At every spare moment, through every job, the entire crew had been keeping a close eye on Zoe, so even after Mal hit the ground, clutching his bloody thigh, it took Simon a good long moment to react. Simon shoved the handful of wires he'd been holding in place back into Kaylee's hands, grabbed his bag, and scurried over to Mal's side, keeping low to avoid the wild shots of the terrified teenage security guards at the far end of the hall. The security station bench was chest-high, and had been an excellent shield so far, but Simon was not really surprised to find that Mal had been a good arms-length to the side of the bench, completely without cover, trying for a better shot. Fortunately, Mal had fallen back behind the safety of the bench - Simon was pleased that he wouldn't have to move the Captain before working out what was causing all the bleeding.
"Captain!" Simon knelt down and pulled a wad of gauze from his black bag, pushing Mal's slippery, blood-soaked fingers aside and pressing firmly on the wound.
Mal managed an annoyed grunt before trying to sit up. "It's fine, Doc, ain't no more than a scratch."
"Maybe so," Simon shoved Mal back down, then frowned and looked at the injured area, high on Mal's thigh, not far from his groin. "It looks like shrapnel, not a bullet, and it's near a major artery. If you start running around with shrapnel in your leg, you're going to puncture that artery. Then you'll be spraying blood on the ceiling and there won't be a thing I can do for you." In fact, it looked like there were several small injuries surrounding the most obvious wound, but the bleeding was responding well to pressure.
Mal subsided, settling for cocking his gun and holding it ready, alarmingly close to Simon's shoulder, rather than getting up. "Kaylee! How you doing?"
"Almost done, Cap'n!"
"So long as you don't lose a leg to a pair of sprouts that ain't old enough to shave, we're all good, Sir."
"Doors are open, Jayne's got the Mule out and he's heading right on back," Kaylee called over, unhooking her equipment from the security panel and shoving it back into the pink plastic crate.
"River got Serenity prepped?" Mal tried to get up again, and Simon pushed him back down one-handed, then grabbed a bandage from his bag.
"Ship's ready to fly. You needing a hand, there, Doc?" Zoe fired a few more shots down the corridor and crouched down beside Simon.
"I just need to get this wadding strapped into place, then I'll be able to support the Captain back to the ship. With any luck, he'll listen to me and won't try to put any weight on his left leg."
"Hear that, Sir?" Zoe hauled Mal up to a sitting position, watchful for a warning from Simon.
"I heard it, all right – you think you can handle that pair of pipsqueaks who keep on shooting at me?" As Simon took his place on Mal's left, Mal slung his arm over Simon's shoulders and they stood up together, Mal flinching but obeying Simon's directions, for once. Zoe shot another warning shot down the corridor, then unhooked a grenade from her belt and rolled it into the security station which had sheltered them.
The crew ran, or at least limped rapidly, around the corner and out the broken main doors of the incongruously modern building into the churned-up mud of the main street of the township, and the explosion lit the night behind them. Jayne skidded the Mule to a halt beside them, with what Simon considered was an entirely unnecessary spray of mud, the back piled high with sleek black storage boxes.
Jayne boggled at Mal's bloody thigh and groin. "You started on blocking bullets with your gorram man parts now?"
Simon and Zoe boosted Mal up into the passenger seat with a minimum of cursing, though Mal did manage to reply, "Jayne, didn't know you were paying such close attention!" Jayne's face crumpled from smugness to a scowl, but he revved up the Mule and drove it off the main road and down the muddy hill towards the ship without going over more than a few rough bumps. Simon and Kaylee ran behind, carrying the medical bag and crate of electronics respectively, Zoe hurrying them along as the town behind them woke up in a flurry of alarms and random gunfire.
As soon as Serenity cleared atmosphere, Simon got to work, cutting off Mal's shredded pants and injecting local anaesthetic into his thigh.
"You don't need be to wasting the good stuff on me, Doc." Mal waved his hand in the direction of the syringe, but Simon noticed that he wasn't trying too hard.
