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When Heroes Fall

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Chapter Seventeen

 

 

The cold dampness of the dark was familiar and it instilled in Simon a fear so crippling, he could barely breathe. Even the thrumming of his erratic heart beat was like a haunting chorus in his ears; it threatened to drown out all rationality and hope with the despair that steadily over took him. His body, immobile and rigid, was so racked by a deeply rooted pain slowly destroying him from the inside out, that Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling prey to the realization that he was barely hanging onto life by a thin thread.

He tried to shout for help, tried to inhale a deep enough breath to keep his lungs from further feeling as if they were burning, but his chest felt constricted. Like a weight pushing him further beneath an unrelenting surface, Simon imagined this must be what it feels like to drown. Only Simon wasn’t being tossed about in an angry torturous ocean. It was the darkness that was consuming him whole, swallowing Simon to claim ownership of an unfortunate damned soul, just like the darkness had intended to the first time.

Feeling so utterly alone was crushing and yet Simon was also very aware of the fact that he wasn’t entirely alone. There were those lingering just out of the bounds of his peripheral vision, demonized human beings who intended to do him harm with fatal consequences. Perhaps they were just as bad as Reavers, or were they worse? Simon could smell the scent of their toxic breath and hear the way they roared with laughter that came and went in varying volumes.

Circling around Simon, they drew closer before backing away, over and over and over again, taunting him and stealing any shred of security he could muster. They had no intentions of releasing Simon; they wanted to watch him bleed until there was no life left in him. And bleed, he did.

It was a nightmare personified, one that Simon could find no way out of. The monsters poked and prodded at him and touched him in ways he would never be able to forget. They hit Simon so hard, beating him, that at one point he was certain he could hear his bones snapping. With no shame left, Simon begged for death to take him, because that would be his only rescue.

Not even the faint echoes of River’s voice in his mind gave Simon a bit of reprieve. Try as he might to keep his hope alive, Simon couldn’t reach out to his sister and she couldn’t reach him. His failure to live up to his responsibility to always take care of his sister killed Simon inside just as much as his crippling injuries did. River would never truly know just how sorry Simon was for his shortcomings and now she would spend the rest of her life troubled further by the fact that there was no one untouchable who could honestly save her.

That had been Simon’s job and he couldn’t handle it. After risking everything to rescue River from the Academy and expose the lies of the Parliament, it had been Simon’s ignorance that proved his downfall.

Simon tried to curl in on himself, but any movement, even the slightest, produced an immobilizing pain and white hot flashes of light. His voice lodged in his throat as his lips moved to form Kaylee’s name, although any sound he could have possibly emitted would have been quickly drowned out by the evil incarnate cackles that started to swarm around him once again-

“Simon!”

Releasing a sudden howl of distress, Simon felt the claws of his captors taking hold of him. The sound that ripped from his throat was primitive in nature and with an unexpected burst of energy, his hands flew up to protect himself. Not again…his body simply could not withstand any more of their attacks, but he fought against them regardless. What other choice did he have, because if there was one solid thing Simon had learned from Captain Malcolm Reynolds, it was that you never went down unless you went down swinging.

Simon wanted River and Kaylee to know he had died trying to survive. He wanted his child to know how strong he tried to be, even though the odds were never in his favor and he ultimately failed in the end.

“Simon! Wake up!”

There was a warm familiar quality to the voice that sliced through the chorus of laughter surrounding him, beckoning Simon to focus his attention and listen. As it called out to him again, commanding his ears, Simon’s eyes abruptly snapped open, wild and unfocused. He shot upright in the bed as he gasped for breath, only to fight against the gentle hands that were trying to calm him.

It was moments later that Kaylee’s face came into focus enough that Simon was able to recognize her and register her presence in his jumbled mind. Kaylee’s expression was a mixture of concern and confusion, her normally bright eyes now wide with a tinge of fear. Simon couldn’t make sense of why she sat so stiffly still and appeared petrified until he took notice of the way his hands were tightly clamped around her wrists, so tight that his knuckles were beginning to turn white and his fingers were digging into her skin.

Simon released Kaylee immediately as his lips moved in a silent stutter of apologies, regretful and embarrassed of his actions as he barely shook his head. When Simon finally found his voice, it projected in a broken utterance. “Kaylee…I…I-”

Just as quickly as Kaylee had tensed up from Simon’s abrasive reaction, she allowed herself to calm and become far more concerned with his current state of being. The surface of her wrists throbbed where Simon’s fingers had left indents in her skin and the markings would probably bruise later on, but Kaylee wasn’t about to inform Simon of that. He appeared to feel guilty enough as it was and instead she thrust herself forward to draw him into her arms.

Kaylee could feel the way Simon trembled in her embrace as he clung to her, almost desperately as if believing if he were to let go, she would simply disappear. “Simon, you’re shaking,” Kaylee stated the obvious in a gentle tone that she hoped would keep Simon’s attention grounded and focused on her. “Oh, sweetie. It’s okay. You’re okay. It was a nightmare, right? You’re just fine. I have you.”

Simon tightened his arms around Kaylee briefly before he pulled back and rubbed a weary hand over his face. He avoided her gaze for all that it was worth, feeling the shame still igniting in his cheeks. Simon’s ribs ached from his jostling movements and it was something he knew he would suffer the repercussions from soon enough; there was no avoiding that, though it didn’t make him feel any better. And he couldn’t shake the lingering anxiety from his plaguing nightmare. “I, um…” he mumbled

Kaylee reached out a hand to tenderly rest it against Simon’s cheek. “Look at me,” she coached him.

It took several moments before Simon mustered the courage to lift his eyes to meet Kaylee’s. “I’m sorry…”

“Don’t have to say you’re sorry,” Kaylee told him with a soft smile. She withdrew her hand from his cheek. “…Do you want to talk about it?”

