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"Is this going to scar?"

Simon ties off the last of the sutures and cuts the thread neatly before answering, "No, I don't think so."

"Good," says Zoë. "I don't know about you, but if I'm going to have scars, I'd like them to have some kind of story behind them. 'I was cutting some bread and my hand slipped' is not the kind of story I had in mind."

Simon smiles, dabs at the newly-stitched cut with a sterile wipe. "At least we've had some bread," he says. "My God, it's been so long, I'd almost forgotten what it tasted like."

"You'll forget again before you get another chance." She flexes her hand, looks at Simon. "Didn't last long, did it?"

He shrugs, turns to busy himself with something medical she can't identify. "Nothing ever does."

"I meant you and Kaylee."

He turns his head a little, almost facing her, but not quite. There's a kind of twist to his mouth that isn't exactly a smile. "So did I. We're done here, by the way. If you want to -- "

"Oh." She slides off the exam table, glances at him for a moment, waiting for something else; leaves when it doesn't come.

"He ain't grieving much," she says to Mal when she sees him on the bridge. "I guess it never went that deep."

"Good," says Mal. "Don't want my doctor distracted when he's taking bullets out of me."

"And Kaylee's the same as ever," she says, gesturing back towards the engine room. "Talking to the engines and braiding River's hair like nothing's changed."

Mal smiles, then Zoë smiles too. Kaylee has that effect on people. Even the thought of her is enough to cheer a body up. "And how about you?" says Mal. "How's your grieving coming on?"

Her smile dies. She looks at him, wonders what her eyes are showing. They're dry, for the time being. She doesn't make a song and dance about it, but she's shed tears a-plenty for her man, and she isn't done yet.

"It's coming," she says.

"Good," says Mal. "'Cos I can't do without you." He glances through the door, to the catwalks and corridors beyond. Zoë follows his eyes and catches sight of somebody's back, she's not sure whose. "I can't do without any of you," Mal mutters, and Zoë knows he's right.

 

*

The first time Jayne and Simon have sex is on the day after Simon and Kaylee broke up.

Simon comes into the kitchen wanting to drink himself into a stupor and finds Jayne polishing off the last drop of saké. Jayne listens impassively to a long stream of bilingual insults before suggesting that watered-down medicinal alcohol from the infirmary might serve as a substitute, if Simon is really that desperate. The idea of drinking something which says NOT FOR INTERNAL USE in very large letters on the label seems foolish to Simon; Jayne, however, has drunk watered-down medicinal alcohol before ("Only good thing about growing up in the buttcrack of nowhere," he says. "If all we'd had was mud, we'd've made whisky out of it.") and is happy to serve as a mine canary. He cheerfully swigs down half a beaker of the diluted mixture Simon offers him and lies back on the examination table while Simon pinches his nose and swallows as much of the stuff as he can stand.

Everything after that is a blur, up to the moment when Simon wakes up a couple of hours later slumped on Jayne's chest with a pounding headache and his hands in Jayne's pants; at which point panic sets in, and Simon zips himself up, zips Jayne up, puts Jayne in the recovery position so he won't choke on his tongue, tidies up the infirmary as quietly as possible, and sprints to the passenger dorm to clean himself off before River can see him.

When he creeps back to the infirmary to get himself an analgesic, Jayne's gone. Simon feels oddly disappointed.

 

*

Their latest heist included a crate of very good whisky, the kind that sells in fancy bars for fifty square a bottle. Most of it's going to get sold (one bottle at a time, you get more cash that way), but Mal's not dumb or sadistic enough to insist that the crew keep their hands off the whole crate. They're all sharing one bottle now, taking slow, warming sips of it, and if there's anything better than a job well done and a bottle of really good booze to make people friendly, Mal's never found it.

Inara's sitting snuggled up close to him. She wasn't in on the heist, but she gets to share the whisky because Mal says so. "Are you telling me," she's saying, the laughter bubbling up in her voice, "that you used my special sandalwood-scented -- "

"I didn't know what it was!" Kaylee cries. "Swear to God, 'Nara, all I knew was it was greasy and it smelled nice. And we were out of engine oil, so -- "

They're all laughing. Even Jayne, who probably doesn't know what they're talking about. Even Zoë, who hasn't laughed much since Wash died. And Inara -- Inara, whose sandalwood-scented whosis it was that got pilfered -- she's buried her head in Mal's shoulder and she's shaking all over, so that it just feels right and proper and not crossing any kind of line to put his arm around her.

"That's nothing," Simon says. "You would not believe the kinds of things that get used as lubricants by people who don't know any better."

Inara lifts her head from Mal's shoulder. "I think I would," she says. She's grinning widely and shifting on the couch, pulling herself closer to Mal. Mal lets her, trying not to push it, trying to let her set the pace.

"Oh, no, no," says Simon, "I mean, I'm not disputing your experience with people who actually understand the basics of anatomy -- " (at this Kaylee dissolves into giggles) " -- but as an ER doctor, you get opportunities to see the depths to which human stupidity can sink."

He gives Jayne a pointed look, which earns him a dead, unfriendly stare in return. "Such as?" Jayne says, a warning tone in his voice.

Simon holds his gaze for a moment. "Let me put it this way," he says, looking away from Jayne and glancing at each of the others in turn. "There are certain substances that should be kept well away from the intimate parts of the human body. Such as, for instance, chilli peppers, soy sauce, peanut butter, glue..."

Jayne's legs come together sharply as if to protect his privates, and his face is twisted in an expression of pained disgust. Kaylee's doubled over, laughing so hard it looks like she might strain something. Simon just leans back and smiles, sort of happy, sort of smug.

Inara stands up. "I think I've probably drunk enough for one night. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, it's been a lovely evening. I must get back to my shuttle." She takes a step and stumbles, falling over the hem of her gown; Mal's on his feet and catches her before she hits the floor. "Uh." She clears her throat, a delicate little gravelly sound that shouldn't be as sexy as it is. "Captain. Perhaps you would escort me?"

