster."

Less than an hour ago, Simon was breathless an' shudderin' in Mal's arms. Now it's business as usual.

"What d'you want to do Mal?" Wash asks.

What does Mal want to do? He wants to go back to his bunk an' find Simon there, naked an' waitin' for him. He wants to lose himself in that boy – in that man, Mal corrects himself. Lose himself in his heat an' his strength. That's what Mal wants.

But it ain't about what he wants. Never is.

"Do the job. Get paid. It ain't that far to New Hall – might even make it there an' out again 'fore they catch us."

"And if we don't?" Wash asks with a frown, thinking about his wife and the new life swelling inside her.

Mal's grim expression is not the answer his pilot was looking for.

* * * * *

Simon gives up waiting for Mal to come back to bed. Mal's the Captain. Something requiring his attention must have cropped up. Because otherwise, Simon is sure he'd be here. Well – he's almost sure.

It's only as he finishes dressing that he remembers Mal saying something about Serenity being followed. He smiles to himself. In normal circumstances, news like that would have made him frantic with worry and yet last night Mal managed to distract him so thoroughly, so completely, that Simon forgot about being a fugitive. Forgot about everything. Even his sister.

He's still smiling when he slides the door to her room open.

"You're happy." The way River says it, it sounds almost like an accusation.

Simon blushes and looks down at his feet. "Yes."

"Haven't been happy for years." Her voice is soft, wistful.

It makes Simon feel guilty. "I've been all right. You can't always expect to be happy."

River nods. "Pomegranate seeds."

She throws back the covers and gets out of bed. "Made him happy too." Her bare feet are pale against the steel plating. Like a wraith's. "For now."

Something cold crawls up Simon's spine. No, he isn't going to ask her what she means. In fact he's going to pretend he didn't even hear those last two words. He opens his surgical bag.

"Before – you said you loved him. Do you? Do you love him Simon? Really?" River's questions come at him as fast and pointed as flying blades.

"I – it's – uh –" Simon takes a deep breath. "Yes. Yes, mei-mei, I do."

River snorts. "Love is not in love."

Simon stiffens. "I've brought your medicine," he tells her, syringe in hand.

River tosses her hair back, her eyes boring into his. "Time to wake up."

* * * * *

Mal steps off his ladder, two fresh mugs of coffee in one hand. Hell, if they're all gonna get blown to diyu he's gonna spend at least some of his remainin' hours with Simon.

See? That there explains Mal's policy against shipboard romances in a gorram nutshell! At this precise juncture he oughta be comin' up with a plan, not achin' to be skin on skin with his medic again. For a moment Mal wonders if Simon's ministrations ain't so much fixed him as made him weaker. Mayhap havin' to keep folk at arm's length had somethin' to be said for it after all.

Pushin' the notion firmly to the back of his mind, he asks gruffly "You still snorin'?" but there's no answer.

Mal's bunk is empty. Simon has gone.

Di'n't oughta feel disappointed about it – after all, it ain't like Simon's gone far – an' yet Mal does. Wanted more time with him. More time with him an' nobody else.

The two mugs of coffee get poured untouched down Mal's sink. So much for bein' frugal.

Simon musta gone to check on his sister. With him, River's always gonna come first.

Which is exactly as it should be. Mal's got no quarrel with that.

None at all.

* * * * *

"We'll be within firing range by this evening, Mrs Burgess," the pilot tells his employer.

"Firing range?" Her voluptuous red-haired companion's head snaps round. "We aren't going to be firing on them, hon. That isn't the plan at all."

Belinda Burgess says nothing, just carries on staring out of the viewports at the tiny point of light she imagines to be Serenity.

Saffron's sea-green eyes cloud over with suspicion but quickly clear as she slots the pilot's comment into place. She turns to him and smiles sweetly. "Well, maybe the odd warning shot. Just to show Captain Reynolds we mean business. Good plan, Belinda!"

Belinda Burgess inclines her head but still says nothing.

She's good, Saffron will give her that. Pretty convincing for a woman who hasn't been trained in deception. Sadly for Belinda Burgess, Saffron has and she reads people very well.

She's not surprised. After all, Belinda Burgess' interests and her own were only ever going to coincide up to a certain point. This evening it appears they are destined to diverge.

Saffron smooths the creases out of her skirt, feeling for the reassuring ridge of her concealed holster.
"I'll make us some lunch," she suggests. "I'm a fine cook. Everybody says so."

* * * * *

By lunchtime Jayne has cleaned an' loaded every last one of his favourite guns – an' a few more beside. He leans back in his chair, surveying the gleamin' and polished hardware with satisfaction. The sight settles the churnin' in his gut some. He's got a bad feelin' about this job. Not nothin' he can put his finger on – jus' the gorram certainty that it ain't gonna go smooth.

He picks up Vera an' strokes a hand lovingly down her barrel. The feel of her cold, hard metal is always a comfort.

Footsteps echo down the hallway leadin' to the kitchen, but Jayne don't bother lookin' up. He knows every single one of Serenity's crew by their tread. This here is Kaylee's – light but grounded, even in space. 'Course, no-one else smells quite like the mechanic neither. She smells of engine oil an' fresh mown grass, mixed with somethin' sweet like fruit or maybe honey.

Jayne sits up straighter, squares his shoulders an' puffs out his chest a mite. After all, there ain't no point in him hidin' his light under a bushel. It ain't gonna be long 'fore Kaylee realizes it's a real man she's lookin' for – not some pretty Core boy who's only got eyes for menfolk in general an' one man in particular.

Reassured the kitchen's only occupant in Jayne, Kaylee steps down into the room.

"Hey," she greets the mercenary, but her smile is wary. "You all alone?"

Jayne indicates the guns spread out on the table before him. "Got all my best girls here." He looks up an' gives her a leer. "Leastways, now I do."

But Kaylee is too distracted to even notice the compliment, let alone respond to it. "You seen the Cap'n this mornin'?"

"Was in here earlier."

Kaylee twists a strand of hair between her fingers. "How'd he seem? I mean – last night ... Well, d'you think he's still mad? Is he mad at me at all?"

"Don't think he's mad at anybody today," Jayne tells her, congratulatin' himself on havin' been right about the cause of Mal's foul temper all along. Man jus' needed to get laid.

Kaylee's face brightens noticeably. "That's good. Maybe he let Simon give him somethin'. D'ya think?"
In Jayne's estimation it was most like the other way round. He can't see Mal bottomin' for no-one – but Jayne ain't gonna share his thoughts on that subject with Kaylee. Folks got a habit of blamin' the messenger when it comes to bad news. Nah – if'n Mal an' the Doc are gonna break Kaylee's heart, let 'em do it themselves.

At that very moment Simon and River appear, Simon trying to persuade River that she needs to eat something and River insisting that he doesn't understand the substance of things.

"Here's the Doc now," Jayne points out loudly. "Why don't ya ask him yourself?"

Simon glances nervously at Jayne, then Kaylee. "Ask me what?"

"I was jus' wonderin' if'n the Cap-" the mechanic begins but stop abruptly when she sees the fresh pattern of bruising on Simon's face. "Oh, sweetie!" she exclaims, an' forgettin' all about how he's been leadin' her on for gorram months, she crosses the room to lay a comfortin' hand on his arm. "Are you okay?"

At first Simon has no idea what she's talking about. Okay? Of course he's okay! He's better than okay. He spent the night in Mal's bed an' made love with him again – again – on waking. How could he not be okay?

Kaylee touches Simon's face gently.

"Wouldn't have wanted to do it to anyone else," River whispers. Mal should choose his prepositions with more care. Little words mean a lot. The little words people do say and the little words they won't.
Simon pulls away. Kaylee's misplaced kindness is making him uncomfortable. "I'm fine, Kaylee," he assures her, turning back to River. "Don't worry."

Kaylee scowls and plants her hands down on her hips. "The Cap'n did that, di'n't he?" she demands angrily. "Tamade! An' you only tryin' to help him. He can be such a kewu de lao baojun!"

Her back to the door, Kaylee don't realize Mal's approachin' till she hears his jaunty "You talkin' 'bout me, li'l Kaylee?" and receives a quick peck on the cheek as the Captain makes his way over to the food lockers.

She glares at his back through narrowed eyes as he opens a door, takes out a foil sachets an' tears it open with his teeth.

"So, why you cursin' me today? What d'I do this time?" he turns to ask with a grin.

"You hit Si-"

Wo de tian! Kaylee's jaw drops. Cap'n's even more battered than Simon. Least Simon ain't got a black eye.

"Oh," she says in a small, confused voice.

Mal laughs an' risks makin' eye contact with Simon. "No need to look so glum, mei-mei. Me an' Simon are shiny – ain't we, Doc?"

To tell the truth, Mal wou'n't mind hearin' Simon confirm that. He's pretty sure the reason Simon was gone by the time he got back to his bunk was cos he needed to go see to his sis. An' he's almost certain that jus' cos Simon got out of his bed, it don't necessarily mean he won't get back into it. On the other hand, it could mean Simon thinks Mal's all mended now an' don't need doctorin' any more.

Fightin' back a powerful urge to tell Simon that ain't so, Mal contents himself with a wink at his medic.
Despite his best efforts not to, Simon flushes.

Relief floods through Mal's veins an' he can't help but smile broadly when Simon's colour keeps on risin'. Gorramit, but he's damn near irresistible when he's all pink like that. Mal promises himself he'll tell him so as soon as he gets him alone again an' finds a better way of makin' him all hot an' bothered.
"You're a helluva a doctor," River beams at her brother, taking a seat at the dining table.

Mal's eyes widen and Simon hastily puts some food in front of his sister. If her mouth is full, there's less chance of her repeating any of the other things Mal said last night. Simon sits down carefully beside his sister, wincing slightly as he makes contact with the chair.

Wo de ma– he's hurt. Shoulda been gentler with him.

"You okay?" Mal asks anxiously, as Simon shifts in his seat.

"I wish people would stop asking me that," Simon sighs, rolling his eyes and praying that his delight at Mal's concern isn't written all over his face. "Yes, thank you, Captain – I am perfectly all right. Never felt better."

Mal holds his gaze, hopin' his burnin' desire to kiss that perfect mouth is reflected in his eyes.

"He's fine," River declares. "It's just that it's been a long time. A very long time." She digs a playful elbow into her brother's ribs and giggles.

Jayne's eyes flit from Simon to Mal and back again. Knew it!

"A long time since what?" Kaylee asks conversationally, takin' the seat opposite Simon.

No answer. Silence. Except for Simon clearing his throat.

"A long time since what?" Kaylee asks again, kinda puzzled at the others' reactions to the question.

Cap'n's lookin' mighty awkward an' Simon's doin' that nervous fiddlin' with his ear. Kaylee follows the movement of his hand and inevitably her attention is drawn to the vivid patch of purple on the pale skin of his neck.

"Oh!" she blinks at Simon.

His obvious embarrassment does nothin' to help persuade her her conclusion is wrong.

"Oh," she repeats quietly. Her eyes feel hot an' dry an' her throat's gone tight. "Oh."

She stands up, sniffs back the tear that's threatenin' an' hurries out of the room 'fore she makes a complete fool of herself.

Simon an' the Cap'n. The Cap'n an' Simon. Of course. Kaylee bets she's the last to know. Cos it's kinda obvious now she thinks about it. The both of 'em're so shuai an' so nice an' ... The next tear needs gulpin' down. Stupid tears!

Kaylee's glad for Simon, glad for the Cap'n. Really. She is. Jus' gonna need a bit of time to get used to the idea is all.

Back in the kitchen, River is sculpting her reconstituted protein into a pyramid whilst Mal and Simon stare at one another in horror.

"Nice goin', dumbasses!" Jayne grunts.

"I should go after her," Simon says, getting to his feet.

Mal stops him with a hand on his shoulder. "No, Simon. I should."

"Didn't mean to hurt her, Simon," River tells her brother earnestly once the Captain has gone.. "Had to be done. Everyone has to move forward."

Simon gives her a grateful smile, glad she understands.

She smiles indulgently back because she doesn't except him to. At least, not yet.

* * * * *

Zoe allows Wash to draw her onto his lap and together they stare at the ominous outlines on the radar screens.

"They ain't hailed us," Zoe muses. "Could be they ain't interested in us."

"Could be they're not interested in negotiating," Wash points out.

Zoe sighs and rests her head against her husband's shoulder, turning her gaze towards the viewports where a zillion stars light up the Black.

"You okay, lambie-toes?"

"Shiny, baobei," Zoe murmurs. "You ever wonder what the chances of us findin' each other were?"

"I'm not a betting man – well, only playing Tall Card and only then if Simon's playing cos he's even worse than I am – but if I were a betting man, I'd say evens," Wash replies with complete confidence. "The 'verse has a way of making sure people find the people they're meant to be with."

Zoe laughs. "You been talkin' to the Preacher, husband?"

He shakes his head. "Not the Preacher – River. She explained it to me. How it really is all down to chemistry. According to our resident genius, we've all got these broken shells spinning round us, some with too many holes and some with not enough. When you meet the person whose shell complements yours – bingo. Two imperfect shells make one perfect bond."

"Perfect? You mean the sort that lasts forever?"

"She didn't say."

* * * * *

"I'm not talking to you, Captain," Kaylee sulks at Mal, crossin' her arms and turnin' her back on him. This is too soon. She needed more time.

"Tha's good," Mal says, hunkerin' down beside her near the engine. "Gives me chance to get a word in."

"Hoetze de pigu," she mutters, but her tone is already softenin'.

"Can't be me you're insultin'," Mal smiles. "Cos you're not talking to me."

She slaps his forearm cos he ain't takin' this nowhere near serious enough.

"I'm sorry, mei-mei. Honest, I am."

"Why di'n't one of you tell me before now?" she sniffs.

"Because there wa'n't nothing to tell," Mal insists. "Last night was the first time. An' I really wa'n't expectin' it."

Kaylee laughs sadly. "You ain't the only one. I only found out about Simon bein' sly yesterday. Same day he hops into bed with you."

"It wa'n't like that-"

"I know." Kaylee sighs deeply but she doesn't object when Mal puts an arm round her. "Guess it wa'n't just a one-night stand then?"

Mal shrugs and smooths her hair back from her face. "Not rightly sure."

Kaylee looks down at her hands, twistin' in her lap. "I thought you liked 'Nara."

Mal swallows. "I do. Did. But-"

"I miss her."

"Me too."

Out in the hallway, River knows it's true. Knows Mal will always miss Inara. She was his dream. A new dream that meshed with his old ones. The ones from before the nightmares came.

* * * * *

River is sitting on a counter top in the infirmary, idly swinging her legs and drumming her heels against the cupboard door beneath her and for the first time in his life, Simon really wishes his sister were elsewhere. He needs to think – wants to think - about Mal. About whether last night means they've just started a relationship or just ended one.

What he doesn't want is to feel his sister inside his head, examining thoughts and feelings that are precious to him only to hear her declare them as cheap and worthless as the painted plates on sale in that shop on Jiangyin.

Scissors, a blade – something sharp-edged and final – the drawers are full of them and they're all calling to Simon to cut the cord. Do it, Simon. Set yourself free. Set us both free.. River smiles encouragingly at her brother. If you love me, let me go.

But Simon doesn't understand. He's shocked by his own selfishness and stung by the compassion he sees in River's eyes. She watches the apology form in his mind, take shape in his mouth. Glaring at him, she shakes her head.

"Waving. Not drowning. Not your life jacket either. We're all just floating, Simon."

Except those of us who are tied to the past, who won't let it go. It tugs at our ankles like seaweed and will drag us under if we let it. Time to swim in the future's vast open waters again, Simon. Time to let the wave carry us forward, and trust we'll come safe to shore. Can't cling to each other forever.

Love isn't always about having and holding – sometimes it's about letting go.

Zoe understands. Loves Mal more than life itself, but knows that half a life is no life at all. He wouldn't cut the rope, so she did it for him. Fell and trusted the falling. Landed in safe strong arms on a cushion of laughter. Made a new life. In more ways than one.

Unable to find the words to tell River how much he loves her - how he's never resented giving up everything for her – without making it sound like she owes him something, Simon goes back to rearranging drawers and recompiling the list of drugs he'd like to add to his store.

Gradually he becomes aware of another person's presence in the doorway. His pulse quickens, but when he looks up it's only Zoe, arms folded across her chest. A poor substitute for Mal.

"Um ... did you want-?" Simon begins awkwardly, fearing she senses his disappointment.

"You punched the Captain," she states baldly, her face expressionless.