Simon shook his head and looked away from Kaylee once again. The truth was that he didn’t even know where to begin to tell Kaylee the horrors haunting his mind and even so, there was no way she would be able to comprehend. He didn’t want to bother her with it. He wouldn’t allow himself to.

Tugging at the blankets that were tangled around his waist, Simon grimaced. “I’ll be fine. I just need to-” he started to say, only to grimace again in his haphazard attempts to free himself. “I need a moment.”

“You need to take it easy,” Kaylee said as she assisted Simon in pulling the blankets away. Pushing them to the side, she continued to assist until Simon was sitting upright on the edge of the bed. “Don’t push yourself too hard.”

Simon gripped the edge of the bed with his hands as the room teetered around him. His stomach churned with a rolling wave of nausea that he tried to swallow with even steady breaths. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Kaylee. I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Kaylee dismissed, though Simon knew better from the unease in her voice. “I’m just concerned. That’s all. I wanna make sure you’re okay.”

“I know.” Simon’s forced smile was anything but a cheerful expression. He exhaled a shallow breath. “Thank you.”

Kaylee watched Simon carefully, taking notice of the way he still trembled with his shoulders slightly rounded forward. Beads of perspiration had begun to gather along his hair line and the creases of stress at the corners of his eyes made his discomfort notable. “You’re really pale right now…”

Simon swallowed thickly, his hands tightening against the edge of the bed. As the room continued to teeter around him, he felt his stomach churn more tumultuously and he clenched his eyes shut, trying to drown out the ringing in his ears. But no sooner did he try to open his mouth and speak did Simon find the little bit of contents residing in his stomach rising and projecting forward as bile onto the floor between his feet.

“Aiya [Damn]!]” Kaylee gasped as she scrambled to brace Simon upward before he could slump off the edge of the bed while he retched. Her hand rubbed delicate circles of comfort against his heaving back and it was all she could do to not look downward at the puddle of vomit.

The rapid succession of his stomach unraveling left Simon fighting for breath, his eyes watering in the aftermath. “I-It’s the medication-” he choked before swiping the sleeve of his shirt across his mouth. “It needs to be taken with food. It’ll pass.”

Kaylee cupped Simon’s cheeks in her hands to draw his gaze to hers. “I’ll clean it up. You don’t have to worry about it.”

Simon had to bite his tongue to keep himself from vocally questioning Kaylee’s devotion in that moment because he had just given her every reason to turn away from him in disgust. Though it was her encouraging smile that told him without doubt that the mechanic wouldn’t be going anywhere so long as Simon needed her by his side. He was thankful for her, more than he could possibly express. “I don’t deserve you, Kaylee…”

“Of course you do, silly,” Kaylee replied. She smoothed the sweat-dampened hair away from Simon’s clammy forehead. “One of these days you may even stop trying to push me away.”

“I don’t mean to,” Simon frowned and lifted a hand to take hold of Kaylee’s. “There’s…there’s a lot that I don’t mean to do.”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Simon,” Kaylee told him with a light kiss pressed to his temple. “I ain’t going anywhere. You can’t change that.”

Still feeling nauseous from the retching, Simon pulled back from Kaylee and rubbed tenderly at his forehead. “I feel horrible,” he murmured with a sigh of exhaustion.

Kaylee rose from the bed and moved to grab a near by cloth that was already soiled from after one of Sebastian’s feedings and needed to be washed. “You just need a good meal and more rest,” she suggested before she crouched down to clean up the bile on the floor. “Captain and crew’s in the galley having dinner. I bet they’d like to see you.”

Simon watched Kaylee work, fighting a frown. “I…don’t know if it would be a good idea that I join them.”

“Fei hau [Nonsense],” Kaylee responded without hesitation. “You’ve been sleeping since you’ve been back on Serenity. They’re still worried.”

Simon’s eyes flitted to where his crutches were propped up against the wall in a corner of the room. He was almost hesitant to ask. “How long have I been home?”

“Been two days now,” Kaylee answered with a small shrug.

“Two days?” Simon’s eyes shot back to Kaylee in surprise and disbelief. “I’ve been sleeping for two days?”

Kaylee bit her bottom lip as she finished cleaning up the mess on the floor and lifted her gaze to Simon. Her eyes were weary and her expression weathered, her stress returning to the surface of her demeanor. “Dr. Hammond said the primary medication you were on would make you very tired at first. Captain and I agreed that sleeping was the best thing for you right now. I wouldn’t let anyone bother you. Not even River.”

“Two days…” Simon mulled over the thought. How could it really be that he had been back on the ship for two whole days and he had lost every minute of that time because he had been in a medically induced sleep? And River…Kaylee had said that she hadn’t even let his sister near him to assure he remained undisturbed. Simon couldn’t help but wonder how much the separation had bothered River and how much trouble she had potentially caused since Simon’s return. “Was I awake at all?”

Kaylee discarded the cloth in a basket, making mental note to dispose of it later. “There were a few times when you woke up long enough to take you medication and drink some water, but you have been really out of it since you’ve been back,” she explained with a nervous wringing of her hands together. “It took me some explaining to convince you that you weren’t still in the medical facility or back on-”

Simon held his hand up to stop Kaylee from continuing. “Don’t say it,” he requested quietly. “I don’t want to think about that right now. I would rather just enjoy being with my family again.”

“Do you think you can make it to the galley?” Kaylee questioned with uncertainty.

Simon wanted to tell her no with the way his stomach still churned horrendously, but he reached out for his crutches nonetheless with a small nod. “You’re right. I should join the others. And I would like to see our son and River.”

Kaylee fetched the crutches and brought them over to Simon. Propping them against the bed, she carefully helped Simon onto his feet. “Are you in a lot of pain right now?” she questioned as he got himself situated with the crutches.

“Not horribly,” Simon lied with a shake of his head. He allowed himself an extra moment to become oriented with being upright before turning towards the doorway. “I’ll manage.”