Everyone seems to take that as a cue, because as soon as he's taken her arm Zoë's up and muttering about needing to get some sleep, and Kaylee's talking about wanting to get back to the engine room, and Simon... Simon seems to be asleep. Huh. Boy sure can't take his liquor. "Don't drink all the whisky, Jayne," he says as he walks Inara out; not really meaning it. Not really caring.

 

*

The second time Jayne and Simon have sex is after the others have gone to bed, leaving Simon lazing happily on the couch, eyes closed but conscious of the sounds Jayne is making, of his presence in the room. Jayne is certainly a man who's hard to miss. Simon imagines that even with his eyes closed he could point to the exact place where Jayne is sitting. The thought makes him smile, and a second later he realises he was wrong, because that has to be Jayne touching his cheek and he didn't feel it coming at all.

His eyes flutter open. Jayne's stroking his cheek with a frown of concentration on his face. "How'd you get so pale?" he says. "Like you was raised in a mineshaft."

There's a tingle in Simon's lips which might be the whisky, might be something else. He licks them, and that's a mistake, because now he knows it's not the whisky. "I. Um." Jayne's still staring at him. "I can't feel my legs," he says, and when he hears the words come from his mouth he knows they're true. Oh, God... he's never been a good drinker and now he's misjudged his body's capacity to process alcohol and he's damaged his nervous system permanently and he's going to be paralysed from the waist down for the rest of his life and River will have to push him around in a hoverchair and --

"Can you feel that?" says Jayne.

"Ulp," says Simon, because that is Jayne's hand on Simon's rapidly swelling cock. As a matter of fact he can feel it, he can feel it very distinctly, and isn't that good news?

He laughs a little hysterically, which Jayne seems to take as encouragement. "Yup, that'swhat I thought," he says, and sets to unfastening Simon's clothes, the right hand fumbling with the opening of his pants while the left unfastens the buttons on his shirt so deftly that Simon finds himself wondering whether Jayne had any whisky at all, or whether he's just highly experienced at undressing people while drunk. His own hands rise without any conscious volition on his part, sliding up under Jayne's shirt, exploring a little, stroking around his waist, then dipping down into Jayne's waistband. At that, Jayne makes a pleased sort of grunting humming sound and leans down to lick the side of Simon's neck.

"Ta ma de!"

Jayne's hand goes momentarily still. "Shut your noise," he mutters into Simon's ear. "You want to get interrupted?"

Simon does not want to get interrupted. He buries his mouth in Jayne's shoulder and continues groping, and being groped. In among the spirals of heat and suppressed groans and the incomparable slide of skin on skin is an awareness that really, he isn't drunk enough for this. He can't blame the booze for the way he's writhing under Jayne's hands, the way he's grabbing at Jayne as if his own hands are hungry. He's going to remember every second of this.

He bites his lip and tastes blood as he comes. Afterwards, he's too wiped to move. Jayne disentangles himself, pours himself another shot of whisky, knocks it back. Sniffs his hand meditatively.

Simon wipes his own hand on his shirt. He was going to have to wash that shirt anyway. "I should, um." Jayne's just sitting there, not saying a word. He doesn't care, says the voice of reason, just go.

Simon stands up, remembers a second later that his pants are still unbuttoned and buttons them before they can fall around his ankles. "Good night, Doc," says Jayne as Simon reaches the door. Simon turns his head just enough to see Jayne raise the bottle in salute. "Good night," he murmurs before he turns to leave.

 

*

Kaylee tears sprigs of basil from her little plant and sprinkles them on the surface of the seven bowls of stew. She takes a moment to admire them -- the Shepherd's recipe, though the basil is her own idea -- before setting two of them down on the table and yelling "Chow!"

River is the first to drift in, her head tilted to one side and pushing forward as if she was following her nose. "Basil."

"Mmhm."

"Garnishing a base of mycoprotein marinaded in soy sauce and simmered in near-boiling water for forty-two minutes."

Kaylee holds out a bowl and winks. "Don't you give away all my secrets, now."

River takes the bowl, her hand overlapping with Kaylee's, lingering there for longer than necessary. She stares into the stew and murmurs "I miss him, too," just low enough that nobody but Kaylee can hear.

Kaylee's eyes fill with tears. One blink and they're gone, and then the others are all there, pulling out chairs, demanding food, making jokes. She forces herself to smile and sets down bowls in front of everyone who doesn't already have one, then sits down directly opposite River. River's stirring her stew, not eating, staring off into space in that way she has.

Jayne grunts. "This ain't bad," he says. "I think it actually tastes of something."

Kaylee's about to thank him when River looks up and catches her eye. "Watch," she says, so quiet Kaylee's not sure any sound comes out at all, and then River's eyes are on Simon, who hasn't started to eat yet. He's just staring at the bowl of stew, or maybe just at the little garnish of basil on top, and there's a twist in his face like the food in front of him is the saddest thing he's ever seen.

She looks back at River. River's eyes are wide, staring at Kaylee.

She clears her throat. "Ain't you hungry, Simon?"

Simon looks up, shakes his head, more as if he was waking up than to say no. "I was just... this reminds me of something..." He chuckles, awkward. "It's kind of silly..."

"That don't matter. Come on, what is it? If you don't tell me, I might figure you don't like my cooking and take offence."

"There was a restaurant..." His eyes have gone kind of soft and misty and he's toying with the sprig of basil, turning it over and over between thumb and finger. "This was on Osiris, just around the corner from the hospital. They used to serve tomato salads... just sliced tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil, a little pepper. And a sprig of basil." He looks at her. He's smiling, but it's a sad smile.

Kaylee looks down at the stew in her bowl. She cooked it so carefully, with so much love, because people she loved were going to eat it, and it's not enough; it'll never be enough. Simon is drifting away from them.

"Salad ain't enough to keep a man alive," says Jayne through a mouthful of stew, spraying food fragments onto the table.

Simon drops the sprig of basil. "I'm curious, Jayne. Do you like making everyone at the table lose their appetite, or are you just incapable of swallowing before you speak?"

Jayne shrugs. "Ain't my fault you got fastidious habits."

"I am not fastidious!"

"Yes, you are," says Kaylee, and Mal says it at the exact same time, which makes River laugh.