"It's for my comfort, Captain, not yours. This way you won't distract me with your complaining. I'm working in a very sensitive area, here." Simon bent close, his left hand busy with the antiseptic, flushing out the relatively shallow wounds, and his right picking out the bullet fragments with forceps, sometimes swapping for a splinter probe. Each fragment made a soft, bright noise as Simon dropped it in the steel dish, like the bronze strings of the yangqin that River had played as a child, before she had learnt the entire classical repertoire and declared that she was bored.
Now that Mal's bitching had subsided to a low, constant mutter, Simon's attention narrowed, as if he was looking through a microscope, his hands, eyes and mind working in unison. He missed this state of extreme concentration, being on Serenity rather than in surgery, distracted and dissipated by friendships, worries and the constant chatter of the rest of the crew. Here, nothing interfered with his concentration, and there was no difficulty in spotting the new problem, and it provoked no alarm. The tiniest pieces of shrapnel were barely the size of pinheads, and Simon knew that the next step would be to have Kaylee rig him some kind of basic scanner to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Another problem had jumped the queue, though – one of the needle-fine pieces had nicked Mal's scrotum. Simon had flushed it with the antiseptic and removed the splinter, only to find that, once the blood from the wound was wiped away, Mal's testicle was slowly leaking a thick, pale green fluid.
Mal peered down the length of his body at Simon's serious, safety-goggled face. "So, I'm gonna die?"
Simon just stared for a moment, his memory quickly running through scenarios that fit these criteria, then it snapped into place. "Only if I strangle you for not giving me your full medical history. This is an androgenic implant, isn't it?"
"If those little hun dan broke something you can't fix, we're turning this ship around and letting Jayne and Vera get in some moving target practise on their qiangbao houzi de asses!"
"I don't think you need to start planning violent revenge any time soon, Captain. I can seal the membrane easily enough, and enough of the surface is left that it shouldn't affect the testosterone secretion in the slightest." Simon gently pressed the edges of the tiny cut in the implant together with the forceps, and they slowly knitted back together – this was a high-quality product. Simon sighed. If their very basic dermal mender was working, he'd be able to close up Mal's injuries just as neatly, but as it was, Mal would have to put up with sterile dressings and maybe a stitch. Simon adhered a dressing over the tiny but bloody scrotum injury, and frowned. There had, in fact, been a great deal of skin sealing and regrowth all around Mal's groin. It would take a trained eye to spot such excellent, scar-free treatment – in fact, Simon would bet on Mal's own cells being harvested and vat-grown in advance – but Simon had seen this kind of surgery before.
"You've had a sex change."
"You quite done messing around down there? Starting to think you're interested, and Kaylee ain't gonna stand for that." Mal's voice was cheerfully cold, though the effect was somewhat damaged by his flinch when a pubic hair caught in the splinter probe.
"I'm not 'messing around', Captain! This is important medical information, and I can't believe you didn't bother to tell me!"
"You ever known me to natter on about the past?"
"No, but… well, maybe on Unification Day?" Simon carefully wiped down Mal's scrotum, penis and thigh with a bright orange antiseptic gel, then threw the jelly-like swab into the trash.
Despite his vulnerable position on the exam bed, Mal seemed quite clear that he had won the discussion. "Well, there ain't no day for celebrating getting your rightful man parts. What's past is past, Doc, and I seem to recall that you're on this ship for emergencies. You heard of those? Things that happen suddenly, in the here-and-now?"
"So you get this emergency fixed right, then it ain't no more of your business, dong ma?"
Simon turned back to his work, applying an adhesive strip to the largest wound, as he didn't want to stitch it until he was sure it was completely clean. "I'm going to need Kaylee to rig me a scanner to check that I haven't missed any of the shrapnel."
"She need to know more than that?"
"That's the focussed kind of attitude you need, Doc! You get Kaylee sorted, and I'll just lie myself here on your excellent table and relax." Mal fixed Simon with a beady glare and Simon felt himself nodding in agreement before he could stop himself.