“Just don’t push yourself too hard,” Kaylee reminded him with her hand resting securely against his back. “Gotta let yourself heal proper and if you go too fast, you’ll only hurt yourself more.”

Simon’s movement forward was slow because even he knew just how right Kaylee was in her warning. It would be a long time before his body and his strength returned to full capacity, but the truth was that he couldn’t have moved any faster right then even if he wanted to. The jostling of the crutches made Simon’s arms and chest ache with every inch of flooring he covered and the more he exerted himself, the harder he found it to breathe.

He stopped just in the doorway of the room and reached a hand out to brush his fingers against the cold metal of the door frame, staring in wonder.

“Serenity missed you too,” Kaylee said. “It ain’t right around here without you.”

“…I suppose not,” Simon mused. “Is my infirmary intact?”

“Just as you left it,” Kaylee assured as they passed through the doorway. “That’s where Sebastian was born.”

Simon afforded a glance at Kaylee. “Did the captain…?”

Kaylee shook her head firmly. “Zoe delivered him. You taught her well and I trusted her. Captain was kinda useless, but he did hold my hand.”

Simon could hear the quiet laughter that passed Kaylee’s lips as they continued on their way to the galley. He kept his eyes trained on the ground, taking great care not to stumble along the way. “I have much gratitude to be given,” he noted out loud in thought.

“We’re family, Simon,” Kaylee replied. “Family takes care of each other.”

As they neared the galley, Simon began to hear the light chatter that floated through the air from the crew. They sounded at ease and even though Simon couldn’t hear everything they were saying, it was relaxing to take in the sound of their familiar banter. Even the clatter of eating utensils scraping against dishes amidst the occasional bout of laughter was like a calming song because it resembled what Simon knew security to be. It wasn’t just the crew of some weathered Firefly class transport ship…it was his family, tried and true.

Simon’s movements came to a stop when they reached the doorway of the galley and he chose to stand there for a moment with Kaylee close to his side, observing everyone seated around the table. Mal was seated, as typical, at the head of the table with Zoe and Emma to his left and River, who was cradling a swaddled Sebastian in her arms, was situated close to them. Across the table, Jayne sat in the seat facing Zoe while Inara sat a chair’s width to his right, sipping from a cup of tea. And apparently it was something Jayne had said that was this side of remotely funny because the occupants of the galley erupted into a roaring laughter. Except for River, though she cracked a small knowing smile.

Mal looked up from everyone at that moment to take notice of Simon and Kaylee standing in the galley doorway and set the cup down he’d been lifting to his mouth. “Bout gorram time you joined us, doc!” he jovially called out. “Inara cooked a feast. Not me. Well, no. She wouldn’t let me cook actually.”

“We want to keep the ship in the air, Mal,” Inara chided, but the twinkling in her eyes let everyone know she meant to jab at the captain in good nature. “Not burn it to the ground of the nearest planet.”

“I survived long enough before I had your culinary expertise at my disposal,” Mal returned with a shrug of his shoulders before he swallowed a hasty sip from his cup. “Just ask Zoe.”

“You ate beans from a can, sir,” Zoe spoke simply.

Mal’s expression became serious as he looked at Zoe. “And they were good beans, too.”

Simon’s brow arched slightly as he murmured under his breath to Kaylee. “…Is he drunk?”

“Mmhmmm,” Kaylee merely murmured in response. Simon could see her fighting a giggle out the corner of his eye.

Oblivious to the pair’s side conversation at his expense, Mal returned his attention to Simon and Kaylee. “Well, you gonna sit down or not? Best you be taking a load off that leg,” he stated and swallowed the rest of the contents in his cup. “Make the doc a plate, Jayne.”

Simon’s gaze shifted nervously to the mercenary to find him with his good hand clenched on the surface of the table and his eyes narrowed at his own plate of half eaten rice, vegetables, and what looked to be some sort of seasoned protein paste. His sudden silence was unnerving as was the fact that he seemed to be doing everything in his power right then to ignore Mal’s request and not look in Simon’s direction.

Then, Jayne abruptly pushed his chair back with a loud ‘screech’ that echoed through the galley and stormed out of the room, abandoning his dinner without further thought.

Mal blinked in Jayne’s wake until he managed to gather enough of his wits back. He looked at the remaining crew in the galley. “Well someone make the good doctor a plate!”

“That’s really not necessary,” Simon interjected in a distracted tone as Kaylee lead him towards the table.

Inara rose to her feet, moving around the table to pull the chair out next to River for Simon to sit on. “I’ll make you a plate,” she told him with a sincere smile.

Simon tried to offer Inara as much of a smile of gratitude as he could muster in return and lowered himself onto the chair, allowing Kaylee to take the crutches and set them aside. He looked at River, who was staring at him with her head tilt to the side in contemplation. River’s eyes held that look of borderline instability that Simon wasn’t sure he could trust and he sucked in a hesitant breath. “What is it, Mei Mei?”

“The captain’s drunk. He’s imbibed copious amounts of the drink,” River casually explained. “He’ll be sick in the morning. I’ll have to pilot the ship alone.”

“River…” Simon had to purse his lips together to prevent himself from chuckling audibly at his sister’s observation of their captain’s current state of inebriation. One look at Mal found him already engrossed in an animated conversation with Emma, making it safe to assume he hadn’t heard a word River just said and allowing Simon to turn his attention elsewhere. He focused down on Sebastian who was still fast asleep in River’s arms. “How is he?”

“Dreaming,” River answered with a warm smile. “Dreaming of you and Kaylee.”

Simon’s lips curled into a crooked smile. “Is he?”

River nodded. “He dreamed of Jayne earlier, but it made him cry.”

“I imagine that would be a nightmare,” Simon chuckled.