Simon glares at River, looking affronted and put-upon. "Well, maybe I am a little fastidious... But it's good for doctors to be fastidious! Doctors that aren't fastidious can end up killing their patients."

Jayne snorts. "You planning on giving that stew an appendectomy?"

"No -- "

"You planning on eating it?" Jayne's own bowl is half empty and his spoon is poised in his hand, ready to strike. Simon glares at him, wraps his left arm around his bowl, and starts eating, throwing suspicious glances in Jayne's direction with every second mouthful.

Kaylee laughs quietly to herself. River's relaxed a bit, eating away happily and twirling her hair round her left forefinger. Mal's talking about the patrols they've been running into, which aren't so surprising since they're pretty near the Core, only what's got him foxed is how polite they've been.

"Unsettling, is what I call it," he says, and Zoë nods, thoughtful. "Granted, they seem to be all set to deal with the Reavers in a proper business-like fashion, which is a reassurance, but I don't conjure how that means they got to be civil to us. 'Tain't their style."

"Has it been that many?" says Kaylee. "I didn't think we'd run into more'n one or two."

"Three," says Mal, "which is enough. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence -- "

" -- but three times is enemy action," says Zoë. "Old military adage."

River's eyes have been staring off into space, but when Zoë says these words, they snap into focus and turn to stare at Simon, who is staring blindly into his bowl of stew and blushing like a ripe tomato -- the way he used to do when she and him were an item and she'd get him naked, powerful shy as he was even with that fine body. "One plus one is two," River says to him, which Kaylee can't make any sense out of until Simon glances (all quick and sudden, like he can't help himself) to his left where Jayne is sitting, oblivious, wolfing down his stew like he was the only person in the room.

River's staring at her brother like she's seeing him in a whole new light. Kaylee's trying not to. Jayne? Really, Jayne? It fair boggles the mind.

Of course, there's no accounting for taste. After all, Inara's got her hand resting on the back of Mal's neck and she's whispering something in his ear that's got him smiling and looking happy, so who knows what kind of odd pairings might work out?

River looks at her and raises her spoon as if in a toast. "Good stew," she says. "Tasty."

 

*

The third time Jayne and Simon have sex comes after Simon's mopped up the remains of a job that went sour in a nasty, nasty way. They got the payoff, and Mal and Jayne are all right, but Zoë's stomach is cut up so badly it takes Simon two hours of surgery to fix her back up again.

He's press-ganged Jayne into acting as nurse for the duration, which makes Jayne twitchy. Jayne doesn't like taking orders at the best of times; he especially doesn't like taking them from Simon. Simon knows this. He just doesn't care. When he has a patient on the table, nothing else matters.

This time, though, when Zoë's stable and he can exhale and take off his apron and his gloves, Jayne is there, a massive hulk of suppressed tension and resentment, and it occurs to him that perhaps, for the sake of domestic tranquillity, he might have been a bit less peremptory. This suspicion is confirmed when Jayne strips off his own surgical gear and announces without preamble, "If we're done here, I'm doing a set, and you're gonna spot me."

Simon's not even sure what that means. "What?"

"Weights, dumbass. C'mon."

"I don't know what you -- "

Jayne grabs him by the shoulder and steers him out of the infirmary and towards the cargo bay, talking as he walks. "You need a lesson in weight-lifting, Dr Tam? Fine. I: lie on a bench and lift weights. You: sit at the head of the bench and watch me. If it looks like I can't lift 'em right, you grab the weights and put 'em on the stand. Assuming your stringy little arms ain't too weak to hold 'em. Any questions?"

"Is it really necessary to frog-march me?"

"It ain't necessary. It's fun."

"You have the strangest concept of fun."

They've reached the cargo hold. Jayne lets go. "It passes the time."

He sets up the bench, with many derogatory remarks relating to Simon's strength and masculinity. Simon ignores them. He has nothing to prove. He is a qualified trauma surgeon, after all. If a shaved ape like Jayne wants to insult him for prioritising brain over brawn, is that either surprising or anything he needs to worry about? Of course not.

Sitting on a crate behind the bench, it occurs to him that there is something unnervingly sexual about this situation, about his situation, his legs akimbo with Jayne's head between them, Jayne puffing and grunting and flexing his muscles, a sheen of sweat covering his brow and his biceps. Simon is in an excellent vantage position to observe and admire the muscular development of Jayne's upper body. Could admire the lower body pretty well, too, but for the bagginess of the pants Jayne's wearing.

These are thoughts he would have found disturbing, once. Even now, the Captain's adage is ringing a warning bell in his brain: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is... Well. Three times would mean something. But what? He is so inexperienced in these matters. Studies, work, searching for River, looking after River; these have swallowed up all the time that other people must have used in learning how to act around the people they liked, found attractive, wanted to... share things with. His abortive relationship with Kaylee has taught him some valuable lessons: the kind of stiff propriety he is used to employing as a sign of respect only causes confusion out in the Black, where life is rough and manners are loose.

Besides, he's sure respect is not what he feels now. He feels an itch all over his skin, as if his nerves are trying to crawl out from under it. It's the tension, and he's felt it before. All that adrenalin he couldn't do anything about while he was tending to Zoë is still present in his system. If he waits, it will fade, without him doing anything about it.

"...Doc? DOC!"

He comes back to himself with a start. Jayne has set the weights on the rest and is half-upright, staring up at him with a peevish look. "What is it?"

"I said, put on more weight! You deaf as well as sissified?"

"I am not -- " He exhales sharply. No. No, he is not going to rise to the bait. Brain over brawn. "Fine. More weight."

Jayne grunts and settles back into position. "Just 'cos you can't lift more'n a bag of beans -- "

Brain over brawn. Brain over brawn. Simon stares at the extra weights piled beside the bench, and an idea possesses him. He bites his tongue so as not to giggle out loud as he piles on every weight in the set onto the ends of the barbell.

It occurs to him that if Jayne gets a hernia, he'll be the one who'll have to operate. He's fairly sure it'll be worth it.

"Ready," he says.

Jayne flexes his arms, grabs the barbell, lifts... goes purple with the strain of holding it up, yells "Ta ma de!" in a choked sort of voice. Lets Simon take it (it's a strain for him, too, but he's expecting it, and it's easier to hold weights from above) and leave it on the rest.

