He was unaccountably guilty at first. It’s not that he’s never taken a shine to a pretty pair of eyes and a sharp mind without carin’ about the shape of the body attached, but he’s never actually done much of anything about it unless that body had girl-shaped parts. (There was that half-moment that one time with Tracey that never went anywhere, but that don’t bear thinkin’ on.) It’s too dangerous, planet-hopping like he does. He never knows when he might end up on a planet that don’t take kindly to people with his plumbing makin’ eyes at their menfolk. That also might have something to do with why he don’t take many looks at their womenfolk, either.
But Serenity is his own damn ship, and he oughta be able to look wherever he damn well pleases--only that ain’t so, and he knows it. He’s very careful about where he looks and where he don’t, and he’s been real particular about not lookin’ at Simon this whole time.
It’s funny, though, ’cause what makes him feel guilty that first time ain’t the preacher or Kaylee or the knowledge that Jayne’s got a real mean streak when it comes to them as calls themselves sly, but the memory of a harmless half-lie he’d told a woman named Nandi on a planet that reminded him too much of Shadow.
“No, no,” he’d said when she’d asked him if he was sly. “I like the women.”
And he does. But nobody ever said that had to mean he didn’t like the men as well. It’s a truth he’s hidden long enough it might’ve been dead, except that truths have a way of comin’ back to bite him on the hinder-parts when he ain’t lookin’. It’s a little white lie that don’t hurt nobody but himself, and he’ll be damned if he cares about that. He denies himself plenty; this one more thing ain’t nothin’.
But then there’s Simon, and a late night talk that starts out with “If you ever hurt her, even your fancy doctors back in the Core won’t be able to put you together, dong ma?” ends with both of them pale-faced and shaking under the weight of Simon’s guilty confession.
“You ever heard the phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place,’ Zoe?” Mal asks two nights later. “I think I found where that is.”
No matter how many times she asks, he won’t tell what he means by that, and he spends the next two weeks wishin’ he could just walk around with his eyes closed, ’cause when he doesn’t look at Simon, he can still see the man’s heartbreak and guilt-stricken panic out of the corner of his eye, and if he does look at Simon, he knows it’ll be Kaylee’s heart breaking instead, and he’d rather shoot his fun bits off than make her cry.
It’s Simon who gives them away, though—Simon who tries so damn hard to be what Kaylee wants him to be and keeps running into the brick wall of who he is instead. There are tears, just as Mal predicted, and one of the worst, most tension-filled nights he’s ever had on Serenity.
There’s Kaylee, all heart-broken and soggy and torn between fury and devastation and pride, and there’s Jayne, all cold and scary with a glint in his eye like light off the edge of a knife blade, and then there’s Simon with his look like he wants to crawl off somewhere and die, especially when Mal suggests maybe he oughta stay in the Shepherd’s room for a night or two, just to make sure Jayne don’t come lookin’ for him.
He just can’t bring himself to let Simon stay with him. The ship’s too small for Kaylee to get away from either of them, but that don’t mean Mal has to rub her nose in it. Zoe at least waits until Kaylee’s not around to give him hell, but she don’t go easy on him.
It gets better, as time goes by. Jayne never really warms up to them—not that he was exactly the biggest fan of either of them before—but he at least learns his lesson that Mal is still his boss and Mal can and will still kick his ass for not doing his job, no matter what his personal feelings are. Kaylee finally gets past her own hurt and takes to teasin’ them that she shoulda known Simon was sly, what with his burnin’ need to be particular and oh-so-pretty, but she never woulda guessed about Mal.
“What?” Mal says, giving her his best affronted look. “You sayin’ I ain’t purty?”
They go places together, they do things. They even get a cat, and if the first five jokes Mal makes about felines and old Earth-that-was slang go over Simon’s head, Simon more than gets him back by not lettin’ him hear the end of it about that scam-wave that came into Mal’s sourcebox. (Mal still feels a twinge of worry about that, sometimes. What if Simon was wrong? What if that woman really needed help?) They buy a toy of a lake monster, and even if scaring Jayne’s pants off with it doesn’t improve Jayne’s opinion of their relationship, it at least gives Mal a vague sense of schadenfreude.
It takes a while for Mal to let Simon in his room, and even longer to let Simon stay the night (or what passes for it in the black), but once he does, Mal isn’t sure whether his reluctance was to protect Kaylee, whose tender heart he’s still so scared of hurting, or himself. There’s a scary kind of feeling yawning through his stomach when he stares down at Simon, asleep and content against him, as if he is dangling out in space with nothing but the air in his lungs right that second to keep him alive, and if he stops holding his breath, he’ll die.
Simon wakes while Mal is still thinking about choices and freedom, and if happiness can exist without them or if this happiness is a choice he’s made, and he yawns and smiles up at Mal before reading his expression. Simon frowns and starts to withdraw, looking painfully young and so insecure, but Mal pulls him back close, and when Simon’s hand tentatively settles against the tattoo on his hip, light and ticklish like a butterfly not sure if it’s okay to land, Mal reaches down and presses that uncertain hand against his flesh.
Simon’s breath catches in his throat, and for the first time since this whole thing started, Mal thinks maybe this is a kind of freedom, being able to choose this. For the first time, he thinks maybe it’s okay.