“Not a nightmare like yours,” River said with her attention set upon the sleeping infant.

Simon’s mouth parted, speechless, but Inara returned to the table before he could form a response and placed a plate of food in front of him. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. Mostly rice and protein paste, but I did acquire some fresh vegetables from the training house before we departed,” she told him.

“It looks wonderful, Inara. Thank you,” Simon replied with a troubled expression as he surveyed the contents piled on the plate. Steam rose from each item and if Simon was going to be truthful, it smelled heavenly. His stomach grumbled at the sight of it, mixing with the residual nausea that remained present. He was hungry though, starving actually, reminding Simon that he couldn’t truly recall the last decent meal he’d had. The food consumed while at the medical facility had been plain and not exactly appetizing, so this presentation Inara had placed before him was something he was entirely grateful for.

Mal leaned back in his chair and made a show of stretching his arms above his head. “How about you bring that bottle of whiskey over here, Inara,” he requested in the companion’s direction before she could reclaim her seat.

Inara considered him for a brief moment. “I think you may have had enough…”

“Enough?” Mal glanced at his empty cup before looking at Inara again.

“You don’t agree?” Inara questioned him with brows raised and a lack of utter patience to argue.

“I truly don’t,” Mal scuffed. He pushed his chair back and stood. “It’s my ship, my rules, and I say it’s fine time we drink a little for once. Things are back in order-” He paused long enough to look at Simon and then turned to step over to the counter where the opened bottle of whiskey had been placed. “-sorta. Everyone’s here, on the ship, and that’s a start. Doc’s back and eating Inara’s fine cookin’, so cheers to that.”

“That was very insightful, sir,” Zoe sarcastically nodded in his direction.

Mal seemed to miss the sarcasm in his first mate’s voice as he tipped the rim of the bottle against his lips and swallowed the bitter liquid. “Thank you. And I mean it,” he continued. “We’re moving forward from here on out. I plan us to land a job soon and it will be business as usual.”

“Finding the job is the issue,” Zoe commented.

“We always make due,” Mal countered, leaning against the edge of the counter. “I don’t see this being any different.”

Zoe shifted in her seat to draw Emma onto her lap. “I wasn’t saying otherwise, sir,” she replied. “But we missed the drop deadline on the last job and that’s put a mark on our reputation.”

“We’ve jumped larger hurdles,” Mal dismissed. “This is just another one.”

“Do you have someone in mind?” Zoe questioned pointedly.

Mal considered his answer, only to shrug nonchalantly. “No.”

“It won’t take long before we’re floating dead in the water,” Zoe continued. “A few weeks maybe. A month tops. We lost that job at the rendezvous.”

“There’s always another one.” Mal frowned at Zoe as he swallowed another sip from the bottle. “Your job is to do your job and I’ll do mine. If I’m not worried, then you shouldn’t be either.”

‘But you are worried. I can see it in your eyes’ Zoe thought as her arms tightened around her daughter, though she would never actually say as much to Mal’s face.

The galley grew silent for a while before Mal finally spoke up again. “I’ve got a few favors to call in. Just need a few days to pull through.”

“We didn’t get paid…because of me,” Simon spoke up.

“Oh, Simon, no. That’s-” Kaylee started to say, but Simon interrupted her with a sharp knowing look.

“That is what happened,” Simon reiterated as he set his fork down, his appetite diminishing. “We missed the drop deadline because of me and we didn’t get paid.”

“Can’t change that and payment isn’t something you need to be concerning yourself with,” Mal told him dismissively. He set the bottle of whiskey down and turned to face the crew fully. “You can believe we’ll get paid, because that’s my way. In one way or another.”

“Captain’s right,” Kaylee nodded. “It’s just a little hiccup. We’ve still got enough to get us by until the captain takes care of it. We’ll be fine.” She looked at Mal with optimistic hope. “Right?”

“Aren’t we always?” Mal countered. “I take care of my crew. Don’t need any of you questioning it.”

Kaylee feigned a faint smile. “Then we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Simon stared hard at his plate of food before slowly pushing it away from him. The once delicious aroma now caused the nausea to intensify in his stomach and he feared if he were to take another bite, he would once again spill the contents of his stomach onto the dining table and that was the last sort of embarrassment he wanted to personally partake in.

Kaylee’s optimism and trust in the captain did nothing to calm Simon’s inner turmoil or ease the guilt he felt plaguing him. That had to do partly with the fact that under all of her layers, Kaylee’s fears were very clearly there. Maybe not enough for everyone present in the galley to take notice, least of all the captain who had taken it upon himself to return to the table with the bottle of liquor and partake in more of the drink, but Simon was able to see it. He knew the mechanic too well and with one look in her eyes a moment later, Simon knew he was right. Kaylee wasn’t just nervous…she was afraid.

Inara’s gaze had focused intently on Simon amidst the small buzz and she reached out to rest a hand upon the doctor’s shoulder, almost as if she had sensed his unease. “Don’t mind them, Simon,” she murmured to keep from drawing attention to the two of them. Simon’s eyes slowly shifted upward to look at her and she smiled down at him. “We’re just happy to have you back and that’s what matters. The rest will work itself out.”

“I want to believe that,” Simon mustered in response. His shoulders sagged under a heavy sigh. “But…”

“No,” Inara replied with just as calm of a smile. She slid the plate of food closer to Simon once again. “You musn’t think that way. You’re home, where you belong. Now eat, so you may regain your strength.”

“Dreaming of just you now,” River mentioned with her attention firmly focused upon the sleeping infant in her arms. “He’s happy you’re here. Feels safe.”

Simon’s hand hovered over the silver fork, mind drifting in the familiarity of River’s statement. He looked at the two of them and felt himself relax just enough that he thought he may be able to stomach the rest of his dinner, so he forced himself to scoop up a forkful of the meal and lift it to his mouth, chewing it slow deliberately. When he swallowed, and was certain the food wouldn’t be making a rapid reappearance, Simon turned carefully in his seat to face River. “Let me have my son, Mei Mei,” he requested of her quietly.