Stares up at him, blank and uncomprehending.

Simon schools his face to show no trace of the laugh that is convulsing his stomach. "Oh, I'm sorry, Jayne," he says brightly, "was that too much for you?"

The change in Jayne's expression from puzzlement to rage is sudden, but not so sudden that Simon doesn't have time to leap up and run before Jayne can throttle him. "As your physician," he calls back as Jayne chases him up the stairs and along the corridor, "I have to advise against your straining yourself like this." He's laughing all the way, and when he runs into River on the way to the passenger dorm, he cries "Help! I'm being chased by a maniac!" River just frowns at him and shakes her head as if he'd tried to interest her in a game of tic-tac-toe (It's mathematically impossible for this game to be won unless your opponent is a person of subnormal intelligence!).

He's got just enough of a lead that he can position himself so that when Jayne runs into him, they fall back onto his bed and not onto the floor or against a table with sharp edges. "Well, you caught me," he says, laughing breathlessly and wriggling over onto his back.

"Yeah," says Jayne, pushing his shoulders down, "I caught you." The tone seems to be aiming for menace, but Simon's so hyped up on giggles and adrenalin that he can't take it seriously, and the pressure of Jayne's weight on his body is having all sorts of interesting effects, notwithstanding the typical concomitant symptoms of emotional and physical arousal. Which initially had nothing to do with Jayne, but, hell, Jayne's here now.

Simon grins. He feels reckless; he feels invulnerable; he feels like he's going to explode if he doesn't do something about his erection. He grabs Jayne's hips and grinds into them, not surprised to feel evidence that Jayne is feeling something very similar. "So, what are you going to do with me?"

The sex that ensues is messy and sloppy and fast, like the first two times, but unlike the first two times, Simon keeps his eyes open. Despite all the reasons why it's a bad idea, he is doing this with Jayne -- he wants to do this with Jayne -- and pretending it's not happening, or that it's somebody else whose beard is rasping his cheek, is not going to help either of them.

Afterwards, Jayne lies back with a satisfied humming sound, pulling Simon close to him so that they're tucked together like spoons in a drawer. The solid warmth of Jayne's body behind him is a comfort to Simon, as is Jayne's warm breath on the back of his neck, so why his own breathing is still ragged and harsh is beyond him. Jayne rubs his chest in a circular motion, gentle and tender in a way Simon would never have thought him capable of, and that tips him over the edge into tears.

"Hey," says Jayne, "what's that about?"

"I almost lost her," Simon whispers. Only now can he let himself know this, with the tension drained and the danger past. "I almost missed a laceration that would have killed Zoë. I was a hair's breadth away from watching her die on that table."

Jayne's hand stills for a moment, then resumes its slow, comforting circles. "She's fine."

"I know, I know, but -- "

"No buts, doc. She's fine." He presses a kiss against the back of Simon's neck. "What's it matter what might've happened? Fact is, you saved her."

Simon tilts his head sideways, tucks himself neatly under Jayne's chin. He can hear Jayne's heart beating, the steady systole-diastole of a man who eats a boringly balanced diet, exercises regularly, and drinks a lot less alcohol than most of his friends think.

"Thanks," he murmurs, but Jayne is already asleep.

 

*

After that, Simon stops keeping count.

 

*

They're stopping off at Persephone -- too briefly for it to be worthwhile to make contact with potential clients, even if Inara felt comfortable doing that so soon after making a new... arrangement... with Mal. Instead, she goes for a walk with Kaylee, Simon and River through the market square, looking for fresh fruit that isn't half-rotten or hideously overpriced.

River seems to find the names of the fruit fascinating. "Lychee, durian, mangosteen, watermelon, physalis, starfruit, pomelo, kumquat, papaya, cherry..." She recites this litany quietly, moving through the market with graceful rhythmic steps. Inara watches, wondering at the change in her since Miranda. River still dances to the beat of a different drum, but there are no more hallucinations, no more screaming fits. Simon buys her a basket of physalis, and the careful, awe-filled way she peels back the papery sepals to reveal the bright berry inside makes Inara wonder how in the 'verse her parents ever let her out of their sight.

"She's a real picture, ain't she?" says Kaylee. "It's like she's had her head cleaned out and now all the workings is running smooth."

Inara smiles. How typical of Kaylee to think in engine metaphors. "It's certainly good to see her happy," she says.

Kaylee grins an impish little grin. "Speaking of... you and the Captain?"

Inara says nothing, but lets her smile widen and grow brighter. She can do that on command, if she has to -- it's one of the first things a Companion must learn -- but this time the light behind her smile is genuine.

Kaylee beams and hugs her, dancing a little dance on the balls of her feet. "I knew it! Oh, that's so nice. I bet Mal's going to be smug as a hog in a waller." She stopped dancing and frowned. "Hey, that ain't why you ain't working this time, is it? He didn't ask you to give up your job?"

Inara shook her head sharply. "No, I'm not giving up, and he didn't ask. If he had asked, well..."

She inclines her head, and Kaylee nods knowingly. "Might as well ask Mal to put on a gray coat," she says, and that makes Inara laugh.

"Speaking of which," says a gruff voice behind them. Inara starts. "Jayne! Aren't you supposed to be with Zoë and the Captain?"

"I smelt bacon," says Jayne. "'Scuse me, ladies," and he shoulders his way between them, through the crowd in the square, over to where River and Simon are watching a puppet show.

"What does he mean?" Inara murmurs to Kaylee, who's looking around anxiously. Jayne's reached the others and is having a hurried conversation with them with Simon, ignoring River as usual.

"Feds," mutters Kaylee. "Guess he's got to take the others back to the ship."

Inara's pulse flutters in her throat. She twirls her parasol and takes Kaylee by the arm. "Let's put on a convincing display of unconcern," she says quietly. Kaylee nods, a little too bright-eyed for unconcern, but nobody's likely to look that close. They stroll clockwise round the market square, chattering brightly about this and that. Inara is careful not to let her eyes follow Jayne and the Tams, and just as careful not to avoid looking at them; either would be suspicious. Intelligent use of peripheral vision is part of a Companion's training -- it is vital, during a social engagement, to be able to detect one's own client approaching without appearing to scan the crowds for him or her -- so she can follow their progress well enough in snapshots: Jayne herding River away from the puppet show with an ungentle hand on her back; Simon and River walking in front of Jayne, who casts a wary eye over his shoulder; River offering Jayne one of the fruits from her basket.