If the Captain says shoot you, I shoot you, Simon recalls.

He attempts a casual shrug. "It was my turn. But he's still ahead on points."

One corner of Zoe's mouth twitches.

"Are you here to warn me that punching the Captain is tantamount to mutiny?" Simon continues, pretending that the syringe drawer needs reorganizing.

"Not at all. Pretty sure he deserved it." Zoe replies, making Simon look up again in surprise. The tone of her voice is almost sympathetic. As if she understands ...

"Wo de tian," Simon breathes as realization dawns. "He did it to you too."

A flicker of something like sadness passes over Zoe's face but is quickly replaced by a resigned smile. "Long time ago. Water under the bridge. But-" She looks away.

"But?" he coaxes.

"Wouldn't mind knowing the why of it."

Simon hesitates. Should he tell her? If they were on Osiris, the answer to that would be easy. It would be 'no'. Conversations between doctor and patient are confidential. Out here in the Black, it's never quite that simple. Zoe is Simon's patient too. She would die for Mal and Mal hurt her. Hurt her and never told her why.

She has a right to know, Simon decides, so that she can heal properly too.

"Have you ever heard of post traumatic stress disorder?"

Zoe nods slowly. "Some of the men in our platoon ... " She breaks off, rememberin' faces, frozen with fear, unseein' eyes full of dread. Ragged voices, yellin', cryin'. "Battle wounds ain't always physical. But Mal? You sure? Cos he's never broken down, never stopped bein' able to function."

"Which may have compounded his problem," Simon explains. "From what I understand, it often takes a crisis before a patient will seek help. Until that point, they deal with it as best they can – often through denial or avoidance."

"Makes a kinda sense," Zoe agrees. "But how come Mal's been able to control it? Men I seen with it before – loud noises, bright lights, the smell of smoke – all sorts of things set 'em off. They cou'n't control it."

"I imagine it depends on the nature of the trauma. For the men you're describing it was probably battle itself. They would therefore be triggered by anything that reminded them of that experience."
"So Mal's trauma wa'n't on the battlefield?"

A muscle in Simon's cheek tightens. "The Alliance troops," he begins, "the ones who sent the medships into Serenity Valley – they took one of the survivors, a young girl of about seventeen ... the same age as River ..." Oh God, how would Simon have coped in Mal's position? Not nearly as well, he's sure.
"And?" Zoe prompts.

River doesn't seem to be listening but Simon takes Zoe's elbow and steers her to the opposite side of the room just in case. "They raped her," he mouths. "Five of them. In front of Mal. They made him watch."
Zoe presses her lips together, staring bleakly at Simon. All of a sudden, things are a lot clearer. Things like why Mal always acted the way he did around Inara.

"Too afraid of hurting her and losing her for good," River agrees out of the blue, making both Simon and Zoe start. "Couldn't have done that with anyone else. Wou'n't have wanted to."

Zoe raises an eyebrow and Simon shrugs. "I've no idea," he insists. After all, it's almost the truth and if he doesn't dig deeper it will stay that way. Just a vague feeling of unease. In an attempt to distract himself and Zoe, he wonders out loud, "What I don't fully understand is why Mal's violent episodes were triggered by some people and not others."

Zoe raises her eyebrows as Simon blunders on through his embarrassment. "You and I weren't ...I mean, there have been others ... others that he hasn't ... when he ..if he ..."

"Saffron, you mean?" Zoe asks with evident distaste at even having to speak the woman's name.

"Bu huihen de po fu!" River spits.

"And Nandi," Simon adds with a stab of jealousy. "I mean, I'm not sure if he ..."

"Reckon so," Zoe tells him. "But you're right – it don't make sense."

"Ni men shi shagua!" River exclaims, banging her fists down on the counter. "Locked the monster away. In here-" She taps her chest emphatically. "No touching. Freeze to death first." She looks up, pointing an accusing finger at Zoe, then Simon. "You warmed him, brought the thaw. Set it free and then he cou'n't stop it."

Zoe blinks and Simon's heart flips in his chest.

"Uh – is that all?" Simon asks Zoe awkwardly because he wants to see Mal. Now. Wants to ask him whilst he's still feeling brave enough if what River's just said is true.

Zoe shuffles her feet. "Not exactly, Doctor. I'd kinda like a second opinion on your sister's diagnosis."
"Shen me?"

" 'm'I really pregnant?"

"Two by two. The boy is strong, healthy," River declares, examining her own fingernails carefully.

Zoe's mouth falls open. "The boy?"

"Pitter, patter. Tiny feet," River sighs, rolling her eyes impatiently. "Whole passel of 'em underfoot."

Zoe looks at Simon. "She sayin' I'm having twins?" she asks, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Tianna! Not sure how Mal's gonna like that. Hell, I ain't even sure how Wash is gonna like that."

"He'll be fine," River soothes, cocking her head to one side as if listening to some faraway sound.

"Likes babies. Wants six."

Something about his sister's words and the surprised light of recognition in Zoe's eyes makes Simon uneasy again, but at that moment Mal comes bounding down the stairs and into the infirmary.

Ruttin' hell, Simon ain't alone. Mal was expectin' li'l sis, but not Zoe. Wha's she doin' here?

Flustered by Mal's sudden arrival, Simon feels the pulse in his throat begin to throb but he forces himself to remain professional.

"If you could wait outside for a moment, Captain?" he asks as formally as he can, begging Mal not to argue the point with a pleading look. "I'm with a patient."

Mal hesitates, considers reminding his medic he's a patient too his own self – an' one in sore need of the Doc's healin' hands at that – but instead he nods and retreats to the commons area, even if he does start pacin' backwards an' forwards like an expectant father outside the delivery room.

At long last Zoe emerges, holding a sealed foil package in one hand.

"Gotta pee on it, Sir," she tells Mal in response to his quizzical look.

It takes a second or two but when the penny finally drops, the Captain coughs, shame-faced. "Guess I oughta be congratulatin' you," he mumbles. "Last night, well, shoulda been happy for you. Not yellin' an' threatenin' to sack your husband."

Zoe doesn't often touch Mal these days. They're beyond that. But today is different. She takes his hand in hers.

"And are you, Sir? Happy?"

They both know she ain't jus' talkin' about her bein' pregnant. Mal sneaks a look at Simon through the infirmary window, unsettled by the mix of hope an' despair the sight of him arouses.

"Be more'n a mite happier if we ha'n't had the gorram Alliance an' some mystery boat in our rear-view mirror for the past eighteen hours."

"They ain't hailed us, Sir. Could be it's not us they're interested in. With any luck-"

"Luck?!" Mal laughs bitterly. "You're always forgettin' about our luck."

Zoe squeezes his hand. "Not to ruin a perfectly good moment of gloom, Sir," she says straight-faced, "But things don't stay the same forever. They change. I'm pregnant an' you've found someone who really cares for you. Could be our luck is changin' too."

They both look at Simon again. He's biting his lip now an' clearly only feignin' busy-ness.

Zoe knows Mal so ruttin' well it ain't no use him pretendin' he don't wanna hold Simon's body close, nor that he don't wanna have that moment again when all the tension goes out of it as Simon yields to his will. Can't surrender like that his own self – which he guesses is why he finds it so enthrallin' when Simon does.

"Why don't you go in there, Sir?" Zoe suggests. " 'fore one of you explodes."

"Yeah - wou'n't want that," Mal concedes with a grin, takin' a step towards the infirmary.

No ice now. Just fire, smouldering, waiting to burst into flame. It's going to burn them both, brand them for life and River can't stop it. Wouldn't – even if she could. Can't be writing notes to Simon's teachers all her life. Can't always be a witness for the defence.

She slips down from the counter and approaches Mal, forcing him to drag his eyes off Simon and take notice of her. "He does good work," she says solemnly, tracing the outline of Mal's heart through the fabric of his shirt. "The scar's almost invisible." She lifts her head. "Broken but mended now."

What she jus' said makes perfect sense, Mal realizes. Funny how he ain't spooked by that any more. Nor by River neither, even if she does know things - things she shouldn't, things she couldn't. Ain't her fault the Alliance tried to turn into ... into what? A Reader? An assassin? Mal don't know, but he does know she was just a kid an' they took her anyway. Forced their way inside her, stripped her whatchathing.
She was just a kid – but they took her anyway.

Mal's jaw clenches. Still regrets never havin' had the satisfaction of bein' able to settle at least some of that score.

River smiles up at him. "It's not relevant."

"Mayhap you're right," he agrees. War's over, after all. But he wants to offer her somethin', some hope that at least part of it can be put right. He wants that more than he can say – an' not purely for her sake neither. "An' mayhap one day that brother of yours'll mend you too."

River pulls a face. "He'd wouldn't do it right. Always trying to go up the down slide. Besides, there are others better qualified." And with that, she skips away, singing something vaguely familiar to Mal's ear as she goes.

Alone at last an' now Mal can't find a single thing to say other than a lame "Hey".

But Simon, who not so long ago wanted to talk, is no longer in the mood for words and before Mal can utter another, he's across the room and backing Mal up against a wall. Grasping fistfuls of Mal's shirt, he leans in against him, pinning him with his hips.

"Ruttin' hell, Simon!" Mal exclaims, wonderin' if he'll ever stop bein' surprised by Simon's forcefulness in situations such as this. "What the diyu's gotten into you?"

"You," Simon reminds him, tangling a hand in Mal's hair to pull him closer still. "Remember?"

"O, zhe zhen shi ge kuaile de jinzhan," Mal murmurs into the kiss that follows an' for once he ain't sayin' it sarcastically.

"I. Missed. You." Simon pants, punctuating each word with a voracious assault on Mal's mouth.

"Shoulda. Stayed. In. My. Bunk." Mal counters in similar fashion.

Simon tugs Mal's shirt free of his pants, heedless of the fact that they're still in the infirmary and anyone could walk in on them at any moment. He has to touch skin. Has to know Mal will let him.

Mal feels himself weaken, feels himself want to give in.

An' it's kinda perfect.

"Thought. You. Weren't. Coming. Back." Simon explains - sucking, biting, pulling at Mal's lips.

There's a note of despair in the confession that Mal don't like one bit. Taking hold of Simon by the shoulders, he pushes him away a mite, his face deadly serious. "I will always come back for you, Simon Tam. Don't you ever think otherwise. Dong ma?"

A dimple appears in Simon's cheek, deepens and is joined by another. His eyes shine. "What happened to not promising anything?"

"Changed-" A flick of tongue against parted lips. "My-" A nip of soft flesh between sharp teeth. "Mind-" A kiss. A long, lingerin' kiss. "Okay?"

"Might. Need. Convincing. Ohhh!" Simon gasps suddenly when he finds himself on the receiving end of a most persuasive argument.

Mal smirks down at him, all manner of self-satisfied.

Clutching at Mal's arms to steady himself, Simon manages to suck in some air. "Mal-"

But whatever he was going to say is lost as Wash bursts into the room, slightly out of breath, as if he's run all the way down from the bridge.

Simon goes rigid with embarrassment. Everything in Simon's upbringing and education has reinforced his innate sense of propriety. People may sneer, but Simon values appropriateness and he's pretty sure keeping the Captain pressed up against a wall when there's someone else in the room is absolutely, one hundred percent inappropriate. He'd move away from Mal right now and pretend nothing was happening between them if it weren't for the fear that once he does his carnal intent will be all too apparent.

Wash doesn't even seem to register his discomfort. His face is strangely pale and anxious. "We've received a distress call, Mal."

Grudgingly Mal diverts his attention away from Simon and onto his pilot whilst Simon retreats a few paces, grateful for the chance to do so without compromising his modesty.

"Distress call?" Mal asks. "What kinda help they wantin' ? Cos we've got a schedule to stick to."
Wash grimaces. Aiya huaile, why does he have to be the one to tell Mal this? Fella's looking happier than Wash has ever seen him and Simon – well, he's practically glowing ... and now this. Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de waisheng dou! "Not 'they', Mal. Her. Inara."

Out of the corner of his eye, Wash notices Simon stiffen and dart Mal a look that goes unreturned.

Meanwhile Mal is flashing Wash one of those cold, scary smiles he uses to mask all kinds of angry.

"Inara? Really?" Mal's tone hovers between irritation and triumph. "Don't tell me, she's wantin' ..."

"She's wanting help, Mal!" Wash interrupts urgently. "And ... well, she's not looking so good. Ran into some trouble. Of the Atherton Wing variety."

Mal's smile vanishes. He blinks as the words sink in.

"The link's still up," Wash continues gently. "Come and speak to her."

Mal nods dumbly, takes a slow, disbelieving pace or two towards the doorway before breaking into a run.

Cou'n't have done that with ... to ... anyone else. Wou'n't have wanted to ... Too afraid of hurting her and losing her for good ... Time to wake up.

For a moment, Simon remains rooted to the spot. Paralyzed. Then he calmly picks up his shopping list of drugs and checks it through once more. Nothing has changed. Some things he needs, some he can do without. If he has to.

Placing the list carefully back down on the counter, he sets his jaw and follows in the direction the Captain left.

After all, Inara may need a doctor.

* * * * *

"You stay exactly where you are, dong ma?" Mal is telling the almost unrecognizable face on the Cortex link when Simon, his stomach churning with jealousy and resentment, finally arrives on the bridge.

"We'll be with you in – Wash?" Mal gestures impatiently for the pilot to provide him with an estimate.

"Four hours," Wash supplies.

"Two hours. At most," Mal promises. "Wash, set us a new course."

"Xie-xie, Mal," Inara rasps.

The sound of her voice shocks Simon, forcing him to accept the fact that the cut, swollen features on the screen are indeed hers, and that, far from his envy and annoyance, she needs his compassion.

"What?" Jayne growls. "You ain't plannin' to change course with the Alliance on our tail, are ya? Gorramit, Mal – what about Monty? What about the money?"

"I ain't arguin' this Jayne." Mal's reply is quiet but steely as he cuts the link and flicks the ship's comms button. "Kaylee? Get up to the engine room an' prepare for hard burn."

"Hard burn, Sir? Carrying a boatful of explosives?"

Mal gets to his feet, glares at Zoe defensively. "You got a problem with that?"

"None at all, Sir. Unless you count the likelihood of us all being blown to stardust the minute we hit atmo."

Mal clenches his teeth an' carries on glarin' cos he can't back down. Even if she is right. "Wash," he orders, eyes still locked on Zoe's, "Hard burn." A beat. "Till we make orbit."

Zoe doesn't say a word. Doesn't need to.

Mal turns to Simon. "Better get the infirmary prepped, Doc-"

Doc? Simon thinks he would prefer Mal to call him 'boy' right now.

"- looks like Inara's gonna need you when we get her back on board."

"Yes, it does," Simon agrees stiffly. But will you? When she's back? Desperate for a little reassurance, he reaches out a hand. "Mal-"

The Captain shakes him off. His eyes meet Simon's for the briefest of moments. "Not now, son. Can't." He leans into the mic again. "Kaylee? You hear me?"

* * * * *

The nursery rhyme is simple. Everything else is complicated. Mal. Simon. Mal and Simon. Inara. Mal and Inara. Simon and River. Inara and Mal and Simon and River. The math won't add up the way River wants it to. There's too much too much to fit in. Three into two won't go; four into two even less so.

River might be stuck in this subroutine forever had she not transcended her programming, had she not winnowed it down to its core. At the centre of everything there's Mal. All that matters is taking care of him. Right now, he's lost in the woods and even though he claims otherwise, he can't see a clear path. Can't – or won't. So River will have to do it for him. Or at least make his options clearer to him.

Something needs to be taken out of the equation.

Fly away Peter.

"That's a pretty tune," Book comments as he passes River in the hallway.

She stops humming abruptly. "Two little dickie-birds."

"Indeed?"

River laughs. "One named Paul." She looks around, as if for eavesdroppers, leans in and whispers, "At least now he is. Changed it."

Girl knows things, things she shouldn't, things she couldn't. This is a cup the Shepherd would rather not drink from.

"The other named Peter," River continues, ignoring his discomfort. "But Peter's not sitting on a wall. Sitting on the fence instead and afraid to take the leap." She sighs. "No faith, you see. Thinks he'll break like an eggshell. Thinks he's the only one who knows how to mend people."

"Are you talking about your brother?" Book asks gently.

"Talking about all of you!" River retorts, annoyed at being distracted from her calculations. "When are you going to get off the fence, Preacher man?"

She knows things. The time has come, Book realizes. For all of them.

"You know a place, don't you?"

It's not really a question.

Book takes a deep breath.