As River began the delicate process of transferring Sebastian into his father’s arms, Kaylee stepped up to them with a worried glance. “Maybe I should go lay him down in our room,” she suggested. “It’s late and you need to-”

“No,” Simon told her firmly as he became acclimated once again to the weight of the infant in his embrace. He repeated himself quietly. “No…”

Tight-lipped, Kaylee nodded and averted her eyes elsewhere.

“It is late and this little one needs to be going to bed soon,” Zoe spoke up as she pushed her chair back and rose authoritatively to her feet. Little Emma, tucked securely against her mother’s hip, huffed at the thought of bed time and pointed to Simon with a curious whining of his name. Zoe followed her daughter’s line of sight, focusing on the doctor and his small gathering of family. Emma always had been fascinated with Simon, asserting a connection not everyone could make sense of, and as much as Zoe herself wanted to speak with the doctor, she knew there was a place and time and the galley that evening was not it. Trivial invasions of privacy from the rest of the crew would do Simon no good.

So, Zoe gently grasped her daughter’s chin to draw Emma’s eyes to hers and pressed a kiss to the child’s forehead. “Hush now, little one. You can see Simon tomorrow.”

It wasn’t long after Zoe carried Emma out of the galley that Mal stumbled out of his seat, still gripping the bottle of whiskey. He stepped haphazardly away from the table with movements worrisome enough that both Kaylee and Inara winced in anticipation of him falling over. “I’m going to my bunk,” he announced with a noticeable slur. “Glad to have you back doctor.”

“He must be really drunk if he’s glad to have me back,” Simon attempted to joke.

“He’s had enough, that is for sure,” Inara murmured with a nod and swiftly made her way to the captain’s side. She hooked her hand onto his elbow and started to turn him towards the doorway. “Come, Mal. I will help you to your bunk.”

“’Nara,” Mal slurred happily as he leaned his weight into the companion’s side. “Are you propositioning me? You are propositioning me.”

It was hard for Inara to keep any trace of humor hidden from her face while leading Mal from the galley. “I am certain you would enjoy that,” she casually responded.

“Here I never thought you would switch work ethics,” Mal continued. “Thought you didn’t service the crew. What’s your business?”

“None of yours.” Inara smiled sweetly at him. “And it never will be.”

“Oh, bao bay [sweetheart],” Mal chuckled. “I sure do like it when you talk dirty to me.”

Simon choked on a breath just as the pair disappeared from the galley, Mal’s voice lingering in the distance. “That...did he just imply-”

“It’s a secret,” River interrupted her brother with a mischievous grin. “We’re not to know, but I know.” She shrugged as if it were common knowledge. “…I know everything.”

Kaylee gasped, her eyes opening wide. “…The captain and Inara?!”

“No…” Simon trailed, slowly shaking his head. “River, how do you know this?”

River frowned at him. “Everyone is so loud in my head,” she groaned and jumped up to run out of the galley, leaving her brother’s mouth hanging open in her wake.

It wasn’t until Kaylee sat beside him did Simon slowly shut his mouth and turn his attention to her. “Tell me it’s weird.”

Kaylee bit her bottom lip, as if to consider a careful response. “I…” She elevated one shoulder toward her ear. “Oh, I dunno, Simon. I think it’s sweet. The captain and Inara. You’d have to be blind to not see that they care well enough for each other. And, they sure have been mighty peaceful…well, they ain’t been yelling as much, at least. That’s something.”

Simon shifted his gaze down onto Sebastian to find the infant’s eyes lazily peeking open at him, tiny lips parted in a silent yawn. “Doesn’t matter, I guess,” he murmured as he gently brushed the pad of his thumb across Sebastian’s eyebrows.

Kaylee leaned against Simon’s shoulder with a soft smile, enjoying the quiet moment, now that the three of them were alone in the galley. “What does matter?” she questioned.

“You,” Simon answered without hesitation. “And our son.”

Kaylee’s lips pressed to Simon’s cheek. “I love you,” she whispered.

Simon didn’t say anything in return; his closeness to Kaylee right then was enough of a response in the silence. With dinner once again forgotten on the plate before him, Simon allowed himself to find solace in Kaylee and Sebastian’s presence. He had what he needed for the time being. And the captain was right…they could only move forward from here.

*****

If ever there were a place on Serenity that Simon felt the most at home, the most in his element, the ship’s infirmary was his safest place to find that inner sense of peace. Even when he wasn’t fixing one of the crew’s physical mishaps or counting inventory or any of the other mundane tasks he busied himself with to pass the time when they were soaring through the Black, just sitting within the quiet atmosphere of the infirmary while listening to the even quieter buzzings and whirrings of the ship’s inner workings was enough to make Simon feel as if he were that much closer to where he used to be, doing what he did best at the hospital back in Capital City.

Of course, even when it was quiet, Serenity’s infirmary was still chaotic and not the kind Simon was used to. It had its quirks, because someone was always barging in to make a mess of things when Simon was trying to keep order in place. That someone was usually Jayne, tearing the place apart for God knows what when he had no business being anywhere near the infirmary. Sometimes, Simon thought the mercenary caused the chaos just to get under his skin. Other times, he thought Jayne had a pathetic deeply rooted need for attention.

Chaotic or not, though…the infirmary was Simon’s home on Serenity.

In the days Simon had been back, days that he had already lost count of mostly for the fact that his mind was still so jumbled, the majority of his time had been spent immersed in the solitude of the infirmary’s interior. It was his space. His safe spot. His place he could go to and try to forget. Forgetting wasn’t really an option though when the moment Simon tried to forget was the moment the memories came flooding back in. And they were unforgiving memories, too.