When they are finally out of her range of sight, she exhales audibly and sags a little against Kaylee. "I hope they're all right," she says as four Federal officers come into the market, parting the crowd as they stride across it.

"They'll be fine," says Kaylee. "Jayne'll take good care of them." Her voice sounds clipped, her typical optimism forced and unreal.

"Let's find a teahouse," says Inara. "I'm feeling a strange urge to sit still and look respectable."

 

*

Back on the ship and feeling all the more caged for that brief excursion out into the town square, Simon paces up and down the corridors, around the catwalks of the cargo bay, in and out of the passenger dorm (where River sits on her bed, playing at cat's-cradle) and the lounge and the kitchen. The third time he passes through the kitchen, Jayne's there, sharpening his knife at the table. "You wanna play cards?" he says, not looking up from the grindstone.

Simon stops, rests his hand on the back of a chair. "You cheat," he says.

"You still win," says Jayne.

Simon sits down. "I don't think I'm in the mood," he says.

"Oughta do something. Take your mind off things." Jayne tests the blade of the knife against his thumb, grunts his satisfaction and sheathes it. "You wanna tumble?" he says, looking at Simon.

Simon laughs, because even though he's heard it before, he is still struck by the incongruity of that expression being Jayne's favourite euphemism for sex. "I don't think... River's in our room. I don't want to disturb her."

"We could use my bunk."

"Your bunk makes me nervous."

"What? How come?"

Simon shrugs. There is a game he plays with Jayne, though he's not sure whether Jayne knows it's a game; the name of the game is Keep Jayne Talking. Because good as the sex has been, it's much easier to get Jayne into bed than to get him to have a civilised conversation, and Simon likes a challenge. "It's the guns, mostly," he says.

"They ain't loaded," says Jayne.

"And the pictures on the wall produce an unsettling sensation of being watched."

Jayne leers. "Some people like that kind of thing."

"Some people. Not me."

Jayne's face scrunches up in disappointment. "Couldn't you get her to... play tag in the cargo bay with her shadow or something?"

"If the Feds come to inspect the ship, the cargo bay is the first place they'll look."

Jayne grunts. "Didn't think of that."

Simon leans back. Suddenly he feels very tired. "I am sick of this," he says, and when alarm crosses Jayne's face, he quickly adds, "I mean, running all the time. We didn't do anything wrong! We were the victims, and yet we're the ones who have to hide. It's so unfair."

"Who told you life was fair?" says Jayne. "Whoever it was needs a beating."

"It's not even that. Not really. It's just -- " Simon stares into space, trying to find words for the feeling that's been creeping up on him for months. "I had a plan," he says at last. "I knew what my life was going to be like. I knew where I belonged, what I should be doing. And now... I think I could cope with not having any money. I've gotten used to living on a ship. I don't even mind associating with criminals -- "

"Ain't that handsome of you."

" -- but the constant threat of discovery... never being able to make plans... never looking more than a few days ahead... it wearies me."

Jayne looks like he's trying hard to understand something that's just beyond his reach. "I don't get it," he says. "Life don't give nobody no guarantees. Why plan for next week when you could die tomorrow?"

"And if you don't die tomorrow?"

"Then..." Jayne shrugs. "Enjoy life while you can. It don't last forever."

"What if it did?" Jayne looks at him like he's crazy. "I mean: what if you knew you were going to live for another twenty years? What would you do then?"

Jayne stares at him. Simon thinks he can see Jayne's mind working, neurons firing, making connections that he may never have made before. "This is why I always beat you at cards," he says.

Jayne's opened his mouth, about to say something, when the all-ship comm beeps and Mal's voice echoes through the kitchen. "This is Captain Mal Reynolds for Jayne Cobb. Jayne, bring Simon and River to the cargo bay. Bring a gun, if you like, but don't get trigger-happy. Simon, River, we got good news for you. Don't take too long."

Simon's fists clench. "If he wants to see us," he says in a low voice, "why doesn't he come to get us?"

Jayne gets up and flicks the switch on the wall-mounted comm. "Hey, Captain, what's going on?" he says, and the response is immediate: "Everything's copacetic, Jayne, just bring them down here." Jayne switches the transmitter off. "That's the code," he says. "Whatever it is, it ain't trouble."

"Are you sure?" says Simon. "It sounds -- "

Jayne draws his gun, takes the safety off. "You trust the Captain?"

Simon thinks about it. He can't say "yes", because if for any reason Mal's decided that he and River are off the crew, then they're on their own; but he can't say "no", either, because if Mal still counts them as crew, as family, he will defend them to the last breath in his body. "I don't know," he says. "Up to a point."

Jayne nods, as if that was the answer he expected. "You trust me?"

"Yes." No hesitation. Yes, he trusts Jayne.

Jayne nods again. "I got your back," he says. "Anyone tries anything, they got the wrath of Jayne Cobb on their heads. It's sort of like the wrath of God, only bloodier."

"My own personal avenging angel," says Simon with a half-smile, and the mental image this conjures of Jayne with wings and a flaming sword is strangely appropriate. Jayne would look good in a stained-glass window.

He stands up. "Let's go, then."

They run into River on the way to the passenger dorm. "What took you so long?" she says, and her face breaks out into that wide, innocent, childlike smile that always breaks Simon's heart, because River is not a child any more. "Don't you want to hear the good news?" she says, grabbing Simon's arms.

"If it really is good news, mei mei," he says, and he hugs her before leading her down to the cargo bay, Jayne following behind them with his gun drawn and ready.

His heart sinks when he steps out onto the platform and sees the gray-coated Federal officers standing in a line on the ramp below them, and Zoë and the Captain flanking an officer with insignia of rank on his chest. "Simon, River," says the Captain, "this here's the guy in charge of law enforcement for this sector, Commissioner Benson. Commissioner, you want to explain to River and the doctor why you ain't sticking cuffs on the pair of them?"