"Yes."

* * * * *

Cursin' Mal's bone-headed disregard for earnin' a decent amount of platinum for a change, Jayne stomps off to the engine room. Sittin' with Kaylee a while might take him mind of the wantin' to punch someone right in the middle of his dumbass face.

To Jayne's astonishment, Kaylee ain't here. The mercenary scratches the back of his head. She's damn near always in the engine room – an' besides, Captain Backbirth just ordered her up here. Jayne looks around, puzzled, and that's when he spots the lack of a demi-john under the still.

Zao cao,Kaylee!" he growls. "Mal's gonna kill you."

It's worse than he expected.

Kaylee is in her bunk, lyin' on the bed, wearin' that ridiculous pink number Mal got her the last time he upset her an' listenin' to that God-awful formal dance music turned up as loud as it'll go. Plus, she's drunk as a skunk.

She raises her glass. "Hey, Jayne. You come to ask me to dance?"

Jayne strides over to stand in front of her. "Di'n't you hear Mal tell ya to get to the engine room?" he asks, switching off the ear-splittin' din an' prisin' the glass from her hand. "An' what the hell are you doin' drinkin' in the afternoon, anyhow?"

"It's night," Kaylee slurs. "When it's dark outside, it's night." She hiccoughs, giggles an' then lets out a heart-felt sigh. "Dark inside too. Why don't he like me, Jayne? Ain't I pretty enough?"

"You're plenty pretty enough," Jayne tells her, fillin' the glass with water from her sink an' pressin' her to drink it. "We gotta get you to the infirmary, ma shang. Doc's sure to have somethin' in the soberin'-ya-up line."

"Don't want to," Kaylee sulks, but swallows the water down anyway. "Wanna stay here." She stretches out on the bed again and gives Jayne a sultry smile. "Wanna stay with me?"

He scowls at her. Been waitin' for this moment for gorram ages an' when it comes along it's nothin' but a disappointment. She's only offerin' cos she's hurtin' over the Doc. An' even if Jayne was low enough to take advantage of that – which he ain't – he can't. Cos Mal's on a stupid errand of mercy.

"No, I don't an' you ain't stayin' here neither," Jayne declares, draggin' Kaylee to her feet.

"But I thought you liked me," she whines as he propels her towards the ladder.

"I do," he says, shovin' her forward. "But I ain't beddin' ya drunk."

Kaylee looks back at him over her shoulder, her brows crinkled up in confusion. "What? Why?"

"Because I like ya," Jayne sighs. "Come on. I'll give ya a hand. I've done that hard burn routine before. Oughta be able to stop you from doin' somethin' that gets us all killed."

Kaylee scrunches up her face. "Hard burn?"

"Yeah. Turns out we gotta get Inara back. Never mind about makin' any money ..."

"Inara!" Kaylee beams. "Really?"

* * * * *

In response to the blinking light on the console, Gaunt opens a radio channel.

"They're changing course," Chang's disembodied voice informs him. "The wave they picked up was highly encrypted but my navigator has done all the calculations and it looks like they're heading for Xuefang."

Ginger consults the starchart and licks his lips. "Well, now, there's a happy coincidence. I'd say that gives us the advantage."

Gaunt rubs his blue-gloved hands together. "Excellent."

* * * * *

"They're what?" Belinda asks with suppressed rage.

"Changing course, ma'am," her pilot replies. "And going for hard burn."

"Fire on them," she orders. "Now! Before they get out of range again."

"We're still not close enough for a proper lock on the target, " the pilot objects. "At this distance, there's no certainty we'll hit them."

"Belinda, honey-" Somehow Saffron musters a wheedling tone. "If we fire on them, how are we going to get the reward? The warrant says the Tams have to be alive."

"Do it," Belinda insists, ignoring her. "Fire."

The pilot's finger hovers over the rocket launch button.

"Fire!" Belinda repeats, not bothering to turn around.

There's a sudden sharp crack as the pilot depresses the button. The man has just enough time to notice the instrument panel flashing confirmation of the missile launch before Belinda Burgess' lifeless body slumps forward and obscures it.

Wide-eyed with shock, the pilot swivels slowly round in his chair to find himself looking down the barrel of Saffron's revolver. He casts a horrified look at the corpse leaking blood at his side.

Saffron smiles sweetly. "She shouldn't have said 'fire', if she didn't expect me to. Now, sweetheart ... you might wanna move your finger away from that button ..."

* * * * *

Serenity lurches under the shock of the explosion and her crew struggle to remain upright.

Simon finds himself bumping into Mal, before they both go sprawling.

The Captain is quickly back on his feet. "Yesu tamade! Wash?"

"Canon of some kind. Modified, not standard issue that's-"

"I ain't interested in the gorram spec!" Mal yells. "What I am interested in is are we hit?"

Wash flicks the three overhead switches. Serenity does not respond as she should. "Looks like it."

"How bad?"

"Kaylee?" Wash asks the mechanic over the comms. "You got any problems up there?"

"Lost some of the electrical circuits," Kaylee reports. "Won't take but a minute to fix that. Could be the auxiliary power's knocked out too – which ain't much of a problem when we still got the main power on. All the same, probably oughta-"

"All I wanna know, " Mal growls, "Is whether we're gonna make it to Xuefang on schedule?"

River nudges Zoe. "Two by two," she confides with a wink.

As he pulls himself upright again, Simon tries to persuade himself that the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach is probably due to the unexpectedly bumpy ride.

Chapter Text

The warm yellow glow from Serenity's tail swells and intensifies, shifting through gold and silver to shafts of blinding white light and then she's gone, hard-burning through the Black which slams shut behind her, obscuring her path.

The late Mrs Burgess' pilot stares dumbstruck out of the viewports, unable to believe any sane pilot would risk such a manoeuvre in a vessel of that type.

"Bring her round!" Saffron snaps at him. "Bring her round, you piece of crap! More thrust! They're getting away."

Luckily for Saffron, this ship once belonged to Rance Burgess, a man with a passion for all things high tech. He drew up her specifications himself and spent a lot of money on having her specially crafted, making her one of the most advanced, responsive vessels in the 'verse. His widow told Saffron so not two days back.

The pilot's hesitation in complying with his new employer's order, earns him a touch of cold metal just below his left ear.

"I can fly this thing myself if I have to," Saffron informs him in a honey sweet tone.

* * * * *

"You know this is ruttin' crazy, don't ya?" Jayne grumbles. "Even if we do outrun 'em through the Black, soon as we land the Feds're gonna snatch us for sure."

"Mmmm." Kaylee's only half-listenin'. Gotta get this circuit back up. She tucks a handful of loosened screws into the pocket of her overalls an' holdin' the screwdriver between her teeth so she has both hands free to adjust the wirin', gestures to Jayne to pass the solderin' iron.

Summat mighty distractin' about the way she's bitin' on that tool. The mercenary gives hisself a shake an' hands the iron over.

"Don't know why we're botherin'," Jayne continues. "Ain't like she's crew. Hell, she ain't even sleepin' with crew. Can't see the percentage in us puttin' our lives on the line for-"

Kaylee turns on him with a frown, holdin' out her hand for the solder. Jayne flinches a tad under her look of disapproval.

"I'm jus' sayin'," he protests defensively. "It don't make no sense."

* * * * *

The Director heaves a sigh of relief. A Firefly class vessel may manage one short voyage on hard burn without shaking itself to pieces, but certainly not two in succession. This time River Tam and her brother will not escape. They will be apprehended in the vicinity of Xuefang and transferred to the IAV Unity to await retrieval. The ship they're travelling on – Serenity - will be decontaminated as a matter of course. The Unity also.

For the first time in months the Director's hand does not shake as he pours himself a well-earned glass of aged New Canaan brandy.

He checks his schedule. The elections to Alliance High Command are less than a month away. Without River Tam their outcome would be far from a certainty.

* * * * *

Simon makes his way resolutely back to the infirmary with River trailing after him, arms clasped around her waist as she fights the pain filling her gut. The pain filling Simon's gut. Poor Simon, he's given up so much already, got so used to losing.

Thermometer. Sphygmomanometer. Local anaesthetic. Analgesics. Weaves.

As Simon fills his medical bag, he wishes to all diyu he had even the most basic haemostatin. Inara would have her own supplies had she not generously given Simon her last dose of anahaemofluxin. The medic sighs. How can he hate her? He can't – even if she is about to snatch Mal away from him.

"Wants forever," River says quietly handing Simon a pack of sterile gloves. "Family. Doesn't want to lose again."

To be on the safe side, Simon picks up a pack of broad spectrum antibiotics and drops it into the bag. What else does he need? Antiseptic, wo de tian, he almost forget the antiseptic!

Why won't he listen? River puts a hand on her brother's forearm. "He wants two by two, Simon. Two - not three. If you love someone, let them go."

Simon says nothing – merely keeps placing items into his bag.

It's River who lets out the little moan of anguish. She blinks at her brother, astonished. No. That wasn't what she meant at all. And now he's crumbling inside.

"It's not what you think," she cries, trying to piece him back together.

Simon rounds on her angrily, eyes blazing. "Yes, it is!" he snaps, broken. "It's exactly what I think."
Snatching up the bag, he storms out of the infirmary, leaving River gazing miserably after him. The pictures in her head are so clear but they're locked inside where no-one else can see them.

* * * * *

The change in engine tone tells Mal that Serenity is finally in orbit around Xuefang. He allows Zoe to talk him through the proper procedure for breaking atmo in a shuttle one more time.

"Sure you don't want me to come with you, Sir?" she concludes, hoping he'll change his mind about doing this alone. Could be a trap.

Mal shakes his head. "Need you here. In case ..." No, he ain't gonna say it, or she'll only argue this some more. "Ship's yours Zoe."

With that, he steps inside Shuttle Two. Still thinks of Shuttle One as Inara's – an', should anythin' untoward occur, he can do without her accusin' him havin' mishandled it. Not that he thinks his flyin' skills have gotten that rusty but ...

"If I ain't back within three hours-"

Zoe nods curtly. She knows the drill. Turning back towards the bridge, she finds her path blocked by Simon, who's hurrying stony-faced along the walkway, red medical bag in hand.

The muscles in Mal's cheek tighten. He don't need this. Gotta concentrate on the job in hand. "Seems you're mistaken as to the plan, Doc," he says lightly, flashin' his medic a quick dismissive smile. "I'm goin' alone."

"You are not," Simon contradicts, slipping past him and into the shuttle before Mal can make a move to stop him. "The sooner Inara receives medical assistance, the sooner she'll start to heal. With luck, I should be in time to prevent any serious scarring."

"You ain't comin' an' that's final," Mal insists with the kinda glare that makes most men back off.

'Ceptin' Simon, of course, who stays right where he is, demandin' sharply, "Do you want her to scar?"

The question hangs between them, loaded with all kind of accusations Mal don't wanna examine too closely right now.

Hands ballin' into fists as he fights the urge to seize Simon by the scruff of the neck an' eject him bodily from the shuttle, Mal changes tack.

"Reckon you'd do your thing better in the infirmary," he tries to reason through gritted teeth.
Simon raises an eyebrow. "I hadn't realized you were an expert in cosmetic surgery, Captain."

Out of the corner of his eye, Mal thinks he spots a flicker of amusement cross Zoe's face. "Gorramit," he mutters. "All right then, Doc. Strap yourself in. It's like to be a bumpy ride."

* * * * *

Kaylee stands back and regards her repair work with satisfaction. "That oughta do it."

"All fixed?" Jayne asks admiringly. "Already? Mal's gonna be real pleased you got the ship runnin' proper again so damn quick."

She beams at him with pride. "Cou'n't have done it without you, Jayne."

Jayne grunts and looks away. "Me? I di'n't do much. Was you did all the difficult stuff."

"Yeah. But only cos you got me sobered up. Thanks for that, Jayne. An' for ... well, for not ..." She pulls an exaggeratedly embarrassed face. "Never figured you for a gentleman."

Jayne stuffs his hands into his pockets an' hunches his shoulders up. "Dunno what you're talkin' about."

He ain't blushin', is he? Kaylee's eyes widen. He ruttin' well is! Aww, that's so sweet.

She stretches up on tip-toe to plant a kiss on the big man's cheek. Stubble prickles against her lips but that's kinda nice an' manly like. Jayne don't smell bad neither.

The mercenary eyes her suspiciously. "What was that for?"

Kaylee grins an' punches his arm gently. "Jus' cou'n't help myself."

* * * * *

Book knows they don't have long. Oh, he's not worried about fly-by-night opportunists like bounty hunters. The Alliance, on the other hand, is another matter altogether. That ship will catch up with them – and then what? Prison if they're lucky; death if they're not.

Time like this, a man ought to have the comfort of prayer. Especially a man of God like Book. And yet the Shepherd can't pray, partly because he doesn't want to admit that mortality's bearing down on him but mostly because he's not ready for Judgement Day. Still got a lot of entries on the debit side of his account and not near enough on the credit side.

He works his shaving brush vigorously against the bar of soap in his hand and applies a coating of foam to his day's growth of beard. May yet die unshriven, but at least he'll be clean shaven.

Not that Book's order sets any store by cleansing rituals. Wouldn't have joined it if it had. The irony of trying to distract the Almighty from the filth within by presenting Him with a freshly bathed body would have been too, well, ironical.

Lifting his chin, Book runs a razor up his exposed throat and over the jugular vein. Such a slender thread. No, not an option. Never was. He rinses the soap and whiskers from the blade and strokes it carefully up his throat again.

"You're afraid."

Book jumps at the unexpected sound of River's voice behind him and in his surprise takes a small nick out of the skin on his jawline. Ignoring the way it stings, he smiles gently at the girl. "Can I help you, River?"

She smiles back. "Help one another. Build a fire escape."

Book wipes the rest of the foam from his face with a towel.

"We'll take care of each other, preacher man. I'll knit," River promises. "Give back the apple. Then they can go on without me, not have to worry. Be with the people they want ..."

"Don't think your brother would see it that way."

River rolls her eyes. "He is such a boob."

* * * * *

Simon ain't said a gorram thing since they broke atmo. He's jus' sittin' there – that pretty mouth set in a hard line an' those normally open blue eyes of his shuttered off. He looks distant. Cold. Brittle.

'Course if Mal's truthsome, he's all manner of glad Simon ain't lookin' to talk. What could he say to him? Can't pretend he ain't worried about Inara, cos he is; can't pretend he don't have feelin's for her, cos he does. Wa'n't ever expectin' to see her again. But that ain't the reason he bedded Simon – or at least, not all of it. It's complicated an' Mal'd rather say nothin' at all than the wrong thing.

To Simon the silence is awkward, ominous. Mal hasn't spoken one word to him since they detached from Serenity. All he's done is gaze intently at the planet filling the viewports as if he can already see Inara waiting for him. Waiting for her knight in shining armour to come galloping to her rescue ...

Simon fails to cover the little snort of derision that escapes him with a cough, but Mal doesn't appear to notice. Damn him! All Simon wants is a word, a gesture – anything – to stop him feeling so alone.

Mal darts a sideways glance at him, marvellin' at his composure. It's all right for Simon ruttin' Tam. They train doctors in switchin' their feelings off. Probably second nature to him. Mal's always found it a struggle. His control never feels good enough. It ain't relaxed an' flexible – it's tight an' hard cos that's the only way he knows how to stop his emotions from spillin' over an' swampin' him. He wishes he could find the right thing to say to make this easier for both of them. Wishes he could touch Simon at least – but if he does that, his fragile hold on himself will shatter. An' then Simon will know. Boy's got too many advantages over Mal as it is – don't need to be handin' him any more.

Mal ain't ready to lay down arms jus' yet. Might never be.

Xuefang seems to be coming up awfully fast, Simon realizes with alarm.

"You do know how to land this thing?" he asks nervously as Mal suddenly starts urgently flicking switches and shifting the joystick.

Sarcastic hundan! "You wanna do it, smart ass?" Mal growls at him, yankin' the steerin' wheel back in a last ditch attempt to keep the shuttle's nose up as they come to a bumpin', grindin' halt on the landin' site.

"You're the expert."

* * * * *

The market square is hot and dusty and bustling with people. Shading his eyes against the fierce noonday sun, Mal scans the scene, sure that he could pick Inara out of any crowd, no matter how big. A woman like her stands out.

But she ain't nowhere to be seen. Mayhap Atherton Wing came after her? Mal's heart thumps in his chest and his scrutiny of the square becomes more frantic.

"Over there," Simon tells him in an undertone, mindful of the need not to attract attention. "Outside the cafe."