Kaylee had started to worry that Simon was withdrawing, not just from her and Sebastian, but from the crew as a whole. The captain called it some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, as if he really knew what he was talking about just because he’d survived the war and had his own troubles, but he never went out of his way to check in on the recovering doctor. Nor did the rest of the crew (except for Kaylee and his sister) make it a point to draw close to Simon to help ease him back into life on Serenity. Except for Zoe, who had developed the habit of bringing Emma by the infirmary early in the mornings or late in the evenings before putting the toddler to bed. Simon and Zoe never really spoke more than a few words during those visits and instead found mutual comfort in the silence of each other’s company.

Simon knew what Zoe had done for him back in that cellar on Jirah and he would be forever grateful to her for it.

What Kaylee didn’t realize, however, was that every night while everyone else was sleeping and Simon couldn’t manage to shut his mind off long enough to sleep himself, he spent countless lonely hours sitting in the dim lighting of a lit candle in their living quarters, watching Kaylee and Sebastian as they slept. He thought, too. Thought way too much. Over thought. But nothing Simon ever did drove the nightmares away.

Post-traumatic stress, yes, but not how Mal understood it.

“I brought you a cup of tea and an apple…”

Simon wearily lifted his head from the edge the counter and sat up a little straighter on the stool he was perched upon. Sighing quietly to himself, he braced his hand against the counter and slowly turned to find River standing tentatively in the doorway to the infirmary, her eyes planted on the ground around her feet.

“Mei Mei,” Simon called out to her quietly. “It’s late. What are you doing up?”

River shuffled in place, creases of tired anxiety crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Couldn’t sleep,” she mumbled in response. “The silence is too loud. Worried.”

“I couldn’t sleep either,” Simon admitted, though something told him that River already knew that much and it was a big part of the reason why she had gravitated to the infirmary to find him. He continued to watch her, fighting a frown towards her clear anxiety. “Would you like to come sit down?”

It took a few moments of thickening silence before River slowly lifted her head to meet Simon’s gaze. Her eyes were tired and ghost-like and her face appeared paler than normal with the way her dark hair framed her cheeks. But her lips curled into a faint smile just as quickly as she looked at her brother and her posture visibly relaxed. “No tests?” she questioned with a hint of teasing in her tone.

Simon’s returning smile was crooked and he shook his head. “No…no tests,” he answered.

“No tests for you either?” River glided towards Simon, careful not to spill any of the tea in the cup. “I can study your brain and try to make you better. Just like you did for me.”

Simon took the apple and the cup of tea from River when she reached him, distracting himself from the way River compared the two of them by inhaling the scent of the tea wafting from the cup. He sighed at the aroma and offered his sister a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid there isn’t a test that can help me.”

River gracefully hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter. “No test can help me either,” she said with a small shrug and stared down at her hands. “But you’ll always try. Have to fix her, even though you know their secrets.”

“That’s because I’m your brother,” Simon merely replied. “It’s my job to take care of you.”

“No, Simon. Have to learn to take care of yourself now.” River grasped the shiny red apple from where Simon had set it on the counter and extended it to him. “You need to eat.”

It was hard for Simon not to chuckle at the firm authoritative expression that appeared on River’s face as she insisted he indulge in the sweet fruit. But as their eyes locked and understanding was exchanged in the silence between them, Simon knew River was concerned and only trying to take care of him. He was appreciative too, even if it was hard for him to accept. So, Simon took the apple back from River and lifted it to his mouth to bite into it.

River watched him closely, as if expecting Simon to discard the fruit once more. “Have to eat so you don’t become weak,” she explained. Her hand reached out to wipe away a dribble of the apple’s juice from Simon’s chin. “Kaylee’s worried.”

Simon finished chewing the bite of apple in his mouth and swallowed before lifting the tea to take a sip. “She doesn’t need to worry.”

“Stubborn,” River chided him and Simon frowned at her. “More stubborn than me.”

“That’s not possible,” Simon tried to joke.

“It is,” River told him as a matter of fact. “Too many thoughts in your head. They argue and it drowns you. You’re suffocating but you don’t say anything. Don’t wanna cause worry. You’re stubborn.”

Simon’s brows furled and he shifted his gaze down to the steaming tea in the cup that he had yet to sip. River’s riddle-like assessment couldn’t have been closer to the truth and yet it still astonished him every time she read him out loud like a book she had closely studied. Simon couldn’t argue with her either. Not in the least and River knew it too.

“The captain dreams about the war every night,” River spoke again a short time later. “He hears the guns and lasers and the men shouting as if it’s still happening. It’s always still happening in his head. Over and over. Every night. The pain is real to him too and he can’t forget it, but he doesn’t want to. It reminds him that he’s still alive.”

Simon exhaled a quiet sigh, but kept his eyes trained on the tea cup. “The captain is strong, River,” he muttered.

“…Sometime he doesn’t think so,” River replied. “He gets scared and sad because…because he thinks he should have been able to do more.”

“One person can only do so much,” Simon countered. “And the captain fought a good fight. This he knows.”

“He still doesn’t give up, even if he is afraid.” River scooted closer to the edge of the counter and extended a hand to gently grasp Simon’s chin and lift his gaze back to hers. The younger Tam’s eyes were patient but laden with heavy concern and an almost inability to work through all the mess twisting around in Simon’s head. “He keeps fighting.”

For a brief moment in time, the infirmary dissolved around Simon and it was just he and River who existed. The feel of her fingers against his skin was real and comforting, enough to anchor him and allow him to really understand what River was saying beneath all of her babble. “I’m not giving up…”

River’s fingers fluttered against a healing laceration on Simon’s left temple and she tilted her head to the side in contemplation. “You’re stubborn like the captain. You don’t wanna admit when you’re afraid,” she told him. “Afraid of the monsters that come out of the dark. It’s easier to act like nothing is wrong, but you can never forget. They won’t let you.”