They seemed to have made a clean getaway with the crates of microchips – which Kaylee informed them were a vital and expensive part of secure-channel communications systems – but Mal still insisted on going up to the bridge to check, the second Simon and Kaylee had finished scanning for remaining shrapnel, and Simon had removed the last few pieces.
"You shouldn't be walking, Captain, or you'll just open everything up again."
Kaylee looked up from where she was sitting on the floor, packing up the jury-rigged metal detector. "Yeah, Cap'n, you've already gone through one pair of pants today."
"We got crutches in this xi niao infirmary?"
"There happens to be a grand total of one crutch, since Kaylee used the struts off the other one," Simon replied, sliding the old-style aluminium crutch out of the cupboard where it stood behind the oxygen canister. "But that should be all you need, if you take it easy and stay off the ladders as much as you can."
"Hmph. Should make that a matched pair again some day." Mal tucked the crutch under his arm, and, unsurprisingly, he must have been the last person to use it, as the height was exactly right. He limped out of the infirmary, white infirmary pants flapping around his legs, and Kaylee grinned.
"Notice he ain't wearing his pants so tight now! He really gonna be okay with just one crutch? I can maybe get that strut back out of the engine for a time, if he's needing it. It's just there to make extra sure the starboard coil housings don't go slipping, it ain't one hundred percent required."
"No, no, I think Mal would agree that the coil housing comes first. He'll be fine with just one." Simon finished his clean-up, placing his instruments and eye protection in the steriliser and bundling his protective apron and the linens from the bed together for washing, disposing only of his gloves. Kaylee reached over as Simon walked past her, and tickled behind his knee.
"What's up, sweetie? Any more down in the mouth and you're gonna be straining the grav unit."
Simon grinned despite himself and saved his knee from Kaylee's evil tickling fingers by dropping down and sitting cross-legged on the floor beside her. "Do you know much about the Captain's life before you joined the crew? I mean, he's demonstrated on more than one occasion that he was a Browncoat, but apart from that?"
Kaylee stroked Simon's hair back into some sort of order. "I think his Mama raised him, but I'm guessing she wouldn't have lived past the bombing of Shadow. Your books teach that in the Core?"
"Yes, I remember it on the newsfeeds. It made River cry for days. I don't mean the war, though, I mean, well, his personal life."
"You mean, who was he rutting?" Kaylee averted her face in mock-shyness. "Why, Doctor Tam, I gotta say your dedication to your patients is mighty impressive."
Simon felt himself blushing, much to his annoyance. "No, well, I mean – "
"No-one serious, far as I know. Couple of women who took a liking to that brown coat, maybe, oh, and that mechanic on Dyton. I really did like her, but she had a nice little reconditioning business going, no way was she coming with us. But it ain't me you should be talking with, it should be Zoe."
"Do you think she'd mind? She hasn't exactly been in a talkative mood since, since Wash." Simon gently stroked Kaylee's hair, but no more than a sniffle came out of her.
"That ain't something I can answer – she might well want to talk?" Kaylee climbed into Simon's lap and they sat comfortably entwined on the floor for a good few minutes, her head on his shoulder.
Simon climbed down the ladder from the walkway to the floor of the cargo bay, where Zoe was checking the stolen communication chips against the electronic manifest on the lid of each flat black crate.
"The captain's escaped your tender care?"
"Yes, he's back on his feet and he's gone up to the bridge to check on my sister." Simon immediately winced at his mention of the ship's replacement pilot, but Zoe didn't look up from the information she was entering. "Uh, he'll be fine, as long as he doesn't overdo it."
Zoe smiled a little at that, her lips pressed together. "And you ever once known him to not overdo it?"
"That is a good point, yes."
Zoe clipped the stylus back on the manifest display and pushed her hair out of her face.
"You got a reason to be hanging about here, or are you going to bless me with your presence all day?"
"No, uh, I had something to ask you. About the captain."
Zoe's slightly annoyed expression quickly morphed into worry. "He ain't going to be fine?"