At first Mal can't see her. Cos he's lookin' for the wrong thing. He's expectin' to see a haughty, self-assured Companion, not a vulnerable, injured woman. When at last his eyes settle on the slight figure seated in the shade of a parasol, it takes him a while to comprehend that it really is her. Gorram unsettlin' to see her like that. Still proud an' self-possessed, but hurt an' needin' him. Mal needs a deep breath or two 'fore he's ready to approach her.

Meanwhile Simon's already making his way over, stopping to peruse the occasional market stall in order to conceal his interest in the veiled young woman clutching a small bundle of belongings on her lap.

Mal prays Simon ain't gonna be dumb enough to fuss over her. Little kindnesses are like knives to the heart when you ain't used to 'em an' Simon's got a gentleness to him that can penetrate the strongest defences.

"Inara," Simon greets the Companion with a formal handshake. "Can you walk?"

She nods once and with effort before getting unsteadily to her feet. Simon is about to offer her his arm but Mal is already doing so and worrying that, hidden behind the row of trees on the horizon, the shuttle is too far away. Inara assures him the distance is no problem.

Simon falls into step on Mal's right and together they walk slowly back through the crowd. None of them speaks, each lost in their own troubling thoughts.

Once again Inara wishes she didn't read people so well.

Simon wishes he were a better, less selfish person.

An' Mal wishes he wa'n't in the middle of this.

 

* * * * *

Little more than a sigh passes through Serenity as Shuttle Two docks smoothly. When Mal opens the airlock door onto the walkway, he finds Kaylee, Jayne, Zoe and Wash waitin' outside, Kaylee's face alight with happiness at her friend's return, the others' more somber – like they know what to expect.

"Best not be huggin' her, mei-mei," Mal warns the mechanic. "Doc ain't finished workin' on her yet."

Kaylee bites her lip, instantly anxious and subdued. "Shia, Cap'n."

He drops a kiss the top of her head. "Good girl."

"Zao cao," Wash murmurs under his breath as Simon helps Inara out of the shuttle. Her face is a patchwork of weaves - there must be ten, twenty of them - and the skin around her eyes is dark and swollen.

"Welcome home," Zoe says sincerely and without fuss.

Inara's smile is lop-sided. "Xie-xie. It's good to be back."

"'Nara ..." Kaylee begins but has to stop cos her eyes are fillin' with tears.

"All right," Simon says firmly. "I'm afraid I have to insist on taking Inara to the infirmary now."

"Of course," the others agree, standing aside to let them pass.

Immediately Mal starts issuing orders. They ain't out of the woods yet. "Wash, Kaylee – we're gonna need another spell at hard burn an' maybe a crazy Ivan or two. Zoe, Jayne – get the Preacher an' see about settin' up a few lines of defence down in the cargo bay."

Zoe arches a brow. "You got a plan, Sir?"

"Workin' on it," Mal answers an' strides quickly away after Simon an' Inara before she can ask for the details.

* * * * *

People imagine envy is green, but they're wrong. It's not green at all. It's acid yellow. Electric blue. Neon red. Harsh, jagged rays vibrating with hurt and need. They're radiating out from Simon, fizzing and crackling around Inara.

"Piggy in the middle," River whispers with a glance at Mal. His head jerks round and, in that unguarded moment, he can't stop her from seeing it. The envy she evokes in him. It pouring off him, zigzagging yellow and blue and red.

River squeezes her eyes shut against the pain, but she can still hear it screeching through her brain like failing brakes, shredded nerves. Gorram stupid boys. They're so very different and yet so very alike.

Simon removes the cuff from Inara's arm, relieved to see that her blood pressure is normal. Most of her injuries are superficial too, although a couple of the cuts to her face may yet leave scars. Her nose, though swollen and bloody, is not broken.

However Simon fears they may be other, less obvious damage.

"Captain, River – I need to examine Inara properly now. If you wouldn't mind?"

"Right," Mal agrees hastily, wonderin' what the hell he's doin' here anyway when he's got Feds an' bounty hunters to deal with. Trouble is, he don't wanna leave.

Simon senses his reluctance and all those childhood feelings of not being good enough that he thought long buried rise to the surface again. When he was younger Simon always felt second best to his genius sister. Now he's trying to compete with a Companion! No wonder he always loses. He really should stop playing out of his league.

Mal looks from Inara to Simon and seems on the point of saying something but instead straightens his suspenders decisively and exits the infirmary. Simon watches him go, chiding himself for his foolishness in ever having fallen for the Captain when he knew the man's heart already belonged to someone else.

Inara is sitting erect on the exam table, eyes downcast. She would spare Simon this if she could. It isn't fair.

River pads across the room to crouch down in front of the Companion. She reaches out a gentle hand to touch Inara's abdomen. "She'll live," she promises.

Simon gapes at her. "Of course she will!" he exclaims. "Now, please – go."

* * * * *

"There's no reason why you shouldn't go back to your shuttle." Simon eyes the medcot critically.

"You'd definitely be more comfortable in your own bed."

"Yes. I will. Thank you, Doctor," Inara replies.

Assuring her there's no need for thanks, Simon turns to write up his notes, but stops when Inara covers his hand with hers. There's no mistaking the entreaty in her expression. "I don't have to ask you not to tell Mal, do I?"

"Of course not," Simon replies, slightly affronted at the implication he might. "But you really need to talk about what happened with someone. Physically, you ought to be fully healed within a matter of weeks, but emotionally, after what you've been through ... it will take time."

"Yes. I know. I will contact the Guild. They have experts trained in dealing with Companions who've been victims of ... assault. And if the Guild won't help me, I still have my friends." She swallows. "But Mal must never know. If he were to find out, there's nothing any of us could say to stop him going after Atherton and he'd end up getting himself killed."

Simon is touched by the fear in her eyes. She's afraid, really afraid for Mal. Because she loves him. And Mal loves her. What's more, she can give him the one thing he craves that Simon never could – a family.

Two by two.

Love is not 'in love'.

Simon knows he ought to be glad that Mal has another chance at finding happiness with Inara.
He forces a smile. "I won't tell him."

* * * * *

"A little demonstation may perhaps help persuade Captain Reynolds that making the transfer is his best course of action," Gaunt is saying.

Ginger nods his agreement. And locks the laser canon's sights onto Saffron's ship.

* * * * *

Mal and Zoe stand behind Wash's chair, watchin' the Alliance hunter speedin' through the Black towards them. Been a long time since Mal felt this ruttin' powerless an' it ain't a feelin' he likes. Not got much of a taste for surrender.

"They're hailing us," Wash says suddenly, hand hovering over the switch to open up a link.

Mal nods grimly. Ain't like they've got a choice.

"Firefly class transport Serenity – this is Alliance Special Agent Cerulean. You are ordered to cut forward drive immediately and maintain your position ready for docking."

"Sir?" Zoe prompts the Captain when he fails to respond.

Mal blinks at her and with effort, pastes on a grin, instructin' Wash to go to visual.

"Captain Harbatkin here, Special Agent Cerulean," Mal announces in as amiable a tone as he can muster. "Uh - is there a problem?"

"Cut drive and prepare for docking. Captain Reynolds."

Mal and Zoe exchange a look.

"You have ten seconds to comply, Captain Reynolds."

Mal hesitates. Can't outrun them, that's for gorram certain but mayhap they can make a fight of it if he lets 'em board.

A sudden explosion of light illuminates the bridge. Mal hears Wash utter a string of Chinese expletives as he realizes the debris spinnin' past their viewports is all that's left of that fancy boat that was tailin' them.

"Last warning, Captain Reynolds."

"We got any way of knowin' how many they got on that boat?" Mal asks Wash urgently.

"Two by two."

Mal spins round to discover River, barefoot again, has crept up silently behind him. Her eyes are huge and terrified.

"Two by two," she repeats in an anguished whisper. "Hands of blue."

Mal takes her gently by the shoulders an' decides to trust his gut instinct that the girl's a reader an' that somehow she knows. "Two? You sure?"

She rolls her eyes impatiently. "Yes!"

"She can't-" Wash's protests but Mal is turnin' to Zoe with a triumphant glint in his eye.

"Hear that?" he asks her cheerfully. "Two of 'em. An' there's nine of us. Of which at least five know how to handle a gun.."

"Won't do any good," River declares mournfully. "Two by two. Hands of blue. This is the way the world ends."

Zoe steps forward to reassure the girl. "It's okay, River. The world ain't gonna end. Captain's got a plan. Right, Sir?"

Mal grins broadly at her an' speaks into the mic. "My pilot is killin' the engines now," he announces, indicatin' that Wash should do jus' that.

"Sensible move, Captain Reynolds," the disembodied voice approves before Mal closes off the link.
"That's our plan?" Zoe asks in disbelief.

Mal's grins widens. "Yeah. We wave the white flag, let 'em dock an' then shoot the hundans as soon as they're through the airlock!"

"They'll kill you." River sounds so certain, it knocks the wind out of Mal's sails a mite. "They'll take me and Simon and they'll kill all of you. Even the babies."

Wash starts. "The babies?" he asks his wife, emphasizing the second syllable. She gives him a not-now- sweetcakes smile.

"Won't be able to do no killin' if'n we shoot them first," Mal declares with a snap of his suspenders.

River sighs. "The world's coming to an end again, Captain. With a bang this time, not a whimper."

Mal goes hot then cold. His mouth sets in a firm line. "No it ruttin' well ain't."

River presses her fingertips to his chest, feeling for his heartbeat. It's strong and steady. Mended now.
"Can't live in Serenity forever, Sergeant."

* * * * *

Mal stands outside the door to Inara's shuttle, waverin'. Hatin' this. He huffs out a lungful of air and raps on the door.

"Qing jin." Inara is carefully unpacking her little bag, placing items neatly back into drawers. Settling back in. She looks up from her task and, unable to hide her surprise that her caller is Mal, decides to explain it. "You knocked!"

Mal shrugs. "Only cos I need somethin' from you."

She smiles. "Really? And what would that be, Captain?"

"Your shuttle."

Confused, Inara stops what she's doing to stare at him. Is he trying to say he doesn't want her back at all? Not even if ..? "Shen me? Why?"

Mal sighs an' slumps down onto her red couch. "Gotta blow the ship up."

Inara's eyes narrow. "Is this your idea of a joke, Mal?"

"Wish it was," he grinds out through clenched teeth. "Got precisely no other options at this juncture. Seems the Feds followin' us ain't ordinary purple-bellies. They're them hands of blue River has nightmares about. Can't let 'em board us or they'll take her. She's just a kid, Inara!"

Mal bites his lip as the memories flood back, clear now. That poor kid. The youngest of the ones who survived. Just a kid but they took her anyway. Other memories – fresher, sharper – rush in too. Simon ... Mal pushes them firmly away. Time for that later. Maybe. If they survive this.

"An' we can't outrun 'em, neither. So River came up with this plan. 'Out with a bang', she calls it. We picked up a load of explosives after you – I mean, after we dropped you on New Melbourne. Gonna wire it to a timer an' set the ship to blow. We do it right, might even take those bastards down too. Meanwhile we make our escape by flyin' in Serenity's shadow so they don't see us. Accordin' to Wash we oughta be off their radar long enough to get far enough away that the explosion don't take us out too. Leastways, that's the theory," he adds with a wry smile.

"But Mal!" Inara exclaims. "You love this ship!"

He grunts an' turns away. Truth is, he loves too many things, too many people. An' he can't keep all of them. "Got a fondness for breathin' too," he mutters. "So if we gotta abandon ship, reckon we might as well do it in style. Which is why I'm askin' for use of your shuttle."

"It's not mine, Mal. It's yours." Inara tells him an' with a start Mal realizes there's somethin' unspoken behind those words – somethin' he's wanted to hear for a very long while. Inara takes a step towards him. "It's all yours, Mal. It always was."

Mal forgets to breathe as her words sink in. Then, suddenly self-conscious and awkward, he starts mumblin' words of gratitude and backin' away towards the door.

"I – uh – gotta go Captain."

* * * * *

Serenity's crew gathers in the dining room. They stand solemnly around the table as Mal outlines the plan. Kaylee takes it hardest. She keeps shakin' her head and arguin' that there must be another way until Mal finally barks at her, "You think I'd be even comtemplatin' this if we had a choice?"

The mechanic's face crumples an' she shakes her head miserably. Jayne glares at Mal but the Captain's already puttin' an arm round Kaylee an' tellin' her he needs her to be brave.

"Okay, listen up," he says, addressing the whole crew once more. "Book, Jayne, Simon – need you down in the cargo bay haulin' those crates back out of the hold. Kaylee, mei-mei – think you an' River can rig up a coupla timers? Good girl. Wash, Zoe – you're on the wirin'. Meanwhile Inara's gonna get her shuttle prepped for your departure. Right – you all got jobs. Go do 'em."

 

* * * * *

Alone on the bridge, Mal leans into the mic.

"Special Agent Cerulean, this is Captain Reynolds. Special Agent Cerulean - what kind of a name is that? Anyhow, the thing is Special Agent, turns out we got a problem this end. Havin' given it careful consideration, we've decided to pass on your kind offer to board us. Some folks – folks like us – can't see the percentage in lettin' you fellas on this boat. We got doubts as to your intentions – reckon you mean to kill us all. That bein' the case ..."

Mal stops the clock, does a quick calculation and rewinds the tape before setting the first timer.
"BOOM!"

* * * * *

After pickin' up the second timer from Kaylee, Mal makes his way to the cargo bay. He leans against the railings on the catwalk, suddenly overcome by weariness. How many hours he been awake now? Too many. Specially since the last time he was in bed, it wa'n't exactly a period of unbroken rest. Despite everythin' he can't help but grin at the memory.

Below him Simon an' Jayne are heavin' the last of the crates out of the hold whilst Book drags them off to line the ship's walls. Simon's makin' a valiant effort to keep up with mercenary but Mal ain't too surprised to notice he looks dead beat too. Jayne's talkin' at him about somethin' an' their voices drift up to Mal.

"Can't've been that good if your gonna settle for only doin' it once," Jayne is opining.

"Well, technically, it was twice," Simon, being a stickler for accuracy, corrects him automatically, using his body to rock a crate forward. "And actually it was. Very good," he murmurs, more to himself than Jayne. Book takes the last crate from him and Simon wipes the sweat from his forehead with his arm. He sighs, pulling a regretful face. "But things are different now and I have to accept that. Find a way to deal with it."

Jayne nods, all understandin'. "Like masturbatin'?"

Simon stares at him in disbelief for a moment and then laughs. "Probably."

Book clears his throat but neither Simon nor Jayne follows the direction of his gaze.

Simon assumes he's offended. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shock you, Shepherd."

The preacher lays a warm hand on his shoulder. "I'm not shocked by love, son." Mal's listening and Book knows it. Might be able to save three souls here instead of one.

"Love!" Jayne (who secretly considers hisself a bit of an expert when it comes to love) scoffs. Love's a lot like trackin'. It's about dogged determination not givin' up at the first hurdle. The Doc wou'n't be throwin' in the towel so easy if what he felt for Mal was love. "Nah," he laughs, winkin' at the Preacher, "That was jus' two fellas gettin' their-"

Book cuts him off quickly to spare them all further embarrassment by conceding "Perhaps I'm mistaken."

Simon takes a deep breath. He's beginning to understand what his sister's been trying to tell him. Real love is not the same as being 'in love'. "No," he says quietly. "You're not."

Books smiles warmly at the medic and gives Mal a pointed look.

The Captain narrows his eyes, a rush of something like anger runnin' hot through his blood. He descends the stairs two at a time and stands before the work party, glowerin'. Jayne looks shifty an' sidles off. Book gives Mal a knowing half-smile.

Meanwhile Simon flushes beetroot red from his hairline right down to his chest. "Uh ... Mal ... how long have you-"

"Long enough," Mal replies, smilin' dangerously as he steps in a mite too close.

Aiya, tamade! Tamade Yesu! He's mad, he's really mad. What in the name of diyu possessed Simon to discuss having had sex with Mal with Jayne of all people?

Mal grabs his medic by the elbow and starts marchin' him off towards the infirmary. "Think you an' me need a private chat, Doc," he declares with another less than pleasant smile.

Simon nods, the rapid, uneven steps he has to take to keep pace with Mal's long strides making him feel even more foolish.

Once inside the infirmary, Mal punches the doorlock and tints the windows. He leans back against a counter and gives Simon a long, searchin' look.

The medic shifts uneasily from foot to foot. Is this the part where Mal punches him again? He wouldn't blame him if he did. "Mal, I .. I shouldn't have ..."