Simon has time to register the barely-suppressed excitement in the Captain's tone, the glitter in Zoë's eyes, before the Commissioner steps forward, holding two holostrips splayed in his hand. "If you would care to come closer, Dr Tam, Miss Tam? I assure you, we are not here to harm or apprehend you. We are here to give you something, something that should never have been taken from you."

Simon glances at River. She steps forward, and before Simon can stop her she's cartwheeled down the steps, coming to rest a yard away from where the Admiral's standing. "Tell!" she says.

Simon rushes down to follow her. "What is it?" he says, a little out of breath.

The Commissioner transfers one of the holostrips to his left hand. "This," he says, "is a notice of formal revocation of warrants. Dr Tam, Miss Tam, you are no longer wanted by the government of the Anglo-Sino Alliance. You are free."

River turns to Simon. Her eyes are bright, brimming over with tears. "See?" she says, "I told you!" And she's hugging him fiercely, and it's just as well he has something to hold on to, because he feels as if the world has fallen away from his feet.

River pulls back, staring at him. "No more hiding," she whispers. "No more running. Open sky and all the 'verse is ours. Don't be dizzy. Serenity holds us fast."

Simon looks around him, at the messy, battered old ship that has been his home, his prison, his sanctuary. He looks at Zoë and the Captain, and they are smiling: happy for him. Happy for River.

He looks up, to see if Jayne's smiling too, but Jayne is nowhere to be seen.

 

*

When River and Simon are set free, River's own joy swells up in her, infuses her every cell, it seems like, so that she barely has room in her head for anything else. Free, free, free, free... no more hands of blue, no more running from the bogeyman, no more nightmares of waking up back at the Academy -- at least, none that she can't soothe herself out of. Before, when Simon would rock her in his arms and say "it's all right, you're safe, they're not going to get you," she always knew it was a lie. They might not get her. Or they might.

Now, when she wakes with a jolt to find herself in her own bed in her own room, she doesn't even need to feel her brother's arms around her to know she is safe. She sleeps with the revocation of their warrants under her pillow, so that when she needs reassurance, she can take it out and look at it, confirm the details that her memory already contains:

All existing warrants in the names of Simon Tam and/or River Tam are hereby revoked and made void. All offers of rewards for information relating to Simon Tam and/or River Tam or for handing over Simon Tam and/or River Tam into custody of the Alliance are hereby withdrawn. Officers attempting to apprehend Simon Tam and/or River Tam will be held to be guilty of harassment and wrongful arrest and punished accordingly.

It's on the Cortex now, too. Turns out it's been on the Cortex for a while, only nobody believed it, and anyway revocations never get spread as widely as the original warrants.
Revocations are embarrassing. Nobody, least of all the Alliance, likes to admit to their mistakes.

Four days out from Persephone, she's sitting in the pilot's seat when her mind slips away from her and she finds herself roaming the ship. Kaylee's in the engine room, tuning up the new coil converter. It doesn't need tuning, and Kaylee knows this, but she just loves the way it hums under her hands. Her thoughts are tinged with warmth, affection for Simon, who paid for the new converter with some of the money from his unfrozen accounts. She's glad they're just friends now; it would have been awkward if he'd bought the converter when they were an item, as if it were a love-gift, when truth to tell it's good for everyone that the engine works as well as it can.

Kaylee delves into technicalities that River can't follow, and River's mind drifts up to the lounge, where Mal is talking with Zoë about their next job. Zoë thinks they should try for some legitimate freight work out near Georgia; Mal's reluctant, because that's Niska's territory. (Sharp fear like knives at the thought of Niska, pushed down and suppressed. River shudders in sympathy, admires the firm way Mal deals with his own pain.) Zoë points out that they put quite a dent in Niska's organisation last time, all out of proportion to their own numbers, and Niska may be crazy but he ain't stupid. There is a pause during which they both think the same thought, and in the end it is Zoë who voices it: "But a lot depends on Simon."

"Ain't that the truth?" says Mal. "Boy ain't said a word about it since the warrants got revoked. I would've thought we'd be looking for a new medic day after. He say anything to you? Any hints?"

"Not a thing. I don't know if he'd want to leave without River -- "

"River's coming on. She don't need him like she used to."

"But they're real close. With all he did for her, you think he's going to leave her with us? Even if it is what she wants."

River wants to scream. She holds herself in as if with bands of iron so as to hear what they say next.

"She loves Serenity. I don't think she'd want to leave. And where she goes, Simon goes. At
least, that's what I would've said five days ago."

"It changes the picture that he's got a choice now. And some money of his own."

"Some money? Did you see his account balance?"

"I know! And that's after spending all that cash on finding River. How rich do you think he was before then?"

The conversation drifts onto less alarming topics. River drifts too, to the shuttle where Inara is meditating. (namu amida butsu namu amida butsu namu amida butsu) River soaks in the calm for a moment, soothing her shattered emotions.

Would he go? Without her?

River pulls back into her body with a shock like waking up from a dream of falling. She is standing in front of the infirmary door.

Simon looks up from his work. "Mei mei, are you all right?"

Even now her stomach lurches at the thought of crossing the threshold. She beckons him, and he comes, all concern. "It doesn't make sense," she says, and that's not what she meant to say but it's as good a place to start as any.

"What doesn't make sense?"

"Me without you, you without me. You're leaving."

"Mei mei, I'm not -- " he begins, then he remembers that he cannot lie to her. "I haven't decided yet."

"You'd leave me behind?"

He looks down. Anguish fills the space between them: his or hers? She cannot tell. "I don't want to," he says softly. "But you love this ship. It's your home."

"You were my brother first."

"Oh, River -- " He pulls her into a hug. "I don't want to take you away from Serenity. It wouldn't be fair."

"Yes, it would. I took you away from your home, your life. Turnabout is fair play."

"No!" He pulls back and looks at her, his face stern. "Don't ever think that. I chose to come looking for you. You didn't take anything from me."

"And now you choose to leave?"