"No, no, it's not about his injury as such… just, I had a question about something in the captain's past, and Kaylee hasn't known him for so long, and the captain himself won't tell me, and you've known him the longest, and…I'm babbling, aren't I?"
Zoe's concerned expression didn't change as she stepped forward and shoved her hand against Simon's collarbone, her thumb on his throat, pushing him hard against the ladder. "Didn't the captain tell you that the past is past?"
"Y-yes, he did, but – you know what I'm talking about?"
"You should listen to what you been told."
"Zoe, I'm sorry, but it's a serious medical procedure, and there are relevant medical issues that I should know about." Simon could feel what River called his "pompous doctor voice" settling on him, but that didn't mean he wasn't right, just that he was concerned at Zoe's overreaction.
"Fei hua. You already treated him and you said he's fine. You're just wanting to dig into Mal, find out things that ain't no concern of yours. I heard the core planets have an institute for the studying of people born with the wrong parts, but out here people are people."
"It's a psychiatric centre for study of gender reassignment, and-" Simon shook his head, determined not to be distracted. "But that's high quality surgery, with custom tissue growth! That didn't happen out on a Rim planet, no matter how you treat people 'out here'."
Zoe's hand didn't move from his throat, and she braced herself against the wall with her other hand right by Simon's head. "Still ain't nothing to do with you, 'cept for your curiosity. Mal said those parts were made to last a lifetime, same as the parts he was born with. You shouldn't need to know the first thing about him."
"But today –"
"And it ain't that I want to deprive Kaylee of anything she enjoys, but if I start to hear you been bothering the captain or anyone else about this, you can be sure I'll be slamming your balls in the airlock door until Mal ain't the only one needing a little artificial aid down there. Dong ma?"
Simon was suddenly glad that he knew exactly where Zoe's hands were. "I – yes, I understand."
Zoe let go of his throat and stepped back. "And that's the last I want ever to hear about it. Go be useful somewhere. Help Jayne with dinner, because there ain't no doubt he needs the assistance."
Simon trudged back up a deck towards the kitchen, only to be met by the vocal magnificence of Jayne singing that ridiculous song about himself as he chopped up moulded protein.
"…the man they call Jaaaaaaaaaaayne!" the man in question bellowed in Simon's general direction, waving his knife in time, oblivious to the scowl shot at him in return. The last thing Simon needed right now was to be stuck in the tiny kitchen with a cheerful Jayne, regardless of Zoe's rather strong recommendation that he make himself useful. He didn't really want Zoe checking on him and finding that he wasn't keeping busy, which meant that there was only one place to go – the bridge. As far as Simon knew, Zoe hadn't once been there since they'd removed Wash's body. He could understand why she wouldn't go there, but he didn't feel too guilty about hiding out there with River for a while, until Zoe's anger had dissipated.
In the narrow corridor leading up to the bridge, though, Simon could hear River's peculiar, jerky laughter, and, surprisingly, Mal laughing, too.
"You're fussing about your brother wanting to know every gorram thing in the universe? Here I was thinking you were the one whose head ain't big enough to hold all you want it to!"
"I don't need to take apart things that are repaired, only things that are broken." River's voice was deadly serious, but then she giggled, as if Mal had said something ridiculous.
"Sometimes I get to wondering about that, if it was maybe just vanity, all of it." Mal's voice was casual, but it was no great stretch to hear the tension in it. "Plenty of folks who live their lives without needing more than they got."
River put on a perfect imitation of Mal's uninterested tone. "Ain't none of them on this ship, near as I can see. 'Cept the doc, maybe, but he got more than he needed."
Mal laughed, and Simon stopped on the stairs just outside the open door, suddenly hesitant to interrupt what seemed like an easy, familiar conversation, the captain and Simon's little sister sounding for all the 'verse like a pair of old drinking buddies. Before Simon entered the bridge, River stretched out in the pilot's chair, arching her spine right over the arm and leaning her head back to pinion Simon with her gaze. Simon froze, and River grinned at him for just a moment, before folding herself back into her seat. Mal had the co-pilot's chair, his injured leg propped up on the console, exposing a long stretch of shin where his uncharacteristically loose pants had slid up his leg. He stared out at the stars, meditatively.