"No, you shou'n't," Mal agrees grimly, foldin' his arms over his chest.

Simon hangs his head. "I ... He just came right out with it and asked." Simon shoots Mal a pleading look. "I know that's no excuse but he took me by surprise, I wasn't thinking ... I'm so tired ... otherwise I wouldn't have said anything. Mal, please believe me ..."

Mal's mouth twists and he shakes his head. Lookin' down at his boots, he says quietly, "That wa'n't what I meant." When he raises his eyes again the look in them makes Simon catch his breath.

"What did you mean?" he asks slowly.

Mal crosses the room and places both hands on Simon's shoulders. "Why di'n't you tell me? Tell me that ... that you-"

Simon's heart is beating so hard he can hear the pulse pounding in his ears. "Because you don't want me, Mal. You want Inara."

Mal flinches like Simon was sewin' him up with a blunt needle. Ain't no denyin' he's spent a lot of time wantin' Inara, though whether that was because of somethin' real between them or because she was so damn hard to get, Mal wa'n't never rightly sure. But that di'n't – don't - stop him wantin' Simon. An' he wa'n't hard to get. At all. Nor never will be if the desire, devotion an', yeah, gorram love in his eyes is anythin' to go by. How in the suoyou de dou shidang can that be? Simon's seen the worst of Mal – not jus' the best. Seen his weakness as well as his strength. Knows him. Knows him an' still loves him? Oh goushi!

"I'm gonna be truthsome with you, Simon," Mal says, tightenin' his grip on the medic's shoulders. "Can't deny Inara's a graceful, fine-lookin' woman. An' mayhap there's somethin' there ... always hoped there might be some day. If'n we di'n't kill each other first." Mal grins as he recalls some of their angrier spats but his grin quickly fades when he sees the pain on Simon's face. "But now there's somethin' between you an' me. Only thing is, I can't ..."

"I know," Simon whispers, closing his eyes and willing Mal to kiss him.

Mal brushes a thumb over Simon's lips. "See?" he asks with a rueful smile. "This is exactly what I di'n't want. I wanted simple, smooth. Then you gotta say things ... things like what you said to the Shepherd ... an' it makes everythin' all ... all ..."

"Complicated?"

"Yeah."

Simon looks amazed, then pleased. He takes Mal's face between his palms and kisses him lightly on the mouth. "Good."

"Good?" Mal's arms go round him. "It ain't much."

Simon's smile widens. "It's enough."

"All set, Sir," Zoe announces over the ship's comms.

For a moment Mal don't move, reluctant to release Simon from his embrace, but it has to be done. "Best you go round up li'l sis," he advises. "Take her to Inara's shuttle."

Simon hesitates. There's an odd light in Mal's eyes. "Where are you going?"

"To make sure everythin's done right," Mal tells him in a tone that says it ought to be obvious, but that light's still there. "You go get River."

* * * * *

Simon eventually tracks his sister down to Shepherd Book's bunk. She's seated on the bed and the preacher is in a chair in the corner. Curiously, they look as if they've been deep in conversation.

"The Captain wants us-" Simon begins but Book interrupts him.

"Come in, son. You're sister and I were just talking about you."

Simon's skin prickles uncomfortably. He hopes they weren't talking about him and Mal.

"Let you be his kite string," River murmurs. "To keep him tethered. Now he needs to fly again."

"I'm not going to stand in his way," Simon assures her earnestly, hoping it's a promise he's man enough to keep whatever Mal decides.

River's brows pucker. "Two by two," she repeats insistently. "Fly away Paul."

Book coughs, reminding the Tams of his presence.

"You've done all you can, son," he tells Simon gently. "Time to let go. For your sake, for the Captain's. For River's. There's a place, a secret place where she could be safe. Where she might even get better."

Simon's mouth falls open but Book doesn't give him chance to speak.

"There's an underground movement," he continues. "With a measure of experience in cases like your sister's. Can't promise a complete recovery but they've had some success in retraining central nervous system pathways."

"What?" Simon snarls, unable to believe his ears. "How long have you known about this 'place'?" He stalks over to the Shepherd until they're inches apart. "Why haven't you mentioned it before, you he chusheng zajiao de zang huo?"

Book is undaunted, his eyes calm and kindly. "Because getting there is not without risk. The journey's a long one with dangers at every turn. Plenty of folk out there would take their thirty pieces of silver and sleep well at night. You and River, undertaking that journey together, wouldn't-"

Fighting back his rage, Simon interrupts to demand through clenched teeth, "And you're telling me this now because?"

"Because - without Serenity - being constantly on the move is no longer an option. We're all going to need to find work, a place to stay. And that means getting to know people, and them getting to know us. Won't be long before someone figures out your sister's different, special. There'll be talk. And eventually the Alliance will get to hear it. Only way to keep her safe now is to go to the people who might be able to get her better." The Shepherd touches Simon briefly on the arm. "The only way to keep the Captain safe is to ensure he isn't found with her."

"Have you spoken to him about this?" Simon asks, even though he's sure that, Shepherd or not, Book would be missing a few teeth if he had.

The Shepherd confirms his suspicion with a shake of his head. "No, son. It wouldn't be fair. Not when he's got a chance of building a new life, starting afresh. Without this ship, the Captain won't be able to pursue his current less than legitimate career. Who knows? With the Alliance convinced that Malcolm Reynolds went down with his ship, the man might even opt for a respectable line of work, make his peace with God. But the important thing is that he's no longer in a position to help your sister whereas I am."

"Are you going to tell him?" Simon asks slowly.

"He'd only make his business to protect us if I did," Book answers and Simon realizes he's right.

"How will you be able to keep it from him?" he asks, anxious now rather than annoyed.

"By taking Shuttle Two."

"Fly away Peter," River sing-songs. "Fly away Paul."

"River, mei-mei-" Simon takes her hands in his. "I don't know if-"

"Shh," River soothes. "We'll be fine. Everything will be fine." She tips her head to one side, eyes shining with tears. "If you love someone, let them go."

Medical impossibility or not, Simon's sure he can feel his heart breaking. The pain in his chest is almost unbearable.

"Okay, mei-mei," he says quietly. "If that's what you need, I will."

* * * * *

Mal follows the fuse wire across the cargo bay floor from crate to crate, ensurin' there are no breaks. Not that it matters much. Once one of these babies go, they all do. But more'n a little of the soldier remains in Mal an' he don't plan on takin' any chances.

Funny how things turn out, he muses, takin' a final peek into the infirmary. How you change your mind about things. Always used to hate comin' in here. He closes the door out of habit an' glances across at the now empty passenger dorms.

Yeah, he's changed his mind about a helluva lot of things.

* * * * *

Absent-mindedly twistin' the tassel on one of Inara's silk cushions, Kaylee says what they're all thinkin'.
"Why ain't the others here yet?"

By 'the others' she means River an' Simon, Shepherd Book an' the Cap'n.

A lewd remark about what may be keepin' Mal an' the Doc springs instantly to Jayne's lips but he bites it back.

"They'll be here," Zoe insists. Seated at the shuttle controls, only her husband notices the trace of doubt in her voice.

The door opens and everyone looks up expectantly. Simon is standing there, alone. He makes no move to enter the shuttle, instead asking, "Could I have a private word please, Zoe?"

Fearin' all manner of stupidity on the Captain's part, Zoe nods and follows Simon out onto the walkway. "Where is he?" she asks. "He ain't plannin' on goin' down with the ship, is he?"

"No. He's on his way. Which means I haven't got long. Zoe – we're not coming with you. Shepherd Book knows a place where River might get better. I have to take her there. And it's better for all of us if we go alone." He pauses, torn between hope and despair, and hands Zoe a folded piece of parchment. "I've explained it all in this. Will you give it to Mal for me?"

Zoe frowns. "He ain't gonna like it."

Simon smiles weakly at her. "No, I don't suppose he will. To start with at least. But it's for the best in the long run. Believe me. The Captain will understand eventually."

* * * * *

Book does a double-take as Simon enters Shuttle Two. "What are you-?" he begins but is drowned out by River shrieking "No, Simon, NO!"

Simon tries to calm her by taking her hands in his. She slaps them angrily away.

"Two by two, Simon!"

"Yes," he says wearily, taking a seat. "So you keep saying."

River pouts at him. "Only ate six," she sulks, furious at him for being so stupid, so jing chang meiyong. And at herself for having failed in her duty to Mal.

She tries again. "If you love someone let them go, Simon!"

Her brother rubs his temples and closes his eyes, seeking oblivion. "I have, River."

She would knock some sense into him, if she weren't paralyzed by his sadness. As it is she slumps back against a wall and slides down to the floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.

* * * * *

Mal told himself he was jus' checkin' there weren't gonna be any unforeseen problems as he walked through his boat one last time, but in reality he was sayin' goodbye to her. Savourin' the memories fillin' each of her now empty rooms one final time.

Now he takes a last look down into the cargo bay, wonderin' briefly if blowin' the cargo up means Monty won't be puttin' any more work his way, before walkin' briskly along the hallway to Inara's shuttle.

Timer in hand, Mal seals the door to Inara's shuttle behind him an', despite his own agony at what he's about to do, turns to deliver some encouragin' words to his people. They sure look like they could use some. Kaylee's lyin' with her head in Inara's lap, tears rollin' unchecked down onto the Companion's silk skirt. Beside them Zoe's lookin' grim but resigned. Meanwhile Jayne's pickin' at his teeth with a knife. Any minute now, Simon's gonna start complainin' about that ...

But he don't.

Cos he ain't here.

Mal's face clouds over with worry.

"Where in the good gorram is the Doc an' his sis?" he demands, confused. They have to be here. Mal's jus' checked every gorram room. Suspicion raises its head. "An' where in the ruttin' hell's the Preacher?"

Zoe gets to her feet an' hands him a scrap of paper, murmurin' about it all bein' okay.

As if in a dream, Mal unfolds the paper an' reads the message written on it. Zoe watches his jaw tighten and his expression darken.

"Guess you're all aware of the contents of this?" Mal asks, waving the paper at his crew.

They nod, shame-faced.

Mal swallows and straightens his suspenders decisively. "Wash," he calls through to his pilot, "Let them know launch is in five."

"You're gonna let them go?!" Kaylee cries in disbelief. She jumps up an' throws herself at Mal. "You can't! Tell 'em they gotta stay, Cap'n. Qing."

"Uh - you want me to lay in a new course, Mal?" Wash asks hopefully.

Mal realizes Inara's watchin' his face intently. He meets her gaze, holds it a while.

"No," he says at last. "Boy made a choice."

The one, in his heart of hearts, Mal always knew he would. Mal don't blame him for it. Would most like do the same thing his own self. But that don't make this any easier.

Slowly, deliberately, he refolds Simon's note and is about to drop it into a bin when he notices there's somethin' else on it.

A turn through ninety degrees and the jumble of meaningless lines and curves resolves into a shape.
"What is it, Cap'n?" Kaylee asks gently cos he looks terrible.

"The last bit," he recalls distantly.

Jayne scratches his ear an' shakes his head. "Huh?"

* * * * *

Abandoned and empty now, Serenity holds her breath.

Likewise Malcolm Reynolds does the same.

The timer clicks forward again one last time and Serenity shatters into a million burning shards that light up the Black like stars.

Somehow Mal's goin' to have to find a way to put the pieces of his life back together.

Again.

Chapter Text

FOUR YEARS LATER

Her head has slumped forwards onto the edge of the bed an' there's a trace of drool glistenin' at one corner of her mouth. Her normally neat an' combed hair's all over the place.

Inara don't look nothin' like a perfect Companion this mornin' but to Mal she's never looked more beautiful than she does in this moment, nor more real.

He hates to have to wake her.

"'Nara ..."

She doesn't stir. Not surprisin' seein' as she ain't been to bed – ain't hardly slept at all – for nigh on a week. Been keepin' watch at Tian Shi Di Li's bedside ever since the child fell sick.

Mal looks at the little girl's ashen face. Eyes as blue as her father's look back at him. Wo de tian, Mal loves this kid somethin' fierce. Makes his heart ache to see her suffer.

"Belly still sore, little one?"

She nods, her features tight with pain, too tired to cry any more.

Not for the first time in the past four years, Mal curses their lack of a medic.

The first time – that is, the first time he did so out loud – was about two months after Simon's departure.

They were on Hestia, workin' as casual labourers. Pay wa'n't bad. Enough to live on an' set a little aside. Which they all did. Even Jayne. An' if Mal had been surprised when the mercenary insisted on contributin' to the new boat fund, he'd been gorram stunned when Jayne went on to say he knew his coin wou'n't buy him a say in how she was run nor any right not to abide by Mal's rule. Stunned, but heartened. Made Mal think that maybe things di'n't always have to fall apart. An' that perhaps even if they did get broke, they could be put back together.

So they worked an' saved an' somehow all stayed together.

There were worse places in the 'verse to be than Hestia. Good air, temperate climate, even if it wa'n't exactly civilized. The locals were friendly enough. Leastways they were 'til, in the saloon one payday evenin', Jayne started objectin' to the way one of the young fellas was lookin' at Kaylee. What started out as a bar-room brawl ended up a gunfight in the street. Jayne mighta stood a better chance if'n he'd chosen to pick a fight when he was sober – but then, he never was much of a thinker. As it was, he was too drunk to defend himself an' got shot plum between the legs. Shoulda heard him holler!

Mal managed to smooth things over, get folks to put their pistols away an' not run him an' his out of town, then he an' Wash dragged Jayne backed to their rented cottage so Mal an' Zoe could patch him up. A job that involved Mal gettin' more acquainted with Jayne's man parts than he had any desire to be.

Mal's curse that day was pretty specific. Personal an' vicious. Even Zoe, who was removin' what was left of Jayne's right gaowan at the time, blanched when Mal started elaboratin' on exactly what he'd like to befall Simon ruttin' Tam.

But as the months an' years went on an' semi-permanent residence on Hestia gave way to a spell in the factories on Paquin and another in the mines on Beylix, Mal's curses became milder an' more generalized. Simon's name stopped comin' up an' everyone but Zoe assumed the Captain wa'n't thinkin' on him no more.

'Nara certainly did. Musta. Why else would she've taken him to her bed?

"'Nara." Mal gives her shoulder a little shake. "Time to wake up."

"Hmmm?" She snuffles into semi-consciousness, blinks, realizes with shame that she must have fallen asleep and quickly pulls herself upright in her chair. "Mal, I ..."

"Ain't no need for sorry," he tells her firmly before she can get the word out. "Jus' came to let you know we'll be makin' planetfall on Horus within the hour."

"Renci Fozu," she sighs with relief. "Xie-xie, Mal."

"Takin' the mule," Mal informs her unnecessarily in an attempt conceal how awkward her bein' beholden to him still makes him feel. "Seems Tian-Shi ain't the only one needs doctorin'."

Inara smiles up at him, placing her hand over his. "Well, it's been a long time ..."

"That it has." Fourteen hundred and seventy-five days. Not that Mal's been countin'.

Inara's smile don't waver none nor dim, makin' Mal wonder which one of 'em's better at maskin' their feelin's these days.

He lifts her hand gently from his an' pulls away. "I'll go get the others."

* * * * *

At the sound of a key turning in the lock, Simon looks up anxiously from his book, listening for the sound of River's voice. Even after all these years, he still frets when she leaves the house without him.

"Orange and tangerine are not the same," he hears her declare passionately. "There are nuances. Differences of meaning."

"If you say so," Roger concedes in a weary tone, having long ago learnt the folly of debating with Simon's sister when she's in this mood.

They enter the sitting room together, Roger carrying several large bags full of fresh produce and River juggling three balls of orange wool.

"Have you been there all afternoon?" Roger teases Simon with a grin. "Must be a good book."

"Poetry. From the twentieth century on Earth-that-was," Simon tells his partner, getting guiltily to his feet. It's not like him to spend so much time doing nothing. "Tea?"

"Sit." Roger presses him gently back into the worn but serviceable armchair. "You don't always have to be doing for other people, Simon. Relax. Go back to your reading. I'll make the tea."

"Okay," Simon agrees with what he hopes is a grateful smile. Because – honestly? - he'd prefer to be doing something. This book, and this poem in particular, have unsettled him.

But he turns the page and pretends to read. Sometimes it's better not to rock the boat.

"There was a Firefly berthed down at the docks," Roger calls in from the kitchen over the clatter of stoneware beakers and plates. "River tells me that's the sort you used to fly in."