"I haven't decided," he says. But he knows (and knows that she knows) that that is not all there is to say. "I don't feel... Lately, you've been a lot more stable. Less..."

"Twisty in the brain?"

"I was going to say: less altricial."

Altricial: adjective; of those species of bird whose young are hatched in an immature state, needing to be fed for an extended period before leaving the nest. "You think I don't need you?"

His eyes are sad and there is no lie in them, but when he speaks his voice is proud. "I know you don't."

The truth of it shocks the breath from her lungs.

"I still love you, mei mei," he goes on, "but you're all right now. Once, you said that I found you broken, and maybe some of the things they did to you can't really be fixed, but... I've done everything I can to help you heal. The rest of the process will be up to you, whether I'm here or not. And you have friends on this ship who won't let you come to harm."

This, too, is true. She takes a breath. "What would you do?"

A pause. He stares into space, considers. "I suppose the obvious thing would be to look for a post at a hospital in the Core... I don't think I'd be welcome at the one I left, though. Perhaps somewhere on Londinium. Or Ariel." He grins. "There would be a pleasing kind of irony to that. And I could drop them some hints about how to improve their security system."

She touches his face the way she did once (how long ago?) when she had woken from a cold, cold sleep and needed to touch him to know he was really there. "Go where you'll be happy," she says, and that's all she can say; there are tears in her voice already. She turns, runs away from the infirmary, climbs into a vent shaft once she's turned a corner so that he can't follow her.

She can hear him walking below her, calling her name. If she is to cry this time, it must be without his shoulder.

As the tears shake their way out of her body, her mind is drawn against her will to one whose thoughts are like hers. Jayne is sitting on his bed, tossing playing cards into a hat. His feelings are close to the surface, as they always are.

He's going to go, so why don't he just go? Put us out of our misery. River senses anger in the thought, such as Jayne always seems to harbour towards the 'verse in general. Some hurt lies beneath it. Coulda been... Coulda, woulda, shoulda. He's going to go. He ain't staying here. I seen him in that hospital, pushing that guy around, saving that other guy. That's his place. Not here. The last card lands plumb in the centre of the hat. Jayne picks it up, upends it so the cards empty out into his lap, and gathers them into a neat stack. Not one card has landed on the floor. He don't even like it here. He's going to leave his crazy sister here to read our minds and beat the crap out of Reavers and he's going to go. Don't know why he don't just go. Cut and run. It's what I'd do. He lays the hat down on the floor and starts tossing the cards into it, one by one. Why ain't he gone yet?

Round and round in a circle his thoughts are running, deeper and deeper into sorrow he dares not acknowledge.

River wipes her eyes and drops down out of the vent shaft. Softly softly she paces down the corridors to the crew quarters, but Jayne's bunk door is locked, and he does not answer when she knocks.

 

*

He's had seven days to think about it, and he still isn't sure what he's going to do. In a moment of dizzy generosity he gave Kaylee the money for a new coil converter, which might be a roundabout way of saying he wants to stay and benefit from Serenity's improved engine capacity, or might be subconsciously meant as a farewell gift. Not for the first time, he finds himself wishing he'd paid more attention during his psych rotation.

He spends the morning listing the pros and cons of leaving. This is not particularly helpful. On one side money, social acceptance, stability, the opportunity to practice his skills in a context where they will be truly appreciated, the chance to make long-term plans for his life again. (Shepherd Book once told him: "When you plan, God laughs." Simon had said "Due respect, Shepherd, but I don't believe in God," and the Shepherd had said "It doesn't matter.") On the other side River, bitter resentment of the government not diminished by the revocation of their warrants, the feeling that the Simon Tam who left Osiris and the Simon Tam who saw Miranda are not the same person, friendships he's formed while on the ship, suspicion that if the hospitals of the Core have managed this long without him they can probably keep managing. (On Jiangyin there was a town so desperate for a doctor that they kidnapped him, willing to feed and clothe and shelter him -- and River, too, when she came along -- because they needed him, and there was nobody else.)

Then there is Jayne, who gets an entry in both columns. On one side: crude, rude, brutal, selfish, uncivilised. On the other side: something he cannot put into words, not so much because there are no words for it as because the words he knows are so inadequate: sexual attraction? Animal magnetism? Physical charisma? Yes, yes, all of that, but something else, too. Strength. Like a coiled spring, or a knife.

It's not until River pokes her head round the door and says "Dinner's ready!" that Simon realises how much time he's spent just sitting on his bed and thinking. He leaps to his feet as if to compensate for wasted hours, and River stays where she is, staring at him.

"You haven't decided," she says.

He heads for the kitchen, not answering. It's true, and there's nothing to say. He feels pulled in so many directions that it would take a four-dimensional graph to map out his state of mind.

Jayne is not at the dinner table, just as he hasn't been for the past few days. Simon sits on the chair between Kaylee and River and wonders briefly what's been keeping him away. Before he has time to get past the familiar lurch of disappointment, Mal sits down opposite him and smiles a tight little smile that warns Simon to take a big mouthful of... oh, delightful: some sort of thick, musty-tasting gruel with lumps of semi-dried vegetables for texture... so that Mal has to wait a moment before dropping the question on him.

"So, Doctor," says Mal once Simon's swallowed his first mouthful, "you given any thought to why the Alliance might have pardoned you and River?"

Simon blinks. It isn't the question he was expecting. "I, uh -- well, technically it wasn't a pardon. If it were a pardon, that would imply we had committed a crime but they're not going to prosecute. They've revoked the warrants, which means they've decided we never committed any crimes."

Mal frowns. "That make a difference to your answer?"

Simon shrugs. "Either way, it's got to be an ACE."

"Ace?" says Zoë, sounding amused. "For you, maybe, but for them?"

"I mean, A-C-E. Ass Covering Exercise. That's what we used to call it at the hospital. Something you don't want to do, and you don't really have to do, but if you don't do it, you might get sued. For the Alliance, that means anyone who's likely to cause trouble for them unless they're... adequately placated."

Mal takes a sip of water, nods thoughtfully. "If that's so, it's quite a gamble," he says. "You think they figured you was less dangerous to them free than on the lam?"