"It wasn't killing me, having woman parts, not like you needing to get your brain fixed. Didn't really make so much difference at home on Shadow – everyone had to do the same work, man or woman. But then I grew into a fine, strong-backed woman, and the boys I knew suddenly got a hankering for a tumble, to get a baby on me so we'd marry and inherit my Ma's ranch."
"Why would you have to marry them? Your mother wasn't married, was she?"
"She surely was not, but she was a gorram tough old woman. Anyone challenged her, she'd stare 'em down, tell 'em guan ni ziji de shi and that'd be that. I didn't want to fight anyone, back then, thought I wanted to be left alone to work the ranch. Turns out my Ma was right – you don't fight, someone's just going to press you into shape like a mooncake."
"And slurp out your tasty filling," River added solemnly. Simon smothered a laugh – River had been known to do exactly that, then innocently put the collapsed pastry back on the plate.
"The Alliance surely did. It was a few years 'fore the war, though, so I didn't know that folks like my Ma, folks who wouldn't tell you how to live, were rare. She sat me down and spelled out for me what was bothering me so much. Said she'd prayed for a boy, back before I was born, so her baby wouldn't live her life, and that's what she got. Just in a girl's body."
"What was her life, and why would being a boy save you from it?"
"Don't rightly know." Mal shifted in his chair and adjusted his injured leg on the console. "Soon as she said it, it sat right with me. Turns out she'd been putting aside coin from the calf money since I was old enough to start looking like a woman and trying not to."
River walked over to Mal, folding up her tattered woollen sweater and placing it under his leg. He made a noise of protest, then settled his leg back in place with a sigh of comfort.
River stood by him and looked down with the blank expression that could mean anything from fear to happiness. "Sometimes, thinking about everything Simon gave up to help me feels the same as missing my skin."
"You're a poet, little albatross, it's why I keep you around. And my Ma could have used that money, got herself off-planet when the bombardment started, maybe."
"Maybe if she hadn't prayed for a boy you wouldn't be one. Maybe if Simon hadn't been so smart, I wouldn't have wanted to be a bigger diamond, all shiny and valuable with a thousand sparkling facets more than him. They shared our creation and we share their destruction. It's all the same gem, turning around and around."
River leaned on Mal's chair and Mal sighed. "Such a cheery poet, too."
"I can sing a song, if you like." River flicked her hair and her bright grin was back.
"How's about you start plotting the descent onto Paquin? Singing's not going to save us from burning up in atmosphere if you don't compensate for all that magnetised space junk they got in close orbit."
"Yes, Sir!" River flopped backwards into her chair and started pulling up the charts on the overhead display, with barely a backwards glance at Simon.
"You hear that, Doc?" Mal called back, and Simon jumped in surprise, missing his footing and scraping his shin on the edge of the metal step. "Your sister says you're a diamond, not a mooncake. Try to act like it."
Simon opened his mouth to apologise, then seeing the captain ready to laugh at him for being as conformist as River had said he wasn't, snapped it shut.
"Jayne's cooking tonight," Simon said, instead. "I expect I'll be called on to test my medical skills shortly thereafter, but I'll try not to jump to conclusions."
"Good man," Mal turned back to River, pointing out a correction on their course through the black, and Simon watched his sister for a moment, her long hair brushing across the console, smiling as if her life was that perfect, sparkling diamond of her imagination. Simon shook his head clear of River's peculiar poetry and walked back down to where he could smell the beginnings of some kind of onion and cubed protein stew. Even Mal knew he was wrong when he said that the past was past, but Simon knew that shouldn't stop him living in the present, if only to keep up with the rest of the crew. Much to his surprise, his stomach growled.
"Jayne, that smells great! Do you need a hand?"