Simon took River’s hand into his own and drew it away from his face. He squeezed it, mostly for his own sake, and smiled in adoration. “When did you become so grown up?”

“Aging is merely a measurement of one’s life from the moment of birth through maturity,” River explained with a dull shrug. “It’s unavoidable.”

“I used to believe it was me who was teaching you.” Simon chuckled and took a sip of the tea, savoring the smooth flavors of chamomile and honey as he swallowed it slowly and further considered his thoughts. “But now…I think it has always been you teaching me.”

River idly picked at a loose string dangling from the soft material of her ivory thin-strapped cotton nightgown. The frock had been a gift from Inara months prior and was nothing expensive, but River had been impressed and eagerly accepted the offering as if it were the most glamorous piece of clothing she had ever owned.

“Makes Simon proud,” she said with eyes that reflected reminders of her youth.

“Very much,” Simon agreed with a nod. “And I always will be.”

“I had to learn to fight the monsters.” River hopped down from her perch on the edge of the counter and slowly began to make her way around the infirmary, the tips of her fingers dancing over the various surfaces as if she was committing to memory what she felt. “Don’t give up, have to keep fighting…need to become the sister you remember again.”

“River…” Simon trailed as he watched her. “…You’ve always been my sister.”

“She became a ghost,” River continued as if she hadn’t heard her brother speak up. “Neither here nor there. Trapped in between. She was lost and he had to bring her back. She was his responsibility and he gave up everything he had to bring her home, to make her like he remembered. But…she’s not like how he remembered. She can’t be…”

“She’s wrong,” Simon countered gently. “She’s exactly how he remembers.”

“Not a ghost?” River whispered with her back to him.

Simon shook his head even though River couldn’t see the gesture. “No, Mei Mei. Better than. And she’s the bravest one he knows.”

River turned back to Simon, her eyes glued to the floor of the infirmary with an expression of forlorn. She appeared to struggle with her thoughts, trapped momentarily by a painful torrent of memories that were nothing new, but rather ones that were always locked away in the chaos of her mind. Simon could tell River was troubled, almost afraid to speak exactly what it was that she was thinking. Then, just as he was about to question her, River’s lips parted to speak and her voice was unquestionably haunting.

“Do you still miss it?”

Simon’s gaze returned to focus on the tea. The creases of stress at the corners of his eyes became more apparent with each passing second and though he would never admit it out loud, that familiar ache of sadness and longing that had plagued him for the past several years began to gnaw at the pit of Simon’s stomach. The same fleeting visions of his home and life back on Osiris used to keep him awake at night, questioning the decisions he had made. Even visions of his parents, despite the betrayal they had committed against him and River, was just as equally troubling. Simon used to miss all of it more than he could possibly ever describe. He used to…

“You miss Mother…and Daddy.”

Pursing his lips together, Simon carefully set the cup of tea aside on the counter. “I used to miss the idea of it,” he admitted quietly. A heavy breath passed his lips and as his shoulders slumped forward, Simon clasped his hands together on his lap. “Our life back on Osiris, I mean. I used to miss the idea of the false sense of home and security we had back before I knew it wasn’t real, before I knew any better. And our parents… I…I used to miss the notion that they truly cared about us, that they loved us.”

“It makes you sad,” River noted with a frown as she studied Simon intensely. He could almost feel her prying into his mind to see the true depth of his thoughts. “You wish you could go home.”

Simon lifted a hand to rub at a dull ache forming beneath the surface of his forehead. “No, Mei Mei,” he answered firmly with a shake of his head. Their eyes met more securely this time and Simon offered River a comforting smile. “That isn’t what I wish, because we’re already home. Serenity is our home now and it’s been more of a home than our house on Osiris ever was. Just like the crew of this ship has become more of a family to us than our own blood relatives.”

River’s eyes hinted at a faint lingering of uncertainty. “No regrets? Even though you found her damaged.”

“Don’t be a dummy,” Simon chided her lightly with a crooked grin. “I will never regret what I’ve done to save you and keep you safe. Never.”

River smiled sheepishly, dipping her head down to shield her face from Simon’s sight. “You don’t break promises.”

Simon found it easier to allow River her assertion than to try to argue with her otherwise and he shifted his attention to the doorway of the infirmary when he caught sight of a blur of movement out of the corner his eye. Kaylee stood there, lazily leaning against the doorframe with tired eyes, but Simon could tell she was staring at him with curiosity about why he had once again abandoned her in their bed. And so, he sat up a little straighter and called out to her. “Kaylee…? Is everything okay?”

“I woke up and you weren’t in bed,” Kaylee answered before turning an apologetic glance in River’s direction for interrupting the moment between the two of them. “I thought something was wrong.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Simon explained. “And I didn’t want to wake you. Sebastian was fine and…well, I thought I would busy myself in here for a while.”

“Nightmares,” River added with a simple shrug of her shoulders before she brushed past Kaylee and left the infirmary.

Simon’s lips parted to stutter a response, but it was Kaylee’s knowing glance that had him remaining quiet as she approached. When she finally reached him, Kaylee’s hand extended to brush against the stubble that had accumulated along his jawline. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she told him. “It only makes me worry more when you do that.”

Simon sighed quietly and turned from Kaylee to fiddle idly with the surgical instruments he’d placed in a row on the counter’s surface. “I’m getting better,” he all but mustered under his breath.

Kaylee’s hands rest gently upon Simon’s shoulders. “River doesn’t have to tell me that you’re still having the nightmares. I already know. You talk in your sleep.”

Wincing, Simon kept his back to Kaylee. “Do I keep you awake?”

“Sometimes…” Kaylee hesitated with her answer. “Mostly when you start talking or moving about. You just seem so miserable. It worries me some.”