Simon freezes. It takes him a good five seconds to respond. "Uh – yes – yes, we did. It was a long time ago."

"This one's a shaker," River laughs, tossing one of the balls of wool high into the air and deliberately not catching it. "Not an aught-three. No extenders."

"Oh," Simon says, strangely disappointed by this piece of information. For a moment there ...

River winks at him. "Still flying though."

"It didn't look much," Roger remarks conversationally as he returns with a tray of tea and biscuits. "Can't imagine you on a boat like that, Simon. You like the comforts of home too much."

"Home is where the heart is," River points out, snatching up the whole plateful of biscuits and retiring to a seat in the corner of the room.

"Yes, it is," Simon says crisply, taking a sip of tea. "And ours is here."

Roger glances at him out of the corner of his eye.

Simon takes another small sip from his beaker.

"Got a look at the nameplate," Roger continues. "Demeter."

"Must have been four, not six," River suggests indistinctly around a mouthful of biscuit crumbs.

Aware that the others are waiting for him to say something, although he can't think what, Simon murmurs "Hmm. Really?" before falling silent again.

Tick, tock. The second hand on the mantlepiece clock completes its orbit in one minute. The minute hand takes longer but eventually they both come to the same place.

River smiles sadly to herself.

"Busy night tonight," Roger says eventually. "Every appointment taken. I hate long nights."

"That's where we differ," Simon replies with a warm smile. "I like being busy."

And he does. Because work occupies the mind, stills the restless heart.

A ball of wool catches him on the cheekbone, making him jump and nearly spill his tea. "River!"

"Be careful what you wish for," she warns with a grin.

 

* * * * *

Arms outstretched, Warren Washburn goes careening around the cargo bay, mimicking the sound of engines on take-off.

"Hope can't do this!" he declares giddily.

"She sure can't!" Kaylee laughs, givin' the baby in her arms a little squeeze and plantin' a big kiss on her fat dimpled cheek. "Gorgeous, ain't she, baobei?" she asks in an aside to Jayne when she realizes he's watchin' her. "Don't ya jus' wanna take a bite out of her?"

The mercenary grunts. Oughta be her own child Kaylee's cradlin', not one of Wash's. It ain't right that a little man like that's fathered two kids whereas Jayne ain't managed even one. Gotta be somethin' wrong down there - whatever Mal says about Monty havin' spawned a whole passel of bastards despite sufferin' the self same, uh, unbalanced condition as Jayne.

"Warren, honey ..." Zoe's calm tone is a mite frayed round the edges, her patience wearing thin. "Warren! Leave those buttons alone! You know what Captain Mal will do, he catches you touchin' those?"

Washburn comes to a stumbling halt in front of his mother. He shakes his dark, curly head. "No, momma."

"He'll box your ears."

The three year old's eyes go as wide as saucers as a sudden vision of his ears, sliced off and stuffed into a packing crate fills his head.

"Be more'n a mite grateful if you wa'n't always paintin' me some kinda bogeyman to keep your wayward offspring in line," Mal grumbles as Warren shrinks behind his mother's legs on seein' him approach. "When you ever know me to box anyone's ears anyhow?"

Zoe an' Kaylee exchange a look.

A look which Inara's arrival with Tian-Shi allows Mal to pretend he di'n't notice.

"Here – let me," he offers, takin' the child in his arms an' liftin' her carefully up onto a doubled over quilt on the back of the mule. Inara climbs up next to her, whilst Zoe straps Warren into his seat. Kaylee reluctantly hands Hope back to her mother an' Mal gets behind the wheel.

Jayne is hoverin' in front of the mule, clearly with somethin' on his mind.

"Gonna get outa the way sometime soon?" Mal complains. "Or you got a yearnin' for flatness?"

"Was thinkin' of comin' with ya," the mercenary mumbles.

Mal blinks at him. "It ain't shore leave, Jayne. It's medical. Straight to the clinic an' back again, dong ma?"

Jayne clambers up into the back beside Inara.

"I said -" Mal begins, but Jayne cuts him off.

"I'm comin' with ya, Mal. Kids ain't the only ones in need of a medic."

* * * * *

Simon and Roger always walk to work. When the weather's fine, as it is this evening, they cut through the fields between the cottage and the health centre, following the hedgerows that separate one farmer's rice crop from his neighbour's. On rainy days, they take the long way round, through streets of modest housing and small shops. It rains a lot on Horus. Each new world has its terraforming quirks and frequent heavy rain is Horus'.

Simon doesn't mind the rain. It makes sunny days extra special.

Besides, Horus has many advantages. It's close enough to the civilizing influence of the Core to have a law-abiding and reasonably well-educated population. There are bookshops and schools and even small theatres and restaurants. Much to her delight, River has discovered other people who are interested in dance.

Meanwhile Horus is also far enough away from the Core to be of little interest to the Alliance. As long as the population remains industrious and obedient, it is unlikely to be overrun with feds.

And of course, there's Simon's work. Honest, decent work looking after honest, decent people. People whom he respects and who respect him. There are worse ways to live.

"You're very quiet," Roger comments suddenly. "Are you okay?"

Simon smiles at the concern in the other's man hazel eyes. Yes – there are worse ways to live than this and worse men to work for. Simon's lucky to have found Roger. He's intelligent, caring, open and inclusive. He values Simon's opinion. Treats him as an equal, not a hired hand. And there's an easy warmth between them that Simon hadn't even realized was missing from his life before.

"I'm fine," he assures his partner, clapping him on the back. "Fine."

* * * * *

"How long has she been like this?" the triage nurse frowns as she notes Tian-Shi's temperature.

"About a week," Inara tells her. "I thought it was a cold at first, then she developed a fever-"

"This child don't see a doc soon, I'm gonna get a mite tetchy," Mal interjects, letting the edge of his coat fall back so that the nurse catches a glimpse of his pistol.

"Mal!" Inara hisses.

"What?" He recoils, offended an' points out in a loud undertone "I was tryin' to help!"

"Well, don't."

Completely unintimidated or even noticeably surprised, the nurse goes to fetch a wheelchair. She helps Inara into it and settles Tian-Shi on her lap, asking, with a mildly disapproving look at Mal, "Would you like your husband to come with you?"

"He's not-"

"I ain't-"

"Partners are welcome too," the nurse says soothingly. No point in antagonizing this man if she doesn't have to.

"He's not ..." Inara says again, but softer and sadder this time.

Because she and Mal have never been partners. They have despised each other, tormented and loved each other, but they have never been partners. Not in the sense of sharing their deepest feelings or turning to each other for advice and support. Mal has always been the leader and Inara has always refused to follow.

Mal clears his throat an' takes a step back. "Uh - might be best I wait here."

Inara nods an' Mal watches as she an' Tian-Shi are wheeled away. There's always been a distance between him an' Inara. Even durin' those few short months they were lovers. Even in bed. Even when Mal was in her.

Cos Inara makes love like she does everythin' else – perfectly. All smoothness an' no rough edges. Nothin' for a man to hold onto. Afterwards, when Mal was spent an' his blood went back to runnin' slow an' unfevered again, he cou'n't remember a single moment when she'd been been abandoned or out of control. Nor a single second when it felt like she was his an' his alone.

He smiles regretfully to himself. 'Nara ain't no better at surrender than he is.

"Here he comes now!" he hears Zoe warn Warren as he walks over to join her in the seating area. The little boy immediately scrabbles back up onto the red plastic chair to his mother's left and assumes an expression of cherubic innocence.

Mal takes the seat on Zoe's right an' surveys the busy waitin' room. "Gorramit," he grumbles. "Could be a long borin' wait." He picks up a week-old news bulletin from the low table in front of him an' scans it half-heartedly.

A door in need of oilin' opens an' a precise, polite voice calls "Mr Johnson? Mr Thomas Johnson?"

Mal's head snaps up at the sound of that voice an' everythin' starts playin' in slow motion. A corpulent, middle-aged fella in a striped suit an' garish tie rises slowly from his seat. The doctor opens his door further to let his patient into the consultin' room ...

...an' suddenly everythin's runnin' fast – way too fast. Mal is out of his seat, across the room an' shovin' the businessman out of the way. He's got ahold of the doctor an' is pushin' him into his room, slammin' the door shut behind them. In the distance, Mal's vaguely aware of Zoe's voice insistin' there's been an emergency an' of the way the disgruntled murmurs of the other patients subside.

But most of his attention's on the doctor.

"Mal!"

Oh God! He's alive! Mal's alive and well and he's here and Simon can hardly believe it!

However, his initial reaction of surprise and delight is quickly being replaced by confusion and then anger as he finds himself being propelled roughly backwards. When the hard edge of his desk catches him just above the back of his knees a curse escapes him and he snatches at Mal's shirt in an attempt to stay on his feet.

It doesn't work because Mal immediately releases his grip on Simon's upper arms and brings both of his hands up between Simon's, breaking their lock on his shirt front and forcing them out to the side. Simon falls back awkwardly onto the desk, dislodging a pile of patient notes onto the floor as Mal grabs him by the throat and pins him down.

For a second or two they glare at each other - eyes blazing, breathing heavily. At length Simon recovers himself enough to sneer "I take it the anger management classes are going well? For God's sake, Mal! This is ridiculous. Let me go."

The hand on his throat presses down harder.

Mal's thought about what it'd be like to run into Simon again more times than he cares to admit, but never once did he imagine it like this. Never dreamt that seein' Simon again would unleash this torrent of rage an' hurt. All the excuses he made for Simon – the way he told himself he was right to put his sis first, that he'da done the same thing his own self, that Simon probably believed that goushi about his leavin' bein' of benefit to Mal - are swept away now he sees that Simon's rebuilt a life without him. Doin' pretty well too, if this fancy table an' the rest of his furniture are anythin' to go by. It's abundantly clear now that Simon never needed him.

Mal's hands tremble with the urge to hurt Simon back.

"Let me go right now," Simon manages to choke out, wondering what the hell this is all about. Seconds ago he wanted to embrace this man, tell him how much he's missed him, kiss him over and over again. Now he's experiencing a strong desire to punch him. "If you don't let me up, I'll start screaming and yelling and-"

"Point of interest-" Mal interrupts, leanin' in closer, his breath hot against Simon's face, "offerin' to scream might not work so well as an incentive as you think."

He pulls back enough to let his eyes travel slowly down the front of Simon's body, addin' darkly, "I ain't forgotten what a scream from you sounds like. Nor how to get one out of you."

Runnin' his free hand up the length of Simon's thigh an' over the front of his pants, he's gratified to feel heat an' hardness beneath his palm.

Simon catches his breath.

"Looks like you ain't forgotten neither," Mal observes, easin' the pressure on Simon' windpipe a touch. He's still buzzin' with anger but knowin' Simon ain't entirely indifferent to his presence takes the edge off some. Makes him feel more in control, less vulnerable.

Simon flushes. Mostly with annoyance at the suggestion of a smirk playing at the corners of Mal's mouth. "That is an autonomic response to adrenalin," he blusters, trying not to look at that mouth, nor remember the feel of it, "which, as I'm sure you know, is the chemical which prepares the body for flight or fight. It is released in response to a threatening situation."

"Really?" Mal stares into Simon's eyes for a while, assessin'. "You don't look to be much threatened from where I'm standin'. A mite desperate, mayhap ..."

He's smirking openly now and Simon can't let him get away with it.

"I'm not the one throwing people onto tables," he points out acidly. " If anyone's desperate" - he insinuates a hand between Mal's legs and gives a triumphant little laugh.- "it would appear to be you."

Wo de ma – Mal's missed this. Missed Simon's refusal to be cowed an' the way he's always got some smart-ass come-back. Missed the feel of him too, the smell of him ... Gorramit! Mal's supposed to be mad at the boy. Furious with him for runnin' out on him like that. Not achin' to drag him out of here an' back to his bunk.

Mal's dangerously close to givin' in to that ache when a side door into the room opens an' a tall, sandy-haired fellow enters.

"Simon, I've got an appendicectomy for you ..." he begins but is brought up short by the sight that greets him – that of Simon, pinned to his table by a man almost twice his size. "What the hell?"

Simon turns his head to the side to see Roger gaping at him in horror. Poor, gentle Roger. He looks terrified.

"It's all right," Simon assures him. "I can handle this."

"You can?" Roger sounds unconvinced. He's clearly wondering if he ought to be calling the sheriff.

"Yes. I know this man. He's an old ..." Simon looks back up at Mal and half smiles "An old friend."

"He is?" Roger asks doubtfully.

"Yep," Mal tells him firmly with a so-there kinda smile, finally lettin' go of Simon, who gets back to his feet and quickly straightens his clothing.

Mal strides over to invade Roger's personal space. "An' you are?"

Roger swallows. "I'm .. I'm Simon's partner."

Mal blinks. He stares disbelievingly at the pale freckled face in front of him, then shakes his head as if to clear a deeply unpleasant image from him mind.

"Partner," he echoes, rollin' the word over his tongue an' not likin' the taste of it one bit.

"Yes," Simon confirms and starts making the introductions. "Mal – this is Roger, my partner. Roger, I'd like you to meet Mal – Malcolm Reynolds."

Roger extends a nervous hand. "Pleased to-"

He doesn't get to the end of his sentence because all of a sudden, Mal turns on his heel and stalks out of the room, slammin' the consultin' room shut with a loud bang.

Outside, Zoe is waiting nearby.

"Sir?"

Mal scowls at her. "What?"

"Did you tell him, Sir?"

"Tell him what exactly?"

"That you want him to come back."

Mal folds his arms defiantly across his chest. "No, I most definitely did not."

Zoe rolls her eyes. "Don't take this the wrong way, Sir but ..." a beat "you're an idiot."

* * * * *

Leaving Zoe to catch up on some sleep after a restless night worrying about the kids having a bad reaction to their inoculations, Wash creeps as quietly out of their bunk as he can and heads straight for the kitchen and the coffee pot.

Mal's already there, glaring at the contents of his mug as if they've just disobeyed a direct order.

Wash decides to ignore his obvious ill humour.

"What a coincidence, eh?" he remarks cheerfully, filling a mug of his own and stirring in a spoonful of sugar. "Of all the doctors' surgeries in all of the 'verse, you walk into Simon's! Some folk might think a higher power was at work."

"Then they'd be dumbasses," Mal scowls, wishin' he'd taken his drink back to his bunk. He ain't in the mood for this. "Ain't no higher power. Leastways, not one that's interested in the likes of us."

Looks like Zoe was right. Mal's chance encounter with Simon's had the exact opposite effect from the one Wash would've predicted. Hunting through the food lockers for a style of protein pack that might serve as breakfast, Wash wonders why – because, according to his wife, the good doctor looked like all his Christmases had come at once when he set eyes on Mal.

"How're we off for fuel?" Mal asks as the bubbles on the surface of his coffee burst one by one. "Cos I reckon we might take that job of Monty's on Greenleaf. 'Nara said it shou'n't be more than a couple of days before Tian-Shi'll be able to travel."

Ah. Now Wash understands.

"You could always ask him to come with us - offer him his old job back," he suggests. "It's not like we couldn't use a medic. When Jayne loses a body part it's all good wacky fun, but next time it could be you." He pauses and a horrible possibility occurs to him. "Or me."

"He's got a nice little life where he is, thank you very much," Mal replies, wincin' at the bitterness he can't keep out of his voice. "All respectable an' appropriate. He wou'n't come back to this."

Wash plonks a bowlful of pinky-grey mush down on the table. "I think he might, Mal. For you. If you asked him nicely enough."

Mal's eyes narrow. "I ain't beggin'."

"Ask – I said ask, not beg. Who said anything about begging?"

Afraid he's given away too much already, Mal just grunts an' hopes Wash'll take the hint an' leave him in peace.

It doesn't work. Wash is given to musing, and musing out loud at that.

"It's amazing how far a few sweet words can get you, Mal. How d'you think me an' Zoe've lasted this long? Sometimes all it takes is saying the right thing, the thing they want to hear-"

"That's the difference between you an' me, Wash. I say a thing – I mean it."

* * * * *

The sky is so dark a storm must be imminent, Simon thinks as he makes his way back home after ward rounds and morning surgery. His hands are stuffed deep into his pockets and head is bowed down against the driving rain. It's cold and there's water trickling down the back of his neck, seeping into his shirt, but Simon finds the inclement weather oddly comforting. It's as if the whole 'verse is in tune with the way he's feeling.

