The one thing that really unsettles Simon is the noise of Serenity. It jars him. He longs for the sensible quiet of the Osiris, of the operating room and the wards. He took the sounds for granted, and now he misses them. He misses the sounds of strangers talking casually, the anonymous hum of conversation.
On Serenity, he can picture each person as he hears them. That slightly raised tone of voice means that Wash is probably rolling his eyes; that low growl means Zoe is glaring; that flat tone means that while the captain's expression probably hasn't changed, he's close to losing his patience.
It's not the enforced intimacy that bothers him quite as much as… the constant sound. Even when no-one's speaking, he can still hear it: the slight hum of engines in the background; an old wheeze of parts moving. He tries not to think about the slight creaks and groans, because he's sure Kaylee knows what she's doing. But it's harder to trust Kaylee's bright smile when he's alone in his bunk, trying to ignore sounds he doesn't understand.
He's tried outrunning it, but the noise is always there. There's nowhere on the ship that's silent. Everywhere and anywhere you go, you can still hear her moving. Kaylee says it's just the way ships are, the sound they make as they work.
(River said it was a heartbeat, beating inside everyone's head, but she smiled as she said it, tapping him on the forehead, and he was reminded of the six year old who would correct his grammar while grinning at him. Then she mentioned quantum physics and sound waves and electrons, and he nodded and pretended he understood.)
The only place that he can escape the sound is outside the ship. He can put on a space suit, turn off the Comm, and the noise is gone. It's silent and empty, surrounded by the blackness that stretches on forever. There isn't a sound, and he feels like the only man alive, drifting light years away from home.
The feeling only lasts for a few minutes, then there's a pull on his shoulder and a hand reaching in front of him to switch the Comm on. He hears the immediate hiss of static and looks up to see Mal watching him, standing close but no longer touching him.
"Alright, Doc?" Mal asks, and cocks an eyebrow at Simon. Simon finds himself thinking that for all his settler ways, the captain suits space. The stillness; the emptiness. It must be one of the few things he can't out-wait.
"I'm fine. Just… getting some air." If he was back on Osiris, back in the hospital, that's what he would have said as he stood outside and let the tension leak out of him. But the sounds he heard would have been normal, expected. It would have been birds, people and the breeze rustling through the trees. It would have sounded alive. "So to speak."
The corner of Mal's lips pull up, just a fraction, but the amusement is clear in his eyes. "You might find the air out here a touch scarce."
"I…" The sharp retort is on the tip of his tongue -- his automatic reaction is defensive -- but he doesn't actually want to insult the captain. Instead, he forces himself to smile and remember that this man has kept River aboard his ship, made her part of his crew. Whether he admits it or not, he's risked his life and ship for River, and the least Simon can do is to be civil to him. "No, I guess not."
"Then you might as well come inside," Mal drawls casually, but his glance is sharp. He's watching Simon, and Simon can't shake the feeling that it's because of River. Like sister, like brother. As if they're just waiting for him to start speaking nonsense as well.
The only way he knows to fight that is to be calm, to be sensible, and to be sane enough for the pair of them.
"Okay," he says and nods. Mal stands back and waits for him to go down the hatch first. He climbs down slowly and steps back when he reaches the bottom. He waits for Mal to close the hatch, and then speaks. "I promised Kaylee I'd help her with tonight's meal anyway."
"You do that, Doc." Mal smiles slightly. Those smiles are like the man himself; inscrutable and almost intimidating. "No matter how little you know about a kitchen, it's bound to be better than Jayne's cooking."
"Yes, well…" He doesn't say that he can cook perfectly well. He and River learned to cook years ago. They spent a lot of nights with the servants, with their parents out, learning favourite dishes. He removes the suit and helmet, handing them to the captain and looking at his hands. "Kaylee will be waiting for me."
Mal simply nods, so Simon turns away and walks back into the noisy hum of Serenity.