Simon reached over his shoulder to place his hand upon Kaylee’s. “I close my eyes and I still see it, Kaylee,” he explained, his fingers tightening against her skin. “I can still feel it too. The things they did to me, they-“

Simon’s voice fell silent prematurely, unwilling to go into the horrendous details because he feared just how much it would overwhelm Kaylee and he wasn’t about to purposely allow her to become plagued by the same nightmares that tortured him. “I just want to feel normal again,” he finally finished. “I hate that you worry.”

Kaylee’s arms slowly curled around Simon’s neck. “That’s my job, Simon,” she huffed with a subtle laugh. “Worrying about you just like I worry about Sebastian. It’s because I love you. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a wall, always having to repeat myself about it.”

Simon tilted his head back to frown up at her, but his expression softened immediately. “I’m trying to get better.”

“You’re healing and that’s all that matters.” Kaylee pressed a tender kiss to Simon’s temple. She smiled shyly as she pulled back. “You’re even becoming more shuai as the days pass.”

The stool Simon sat upon turned so he was facing Kaylee. “Your bias is astounding,” he chuckled and took her left hand into his. “But I appreciate everything you do. You don’t realize how amazing you are, Kaylee.”

There was a notable crimson glow that flooded Kaylee’s cheeks. “I’m not really…” she trailed.

“I don’t know about that,” Simon countered. “I think you may be more of a genius than I am.”

“The medication must be getting to your head if you’re calling me a genius,” Kaylee laughed openly, but her eyes were lit with adoration.

Simon pursed his lips in thought and averted his eyes elsewhere. Perhaps genius wasn’t the correct term to use because in all actuality, Kaylee was so much more, even if she couldn’t see it. Though he was prepared to devote himself to helping her understand it in each way possible. Kaylee deserved it too. She deserved the entire Verse handed to her. At one point in time, had they existed together in the Core, Simon would have even been able to give Kaylee all of the riches money could buy, what with his family inheritance and the embarrassingly large stacks of money he’d earned at the hospital and all.

But Simon and Kaylee hadn’t existed in the Core together. They’d lived worlds away.

Kaylee squeezed Simon’s hand to draw his attention back to her. Her head tilt to the side out of curiosity. “What’s going through your mind that has you thinking so hard?”

Simon stared up at her with a steady gaze, a little unsettled by how transparent he had just been. “Well…” he drawled, unsure of how to proceed. “It’s just that I think a lot, about many things. And…I don’t know the proper way to-”

Giggling quietly under her breath, Kaylee hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter, forcing Simon to twist slightly on the stool when their hands remained clasped. “I don’t think there’s a power in the Verse that can keep you from being stiff,” she teased.

Wrinkles surfaced on Simon’s forehead to signal his flustered state. He exhaled a hard breath through his nose and sighed. “And there’s not a power in the Verse that can stop you from giving me a hard time about it,” he countered Kaylee’s statement.

“Oh, Simon. I just wish you would relax more, that’s all,” Kaylee replied with a small shrug. “Don’t gotta be so proper around me all the time. I know you think you still have to, but you don’t.”

“Some habits are difficult to break, I suppose,” Simon said as his hand began to reach into his pants pocket, but he paused and Kaylee quickly took notice of the change in his demeanor. He caught her glance and allowed himself a moment to take in the sight of her before his hand disappeared into pocket and closed around a small familiar velvet pouch.

The sound of the captain’s voice telling Simon to do right by Kaylee filtered through his mind as he assessed the feel of the soft material against his skin. Mal, of all people, was someone Simon figured would be least likely to offer his blessing for the two shipmates to make proper of their relationship. Despite his begrudging recognition of the fact that Simon and Kaylee had moved past just a personal connection with each other, something that led the resident doctor to want to take the mechanic’s hand in wedded bliss and now had an infant in the mix, Mal had given no inkling that he would ever grow to accept the matter. Yet, even Simon couldn’t deny that something changed in Mal’s demeanor when he returned the engagement ring to Simon with his permission for the affair to proceed the way it ought to.

It was just one more thing Kaylee truly deserved. Perhaps the captain had actually learned to honestly trust that Simon wouldn’t let her down in that respect. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“I’m glad you’re here right now,” Simon told Kaylee with his hand securely wrapped around the velvet pouch in confidence in his pocket. “There’s something important I need to ask you.”

“Something important?” Kaylee repeated. With her tired eyes beaming regardless, Kaylee’s expression was typical of the way she always enthusiastically showed interest in what someone was saying to her. “I’m listening.”

Simon pushed himself up from the stool and leaned his weight heavily against the edge of the counter in an effort not to strain his injured leg. Ignoring the urge to wince when the whole of his body protested the movements with a flaring of pain, Simon made sure his focus upon Kaylee didn’t waver. “This is something I should have done a long time ago,” he started to explain. “Kaylee, I-”

Kaylee’s head suddenly whipped in the direction of the infirmary’s open doorway when the sound of Sebastian’s sharp cries could be heard echoing from their living quarters. “Sebastian’s awake,” she murmured with a frown as she scooted off the counter. Though she turned back to Simon before she could take a step towards leaving the infirmary, her face conflicted. “Oh, Simon, I’m sorry. I know you want to talk, but I should go tend to Sebastian before he wakes someone…”

Simon’s shoulders sank as his confidence dissolved at the missed opportunity. He lowered himself slowly upon the stool once more and forced a tight understanding smile. “It’s okay. Sebastian needs you more. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Please come back to bed soon?” Kaylee requested as she inched her way towards the doorway.

Simon nodded. “I won’t be long.”

As empty as Simon knew the promise was, it was enough to ease Kaylee from the infirmary and once she was gone from sight, he turned back to the counter and hunched over to rest his forehead on the cold surface. With the moment passed and the ring now once again forgotten in his pocket, Simon resigned himself to another long night alone in the infirmary with only his thoughts to keep him company.