The uneven pavement beneath his feet is glossy with puddles, some unexpectedly deep. Simon sighs as one of his shoes fills with water, consoling himself with the thought that at least these shoes are old ones. Once upon a time, they were fancy – at least they were according to Jayne. Now they've been well and truly broken in. The scuffs show through even after polishing. Simon's not entirely sure why he keeps them.

It's not as if he can't afford a new pair. He's by no means rich but he and Roger make a comfortable living. He doesn't have to worry about making ends meet any more. His life is comfortable. And one day is much like the one before and the one after. Simple. Smooth. Uncomplicated.

It bores him.

He craves complicated. Not smooth. Difficult, even.

Be careful what you wish for.

There's someone behind him.

The fear of being followed – of being noticed – has never left Simon. River doesn't attract attention like she used to, but Simon's still afraid of discovery. So he never relaxes his guard; especially now there's no-one else to share the burden of keeping her hidden. He's not sure Roger understands how badly the Alliance wants her back.

The footsteps behind him are drawing nearer. His pursuer has a longer stride. Simon could run ... but he doesn't. Better to brazen this out.

He doesn't even look round.

A left boot strikes the ground less than an inch from his right foot. Simon sucks in a breath and keeps walking. The matching right boot hits the pavement at the exact same moment as his left. Simon's pace doesn't alter, even if his heartbeat does. Two more steps and it's clear the other man is deliberately keeping in step with him. Another two steps and Simon realizes the boots are familiar. His terror recedes, but his pulse quickens – and not just because he's annoyed with Mal.

"How's she doin'?" Mal asks without preamble.

What was Simon expecting? Mal's not interested in him - other than as his daughter's doctor. That display of anger in the surgery was about Simon not having been on hand to treat her the moment she fell sick. Nothing more. In his heart of hearts Mal always wanted Inara - and now he has her.

"She's making a good recovery," Simon tells him. "The surgery went exactly as expected. No complications. I'd like to keep her in for a few more days, but she should be ready to go home by the end of the week."

"Yeah, 'Nara said," Mal grunts. "I meant River."

Surprised, Simon comes to a halt and turns to look up at Mal. His hair is soaking wet and there are raindrops clinging to his eyelashes like freshwater tears. Simon can almost taste them.

"Uh, she's well - thank you," he replies, pulling himself together. "Roger's been good for her."

Mal snorts derisively. "Good for you, more like!"

"Shen me?" Simon is baffled by Mal's suddenly scathing tone and the flash of contempt in his eyes.

"Oh, come off it! Got yourself a cosy little arrangement here, ain't ya?" Mal taunts. "Good job, nice respectable partner."

Simon stares at him, uncomprehending, speechless.

This ain't what Mal wants. He wants a reaction. Wants to goad Simon into doin' somethin' that'll give Mal an excuse to get physical. Let loose some of his pent-up frustration. He steps in closer, sticks out his chin an' declares, "I don't like him."

"Roger?" Simon feels a prickle of irritation. He shrugs. "He wasn't that impressed with you either."

Mal glowers at him. Sometimes Simon's better-than attitude gets real wearin'.

"Like I was sayin' – seems you stopped puttin' li'l sis first as soon as it suited you. Soon as you got what you wanted."

Simon feels fingernails digging into the palm of his hand and is surprised to find he's making a fist. "What in the good gorram are you talking about, Mal?"

"Never figured you for selfish, Simon." Mal shakes his head, exudin' disappointment. "An' yet here you are – puttin' River in danger of bein' taken back to that school jus' so you can have a fancy office an' get laid by someone appropriate."

Simon's jaw drops. "Get laid? " He blinks a couple of times and then bursts out laughing. "You think Roger's my lover? Oh, that's priceless! God, Mal – you're such an idiot."

Baffled in his turn, Mal huffs, "So people keep tellin' me."

He was so sure Simon an' Roger were ... together. Gorramit, now he feels more'n a mite stupid. It wa'n't supposed to go like this. The plan was to make Simon feel so guilty about riskin' River's safety he'd be beggin' to rejoin Mal's crew. What it most definitely was not about was makin' Mal look jealous an' needy. Might as well wave the ruttin' white flag - an' Mal sure as hell don't plan on doin' that.

Simon's smile is kind, if a little patronizing. "Roger is not my lover," he explains, speaking slowly as if he thinks Mal, in addition to being an idiot, might have difficulty in following plain English, "He's River's. Actually he's her husband."

Mal's eyes fly wide open in horror. "He's what?! Well, that just ain't right! What with her bein' ... diff'rent. What the hell were you thinkin'? Gorramit, Simon – that how you buy this fancy life? Sold your own ruttin' sister?"

The smile freezes on Simon's face. "I think you'd better go back to your ship, Captain," he says quietly.

"Do ya now? An' why's that? I hit on somethin'?"

"No," Simon grinds out through clenched teeth. "But I'm likely to. Hit something. You. If you don't leave me alone."

Mal grins an' puffs out his chest. Nothin' like gettin' a man's dander up to know your words have hit home. Mal feels almost triumphant.

"Okay, Doc. I'm goin'. You jus' think on what I said. You know the best place for River is on the move. On my boat. You ask nice enough ..." - he brushes the raindrops briskly from Simon's shoulders and straightens his collar - "I might even take you along too."

And before Simon can respond, he strides away, whistling.

"Kewu de lao baojun," Simon mutters at his retreating back, before deciding something stronger would be more appropriate. "Chi shi – da shabi."

* * * * *

"River out?" Simon asks Roger, trying not to feel anxious about her absence. Mal's words have unsettled him, roused all the sleeping nightmares of the past.

"No. She's upstairs. Your room. Says she's busy."

Simon lets out a sigh of relief but decides he needs to see her anyway. Just to make sure.

River is indeed in his room. Taking clothes out of his drawers and folding them into neat piles on his bed.

"River," Simon asks carefully, "What are you doing?"

"Packing. White lace and promises." She opens his closet and removes a grey vest from its hanger. "He liked this one."

"What?" Simon frowns, beginning to feel panicky. Is she slipping back? After all they've been through? After all Simon's given up? River made such rapid progress during their stay with Book on Nemding and has been improving almost daily every since. And now this.

River lifts the vest to her nose and sniffs. "He really liked this one. She never stopped looking, remember?"

"Shen me?" Okay – this is weird. His sister's elliptical speech patterns are one thing, but this emptying his wardrobe and sniffing his clothing is new. And disturbing.

River sighs. "You are such a boob. Demeter. Mal named his ship after her. You have heard of Demeter?"

"Of course I have!" Simon snaps. "But what's Mal got to do with it?"

"He never stopped looking. Two by two, Simon," River smiles, adding a red silk vest to the pile. "Two. Not three. Not four. If you love someone, let them go." Her smile turns sad. "And I do love you Simon."

"I love you too mei-mei," he insists, putting the vest back on a hanger. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here."

"If they come back to you, they're yours. He came back, Simon. You can come back too. Come back Peter, come back Paul. For holidays. For Christmas." The vest finds its way back onto the pile. "Bring the shiny presents."

Simon shouldn't have stopped her medication. He sees that now. He's let his need to believe she's better cloud his judgement. She's still ill. Still very sick.

River laughs out loud and prods him in the chest. "If anyone's sick, it's you. Lovesick. Now get out of my way and let me finish."

Simon hesitates, wondering if he ought to challenge this behaviour, then thinks better of it. Now – whilst River's mind is occupied – might be the perfect time to discuss her worsening condition with Roger.

Simon can always unpack his clothes again later on.

 

* * * * *

"Are you saying I would have married her if I had thought her incapable of informed consent?" Roger demands.

River slams the suitcase lid down, fastens the catches and drags it off to her own room where she sits down at the dressing table. She tilts her head, not listening but feeling.

"It's only natural you should worry about her," she mouths silently into the mirror as she brushes the tangles out of her hair. "But I think you're over-reacting. She might be right! River knows things. I've never managed to work out whether that's because she really is psychic or just that she can see into people's hearts, see what they want-"

"I don't want to go anywhere," she continues in similar fashion, leaning in towards her reflection to emphasize the point. "I want to stay here and make sure she gets better!"

Downstairs in the living room, Roger sighs. River does likewise. "She IS better, Simon. All the tests confirm it. She still has extraordinary abilities and a tendency to leave even smart men like you and I behind, but she's stable now. Sane. Probably more so than ..."

River smiles at Roger's hesitation.

"More so than who exactly? Me?" Simon is hurt, angry.

"Well you have been a little tense this past couple of days," Roger explains hastily. "Your anxiety about River may be a case of projection."

"And since when have you been a psychologist?" River's lip curls in disdain.

"Alternatively, it may be simple displacement."

Simon hurls his book across the room, River her hairbrush. "Tamade psychobabble goushi!"

And that's denial, River thinks to herself, as a seed of recognition implants itself in Simon's brain. A little water, a little sunshine – that's all it needs.

* * * * * *

Tian-Shi is sleeping soundly. Her cheeks are pink again and her body is relaxed, not screwed up with pain.

"She's lovely," Simon tells Inara. "And very advanced for a child of her age. I had quite a conversation with her earlier. You and Mal must be very proud of her."

Inara strokes her daughter's dark curls tenderly. "We are," she murmurs. "But she's not Mal's. I thought you realized ..."

Not Mal's? Simon's confused. Tian-Shi has her mother's beautiful hair and flawless skin. Simon assumed she got her blue, blue eyes from her father ... Oh. "Oh, I see ... I'm sorry ..."

Inara smiles. "Don't be. She's the best thing that has ever happened to me." She leans down to kiss Tian-Shi's forehead. "The love of my life, in fact. I am so grateful to you, Simon. I don't know how to thank you ..."

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Inara realizes that actually, she does. She can tell him, put his mind at rest about one thing at least.

"It didn't work out," she begins. "Between Mal and I, I mean. We tried ... but somehow we never ... connected, you know?"

One look at Simon's face tells her he doesn't. Because the connection between Mal and Simon is still strong and vibrant and alive – even now, even after all this time.

"He wants you back," Inara continues, touching Simon's arm. "He may be too stupid and pig-headed to tell you so himself, but it's the truth."

Simon's heart lurches against his ribcage and for a second, just a second, he lets himself believe her. Mal wants him back. Possibly even as much as Simon wants to go back ... Then sanity kicks in, and Simon remembers Mal assaulting him in his own surgery and insulting him in the street.

Mal may want him - may even care for him in his own twisted, angry way – but he doesn't respect him. Simon has a new life now. One that's close to the one he imagined for himself that first day when he walked into MedAcad. He may not be part of the medical elect, but he's well thought of in his community. Looked up to. Not growled at nor ridiculed.

He can't go back.

"Simon?" Inara is asking with a little frown. "Did you hear what I said?"

He smiles at her bleakly. "Yes. But I'd need to hear Mal say it before I believe it," he explains.

Inara sighs.

She knows as well as Simon does that Mal will never say it.

* * * * *

Jayne waits uneasily for Mal to come back from the bar with yet another round of drinks. It ain't that he objects to pourin' more beer down his throat than is supposedly good for him. No, what's chillin' his blood this evenin' is Mal's grim determination to get fallin' down drunk. They don't know this rock nor these people. For all Jayne knows they might be the sort to start a fight. Maybe even shoot a fella in the tender parts.

Beer slops out of the glasses as Mal sets two more pints down onto the table an' Jayne decides enough is enough. Mal needs a distraction. Somethin' else to think about.

"Some fine lookin' women in here tonight," he comments idly. "See them two in the corner? Been givin' us the glad eye ever since we walked in."

Mal gives them a cursory glance, nothin' more. "Can't say I'd noticed." He takes a long swallow of beer an' wipes the foam from his lip with the back of his hand, addin' "An' you better stop noticin' too - 'less you want Kaylee to cut off your other-"

"I wa'n't noticin' for me!" Jayne objects. "Though you might fancy a bit o'-"

"Not noticin' for you!" Mal drains his glass. "Well ain't that somethin'? Never thought I'd see the day when a great big fella such as you would be under the thumb of a li'l girl like Kaylee. She got some kinda superpowers I don't know about?"

Jayne grins. "You could put it like that," he replies, wagglin' his eyebrows suggestively. "Anyhow – maybe I like bein' under her thumb. You ever think of that?"

"Wou'n't suit me," Mal mutters, rootin' around in his pocket for more coin an' findin' none.

"Yeah, well," Jayne shrugs. "Reckon I must like a warm body next to me of a night more'n you. Time I was getting' home to it too. You comin'?"

Mal tries another pocket. It too is empty.

"Guess so."

* * * * * *

Mal wonders if lunchtime was such a good time to fetch 'Nara and Tian-Shi back to Demeter. The smell of cookin' turns his stomach and the squeal of the dining trolley's wheels scrapes bright lines of pain through his throbbin' head.

At least it's cool an' peaceful in Tian-Shi's room.

"You've come for him."

River's unexpected presence makes Mal jump and his brain thuds painfully against the inside of his skull. Never again, he promises himself. Never again.

"Come for her," he clarifies, leaning down to kiss Tian-Shi's cheek. "Hi, baobei."

The little girl giggles as he lifts her up and wraps slender arms around his neck.

"That's what you want you to think," River says, tapping the side of her nose. "We know different."

Mal looks at her blankly. "I really have no idea-"

The door opens again. This time it's Inara and Roger. Mal's heart sinks.

"Told you," River laughs.

Roger is giving Inara a list of instructions about Tian-Shi's post-operative care and Mal tries to listen, but he finds his attention wanderin'. He don't like hospitals – never has. Can't wait to get out of here. 'Course the hangover don't help. Could maybe do with gettin' some air. Once he's driven Inara and Tian-Shi back to the ship, Mal might take a walk somewhere. Anywhere. Nowhere in particular.

"Little stone cottage. Big weeping willow in the front garden. Gold fish in the pond," River whispers, slipping past him. "For luck."

"Hunh?"

River links an arm through her husband's, but before leading him out into the sunlight she turns and gives Mal a sharp look. "Don't play games, Captain."

* * * * *

Returnin' the mule to its parkin' spot in the cargo bay, Mal could do without Zoe watchin' his every move. It's like she don't trust him to do it right.

"Something on your mind, Sir?" Zoe asks in response to his glum expression as he jumps down from the mule.

"Jus' wanna be off this rock is all," he tells her. "We all set?"

"Port authority's given us the 10 am take-off slot. By which time Monty should've waved us a meet point."

"Right."

"This'll be our last night on Horus," Zoe points out, watching Mal's face carefully. "That bein' the case I plan to take my husband out for a romantic candlelit dinner. Kaylee's offered to babysit." She pauses and adds innocently, "You got any plans, Sir?"

He glares at her. "No."

"Not goin' to say good-bye to Simon?"

"No."

She nods sagely. "Probably just as well. He looked awful pleased to see you again when we turned up at his clinic. Don't wanna hurt him any more than you have to."

Mal opens his mouth and closes it again.

Zoe pats his arm and walks off but pauses on the bottom step of the staircase to ask "You ever think you've got so used to losing, Sir, that you don't recognize winning?"

"Huh?"

Zoe doesn't answer. The Captain needs time to reflect.

 

* * * * *

What in diyu is Mal doin' here? Zoe might reckon he's won this particular battle but walkin' up the path to Simon's front door feels a lot like admittin' defeat. He's got half a mind to turn round right now an' go back to the ship. Trouble is, other parts of him don't think much of that plan.

Mal knows River an' Roger ain't home. Saw 'em go off somewhere earlier. That oughta make this a hell of a lot easier.

Heart thumpin', he knocks on the door.

No answer. Well, tha's fine. He'll go.

Only he don't. He tries the handle an' the door opens. Before he knows what he's doin', Mal's inside the hallway an' closin' the door behind him.

"River?"

Tianna. Simon's upstairs. Mal's so nervous he can't speak.

"River?" Simon asks again an' Mal glimpses a bare foot at the top of the staircase. "I thought ..."

Another bare foot, then a leg, a knee ... followed – merciful Buddha! - by a towel, wrapped around slim hips. Above it - skin. Pale, perfect skin. Zao cao.

Simon runs lightly down the stairs, reaches the bottom and turns. His mouth falls open. "Mal ..."

Wo de tian. Bad enough he's half-naked – he don't need to be lookin' at Mal like that – all wide eyes an' parted lips. Mal looks hastily away, takes a step backwards.

"What are you doing here?" Simon asks, wary now. "And more to the point - how did you get in?"

The doors are always locked. Even when he and Roger are in. Because you never know ...

Simon's brows knit together. "What the hell is this, Mal?" he demands, mind racing with all sorts of terrifying possibilities.