Simon glances at River, who is braiding a thin lock of hair that hangs down between her eyes. "They made two attempts to come after River. Neither was successful, and the second unleashed Reavers on an Alliance fleet. I would guess that the Parliament have probably decided the cure is worse than the disease. So to speak."

"Iatrogenesis," River mutters.

"So, you don't think it's any kind of trap?" says Mal.

"No," says Simon. "At least... I don't think they're going to reissue the warrants, if that's what you mean. I think the revocation's genuine, and it's going to stay in place. If we cause some other form of trouble, naturally they'll clamp down on us and be glad of the excuse. But I think -- I think the broadcast has scared them. Not just that, but the other things River might know. The things she can do. If they were to keep running after us, that gives us no reason not to... say, whip up a resistance movement. They probably wouldn't be able to catch us anyway, not without mobilising immense forces, and if they tried that, they'd have another war on their hands."

Mal's hand is gripping the chopsticks so tightly Simon thinks they might break. He curses silently and takes a mouthful of food, hoping to encourage Mal to do the same. Shouldn't have said the w-word.

Inara rests her hand on Mal's shoulder, and he relaxes instantly. "What about you, little miracle?" he says, addressing River. His voice softens, as it always does when he talks to her lately; they have developed a kind of bond that Simon can't quite fathom. "You think your brother's right?"

As she speaks, River drags a fingernail down through the braid she's formed, separating the strands and blowing them sideways out of her face. "The door of the cage is broken," she says, "and they don't know how hungry the lion is. They've tossed him a steak. If he's starving, he'll eat it in one swallow and keep coming. If he's just a little hungry, he'll take time over it. Enough time to let them run and hide, maybe."

She picks up her chopsticks and eats, ravenously.

Mal's eyes are glittering as he turns them on Simon and asks, "What about you, Doc? Are you hungry?"

Simon's been wishing somebody would ask him that, and force him into the decision he can't seem to make by himself; but now that the question's been asked, he finds it makes no difference. He longs for a distraction, an excuse to change the subject, and like the answer to a prayer Jayne walks in, sniffing the air.

Simon smiles at him. "Good to see you're joining us."

Jayne's eyes meet his briefly, then dart away. "Sick of leftovers," he mutters, walking around the table on the side opposite Simon.

Simon stares at him, his stomach knotting and the sounds of the ship turning to white noise in his ears. He hasn't seen Jayne in seven days. On a ship this small, that kind of thing doesn't happen by accident.

He's brought back to the present by a sharp pain in his arm. River's pinched him. "Ow! River, what -- " River gives him her best you-are-an-idiot look and jerks her head towards Zoë, who's looking at him expectantly. "I'm sorry, were you talking to me?"

Zoë shrugs. Simon is aware that the tension level of the room has gone up, though he doesn't know why. "Just wondering whether you had any plans," she says, "now that you ain't a wanted man any more."

He picks up his chopsticks and passes them from hand to hand, tapping them against the side of his bowl. He can't duck the question twice. Jayne's at the counter, ladling out a double helping of food, his head down as if he were saying grace. Maybe he is, at that. Jayne has a religious streak that comes out at the oddest of moments.

"I can't say that I..." Osiris. The gleaming hospital, fully supplied with all the latest drugs and equipment. Restaurants serving fresh salads drizzled lightly with extra-virgin olive oil. "That is, I know it's been a week, but I don't really..." Money in the bank and no fear of tomorrow. Work: hard, challenging, satisfying work, a constant stream of it, not coming in dribs and drabs on a schedule he has no control over. "I've considered my options -- now that I actually have some -- and the truth is..."

Shepherd Book's warm, gravelly voice. When you plan, God laughs.

He looks up at Jayne, who is frozen in place, the ladle poised above the stewpot. Simon imagines him standing like that in the middle of a job, perfectly still, listening and looking for any sign of the quarry he's been tracking.

Money. Civilisation. Security. Osiris. Tomato salad. Work. Jayne.

He sets his chopsticks down. "The truth is," he says to Zoë, "I don't have any plans to do anything other than what I've been doing since I came on board. I don't think that's going to change in the foreseeable future."

Jayne looks up, letting the ladle fall into the stewpot with a quiet plop. "You mean you ain't leaving?" he says.

"No," says Simon. Now that he's saying it, it seems so obvious. But how could he have figured it out without Jayne there in front of him? "I'm not leaving."

Jayne moves. Before Simon knows what's happening, he's up on his feet, Jayne gripping his upper arms and kissing him -- oh. Oh, that's nice. That's something they haven't done before and should definitely do again, many, many times. Simon breaks the kiss and laughs, pressing his forehead against Jayne's. He laughs because it's ridiculous that they've had sex however many times it is now and haven't even kissed properly, because he's been wound up tighter than a new compression coil and it's a relief to let go of it at last, because even through his ragged breath and the thumping of his heart he can hear Kaylee and Zoë whooping and cheering; most of all because he's happy, suddenly, the feeling blooming in his chest and spreading, like ripples in a pond.

Mal makes a loud and obviously fake throat-clearing noise. "Pleased as I am to see my crew getting along, would y'all mind taking your... private business... someplace else? There's folks trying to eat here."

Simon's ready and willing to be dragged off to Jayne's bunk and thoroughly ravished, but he's not displeased when Jayne lets go of him and says "Sorry, Cap'n. I got seized by an overwhelming impulse. It won't happen again." He saunters back to the counter and picks up his bowl, passing Simon on his way to a seat at the table and saying under his breath "Leastways, not here."

Simon sits down and picks up his chopsticks. The look on Mal's face is wavering between amusement and anger, and Inara seems to sense this too, for she raises her glass and says "I propose a toast." Mal gives her a doubtful look, until she adds, "To not having plans. To having plans, and not following them." She looks at Mal, and her face softens, and the laugh fades from her voice. "To -- to living in the moment, and accepting the joys we find there."

"I'll drink to that," says Simon. They all clink their glasses together; when he touches his to Jayne's he gets a look that scorches him down to the base of his spine so that he has to look down at his bowl and mentally recite the Hippocratic oath to gain his composure.

He smiles to himself as he takes another bite of his meal. Space food's pretty good once you get used to it.

[end]