Excuse after excuse springs to Mal's mind. He needs to ask about Tian-Shi ... thinks he mighta left somethin' at the hospital ... oughta pay Simon his share from the last job they did when he was still crew ... but for some reason he don't use any of them.

Instead, he takes a deep breath an' admits in a low voice "Surrender. It's ruttin' well surrender, Simon. A thing I've only done once in my life before now an' then not willingly."

Simon isn't sure he's following. "Surrender?"

Mal moves closer again an' puts tentative arms around Simon's waist. "You win, Doctor Tam. I don't wanna leave this rock without you, dong ma? Now are you gonna gloat about it or kiss me?"

A slow smile spreads over Simon's astonished face. "I might do a bit of both."

Mal grins. "Okay. But start with the kissin'."

And Simon does. Soft, getting reacquainted touches of lip on lip to start with, little tastes of tongue against tongue, until long denied desire gets the better of him and he pulls Mal into a kiss so bruising it hurts.

It's all the justification Mal needs to run urgent hands over as much of Simon's exposed body as he can reach. He can't get enough of the feel of Simon's skin, the tightness of his muscles, the hardness of underlyin' bone. So new an' yet so familiar. So right.

"Want you," he groans around Simon's tongue as Simon presses his towel-covered hardness against Mal's erection. "Want you now."

Simon doesn't speak, just laces his fingers through Mal's and tugs him towards the stairs.

Simon's room is dominated by a big brass bed. Without a word, Mal seizes Simon by the shoulders an' shoves him down onto the mattress. The movement finally dislodges the towel.

If before comin' here, Mal had had any doubts about how Simon would receive him, they're instantly dispelled. Simon cou'n't be harder, nor more ready for him. He's beautiful like this – so ruttin' beautiful ...

"Take your clothes off," Simon urges. "Now."

"You could-" Mal starts to suggest but Simon stops him.

"No." He sits up, drawin' his knees towards his chest. " I want to watch. You do it." The way he says it makes it sound more like an order than a request.

It makes Mal wonder what he's got himself into. Been a long time since anyone told him what to do. Longer still since he complied. An' yet he finds himself slippin' off his suspenders an' unbuttonin' his shirt. When it comes to removin' his pants, he realizes his hands ain't entirely steady.

He remembers doin' this to Simon. Made him weak with lust. Mal has to admit it's havin' much the same effect on him. As is obvious when his shorts come off.

Shoulda realized a man as smart as Simon would catch on quick. That it wou'n't take him long to work out what Mal wants. What he needs.

Simon's gaze is so intense it feels almost like physical contact. But it ain't an' Mal's cock twitches impatiently against his belly.

At last, Simon pats the bed in invitation an' Mal throws himself down beside him, tryin' to draw him into his arms but Simon resists. All he allows Mal is one brief kiss before rollin' him onto his back.

"Put your hands above your head," he whispers. "Hold onto the bedstead and whatever you do – whatever I do - don't let go."

"Ruttin' hell, Simon," Mal moans, but grips the rails obediently. "For the love of-"

"Bizui," Simon murmurs against his chest as he slides down his body. "I thought you were here to surrender?"

Mal's breath hitches in his throat as every nerve endin' tingles in response to Simon's words an' his balls pull up tight. Oh God. He feels so weak, so hot, so sharply alive.

"Close your eyes."

Mal bites back a protest that this is all too much, that he's only hangin' on by the slenderest of threads an' forces his lids shut. Simon's lips graze his stomach an' when his tongue flicks against sensitive skin Mal's hips lift from the bed. Firm hands press them back down an' it's not 'til Mal lies still an' compliant that the lickin' an' suckin' resumes – hard enough to send his pulse racin' an' make him gasp for breath but nowhere near as hard as he needs.

Somehow Mal remembers to keep hold of the rails above his head.

Simon shifts an' a knee brushes against the outside of Mal's thigh. His mouth is captured in a searin' kiss an' then Simon is astride him.

Oh God. Mal needs Simon to touch him, stroke him, pump him ... Ain't he already proved how weak he is when it comes to Simon? Does he have to plead?

"Simon ..."

Simon's chuckle vibrates through him. "How much do you want me?"

Mal opens his eyes. Some things need sayin' face to face. "More than you know," he declares. "More than a man oughta want anythin'."

Must be the right answer cos Simon smiles down at him an' reaches out for a jar sittin' on his bedside table. He scoops out a sizeable amount of its contents, rubs his palms lightly together an' finally takes hold of Mal. Glidin', squeezin' an' twistin' until Mal moans an' curses. The muscles in Mal's arms are tight with hangin' onto the bedstead but when he relaxes his grip, Simon tuts a warnin' so he don't let go.

His reward is sudden an' sweet. Simon lowers his chest against Mal, slides up his body so that their lips meet again but before Mal can deepen the kiss he rises up on his knees, feels for Mal's cock an' guides it into his body.

Mayhap it's the tight pleasure of it that squeezes a drop of moisture from Mal's eye. Or the way Simon throws his head back an' keens. Most like it's both ... an' more. Mal's been lost, angry an' broken, for so long he'd come to believe he cou'n't ever love again. Not like this. Not with all his heart. Not body an' soul.

Simon is movin', pushin' down an' pullin' up, his ass clenchin' Mal tighter an' tighter. Mal's body begins to judder with the tension of holdin' on. He wants to repay some of this ecstasy by takin' Simon's cock in his hand but when he tries, Simon won't let him. All his lover will allow him to do is to thrust up into him. Mal ain't used to bein' this passive. He can't control nor predict the sensations coursin' through him. His heart is poundin', his skin singin', his belly ... Wo de tian! His hips surge up, his head arches back an' with a final thrust he shudders into orgasm, into Simon an' – silently, inexplicably – into tears.

When he comes back to himself, Simon is kissin' his eyelids, lickin' the salt away.

Mal bites his lip. "Don't know where that came from," he says, embarrassed now. "Cos there was nothin' about that that wa'n't good." He runs a finger down Simon's cheek an' grins sheepishly. " 'Course all that 'hang on whatever I do' had me a tad worried. Mayhap I was jus' relieved-"

"Don't be," Simon smiles back, but his eyes darken meaningfully. "I haven't finished yet."

"Finished as in 'come'?" Mal asks, cos he's all aware Simon's still hard. "Or finished as in ..?"

"Both," Simon replies. "Turn over."

"Huh?"

Simon cups Mal's face tenderly between his hands an' kisses his mouth. "If you want me to go back with you, Mal, there are some things I need from you."

"Such as?"

"You're the Captain and when it comes to running the ship, you're in charge and I respect that. But you and me? That has to be a partnership. You have to treat me as an equal. And when you're upset or angry, I don't want you shutting me out. You have to tell me how you're feeling – let me in. Do you think you can do that?"

"Okay," Mal agrees slowly.

"And sometimes – just sometimes – I want it to be me that fucks you."

Mal blinks in surprise at hearin' that word come outa Simon's mouth an' again as he registers his meanin'.

"Right," he says with no small hesitation.

"And Mal - I want to fuck you now. Right now."

Mal swallows hard. "Uh - I dunno – I mean, I ain't ever ..."

"I know."

Simon must realize mere words ain't gonna reassure Mal cos he takes him in his arms an' brushes the hair back from his face with infinite care, endless gentleness.

" 'm I gonna hate it?" Mal asks eventually.

"I hope not. I won't lie to you – penetration can be uncomfortable and withdrawal often stings but my plan is to have you enjoy it. I know how to do that."

Trepidation wars with the desire to please as Mal searches Simon's face. At last he takes a deep breath an' rolls onto his stomach. "I gotta hold the bars?" he asks apprehensively as Simon pushes his legs apart an' kneels between them.

"Only if you want to. Can you reach that jar?"

Oh God. Mal hands it over an' tries not to tense up. It don't work. The schloopy sounds of Simon preparin' himself make Mal's stomach contract an' when Simon lays a hand on him, he all but leaps off the bed. It's only through sheer force of will that he stays where he is, though the effort required makes him tremble.

The instant invasion of his body he was fearin' don't happen. Instead Simon strokes his hands in long sweeps across Mal's shoulders an' down him arms, bendin' his head to pepper Mal's back with kisses an' stoppin' every now an' again to trace a finger along a scar.

"So many injuries," Simon muses. "And badly repaired too. With proper treatment, you wouldn't have scarred like this."

Mal would point out that war don't leave a lot of time for proper treatment, but Simon has started kneading the knots out of his muscles an' it feels so gorram good, all he feels like doin' is gruntin' contentedly.

When Simon's hands reach his ass Mal flinches a little, but the slow massage continues an' his breathin' evens out again, as all the while Simon murmurs soothin' words against his skin.

The feel of a first finger slidin' inside him ain't so bad, though when a second joins it, Mal's body rebels, not wantin' Simon to open up what oughta be closed. The ring of muscle clamps down hard an' tight.

"Breathe, baobei," Simon tells him. "Don't you remember how good this can be?"

Mal does. His cock stirs at the recollection an' he shivers, lettin' out a long sigh. Simon's fingers press in deeper, twist an' a sudden jolt of pleasure shoots through Mal, makin' him gasp.

Then nothin'.

Mal waits expectantly but Simon's fingers don't move. Maybe Mal oughta let him know him that was okay? Cos he could stand more of that ...

Tianna! Another jolt, more intense than the first, makes him jerk an' let out a yell. This time the sensation takes longer to fade an' leaves Mal cravin' more.

Simon makes him wait an age before thrustin' his fingers forwards again, by which time Mal's seriously reconsiderin' his beggin' policy.

"Oh God, Simon," he pants. "Don't stop."

Simon's laugh is pleased but gentle. "I don't intend to."

An' now the jolts start comin' slow an' steady, strong enough to make Mal moan an' writhe but not nearly as strong as he needs. Even when Simon pushes a third finger into him, Mal feels more empty than full. When he starts grindin' his erection into the mattress, Simon leans forward to kiss the back of his neck.

"I'm going to fuck you now, Mal," he tells him, the words matter-of-fact although his voice is thick with emotion.

Mal whimpers an' bites his lip, noddin' his assent. He lets Simon move him till he's half-kneelin', half-lyin' with his head restin' on his arms. He feels ridiculous in this position. Vulnerable. Needy.

Fingers again. Inside him. Promisin' whatever he needs, he can have. Not long now. Mal could almost weep with gratitude an' finds himself unwillin' to let go when Simon withdraws them.

But at the first contact from Simon's cock, Mal's fear returns. He's certain he can't take it. The head alone feels enormous, too wide, too blunt, too much ...

"Breathe."

Simon grips Mal's hips, pulls them back an' presses his own forward. Mal tries not to resist but he can't help it. Feels like the stretchin'll never stop. Somethin's gonna split ... Skin an' muscle drag an' burn an' behind the streaks of pain there's the slow buildin' pressure of full penetration. Mal moans low in his throat, reaches forward an' grabs the bedstead rails, bracin' himself to endure this ordeal.

It ain't gonna work. This thing between him an' Simon. There's no way he's gonna let Simon do this again. An' how can he ever do it to Simon now that he knows how it feels? Only a monster would ...

"Breathe, Mal. Let me in. Trust me."

"Can't."

"Yes, you can. Stop fighting me. I don't want to hurt you. I love you."

Tha's what makes this so ruttin' painful, Mal thinks. Okay. He'll try. Try harder. He takes a deep, deep breath an' exhales slowly. Again an' again until havin' Simon inside him feels less like torture an' more like simple fullness.

"Good, that's good, Mal," Simon praises, an' starts movin' his hips, jus' rockin' the two of them back an' forwards together. Movement helps – spreads the pressure - Mal realizes an' he goes with it. Simon releases Mal's hipbones, runnin' one hand up his chest to find a nipple and the other down his belly seekin' out his cock – half-hard from desire, half-soft from fear. Both get stroked in time to the rockin' motion an' Mal hears himself purr. He thrusts into Simon's hand an' Simon follows the movement of his hips with his own.

So close. So in tune.

But Simon won't let Mal come again. "Not yet," he says, voice strained an' ragged as Mal mewls in protest.

He pulls back an' almost completely out of Mal, then drives back in. Mal shudders an' grips the rails harder. When Simon does it again Mal bites the bedcover beneath him. Oh God. Again – deeper this time. And again. Simon's breathin' is gettin' harsher with each snap of his hips an' Mal's fightin' for air now. He lifts his head, only to have Simon push it back down again as he changes the angle of his thrusts.

His next stroke hits whatever they call that place of sheer, screamin' pleasure an' Mal bucks back against him, cursin' an' pantin' an' suddenly beggin' for more.

"Harder?" Simon laughs, his cheek against Mal's back, wet with sweat. "You want me to do it harder?

"Oh God, yes, Simon. YES!"

Simon don't need tellin' twice. He pistons his hips, slammin' hard, fast an' unrelentin' into Mal's now welcomin' body until Mal lets out a wail. Instantly, Simon reaches round for his cock again an' jacks it in synch with his thrusts.

Mal's body twists, quakes an' jerks, then suddenly stills as he comes all in a rush of hot, thick wetness an' babblin' relief.

He don't care what Simon does to him now. Only hopes he gets half as much pleasure from it as this – this feelin' of completion an' warmth. Of being loved, wanted, taken, owned.

He hears his name on Simon's lips, hears it almost sobbed out, as Simon plunges into him one final time and then the weight of his spent body collapses onto Mal, coverin' him.

For a while they lie like that, skin on skin, listenin' to each other breathe, feelin' the other's heartbeat so strong it could be their own. Mal can't remember ever feelin' so at peace.

"Are you all right?" Simon asks.

"Mmmm," Mal confirms.

"Breathe in for me, Mal and when I say breathe out."

" 'kay."

"Now."

Mal gives a little hiss as Simon pulls out of him an' grumbles sleepily when he feels Simon move away. "Where you goin'?"

"I need to clean you up. And apply a little cream. You're going to be sore in the morning but I can minimize that ..."

Mal rolls onto his side an' looks up at him. "You gonna take care of me?" he asks, touched.

Simon leans down and kisses his forehead. "Always."

* * * * *

Demeter's ramp lowers to reveal her crew, peering out expectantly into the morning light.

Mal's arm around Simon's shoulders tightens. He ain't used to demonstratin' his affections in public, nor even amongst friends, but he's got somethin' to prove here. Even if it does make him feel gorram foolish. He pulls himself taller an' lifts his chin.

"It's all right, Mal," Simon says, sensing his tension. "You can let me go."

"I could," Mal agrees, still holdin' on tight. "But I ain't gonna."

Wash shields his eyes against the low slants of pink sunlight as he watches the pair approach – Simon carrying his red medical bag and Mal a large suitcase. "You think Mal's walking funny?" he asks his wife.

She considers for a while. The Captain does look a mite uncomfortable. But happy. Somewhere deep inside Zoe relaxes and she lets out a breath she didn't even know she'd been holding.

Inara approaches Zoe, eyes twinkling. "I'd say that," she says, indicating Mal and Simon with a tilt of her head, "brings our arrangement to a happy conclusion, wouldn't you?"

"Well, it ain't exactly what I had in mind when I hired you," Zoe replies a smile. "But I reckon so."

Simon's moved to see his old friends waiting to welcome him aboard. Even Jayne's there. Simon and the mercenary shake hands warmly. There's only one thing Simon feels anxious about ...

Kaylee.

He turns to where she's standing, half-hidden in shadow and is just about to speak when her cheeks puff out, her eyes go wide and she shakes her head frantically.

"Kaylee? Are you ..?"

Clearly not, Simon tells himself, as she charges down the ramp just in time to throw up into a large clump of weeds.

"Was that my fault?" Simon wonders out loud.

"Nah, Doc," Jayne chortles, grinnin' from ear to ear. "Reckon it might well be mine."

"Really?"

"Turns out I ain't firin' blanks after all," Jayne confides proudly. "That partner o' your'n checked me out. Put my mind at rest. Gotta say – he sure knows how to make a fella feel better about himself."

Simon darts a little smile at Mal. "I'll say he does at that," he agrees, surreptitiously patting Mal on the butt.

Mal winces an' draws Simon to one side, mutterin' under his breath, "We are not doin' that again till it's some day I don't need to be sittin' down."

Simon gives him a very stern look. "I thought you were going to stop ordering me about."

Mal suppresses a smile. "Wa'n't an order. More like a suggestion. If you ever wanna do it again, that is ..."

Kaylee makes her way back up the ramp, grinnin' apologetically. "All aboard, Cap'n."

"Good girl." Mal turns to his pilot. "Wash – take us out of the world."

THE END