"Is it so bad here?" Kaylee asked as she took a step towards Simon in the narrow hallway outside the mess. She played with a loose thread on the hem of her shirt, nervous.
Was it so terrible? Compared to the life he'd left behind—yes. So many little things were so terrible. Things he'd taken for granted, all gone. The ability to chose where he wanted to go—even show his face in public—gone. The opportunity to practice his craft at one of the top hospitals in the Core—really help people, use his gift to its fullest, lost forever because of what the Academy had done to River. He missed simple things—fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish—things he'd eaten every day never realising how scarce staples could be at the edge of space. Taking a long hot shower at the end of a long day. Buying something new to replace something old and worn. Walking in a sunlit park, just to pass the time. Talking to friends and family whenever he wished, whenever the mood struck him. So many little things...
He'd traded them. Traded one life for another, and it had been worth it just to see River once dancing and laughing like the girl he'd once known. Like the girl she should be—and would be again, if he could just find the right key to unlock her. He told himself this over and over again, every night as he fell asleep, lulled by the steady thrum of Serenity's engine. Reminded himself as he shaved over the tiny basin in his quarters, pulled on the same shirt he'd worn the day before and the day before that, spooned rice porridge into a bowl in the mess for breakfast.
He'd made a choice—the only choice he could make. He'd given up all the little things for something so much more important. For months he'd tried to take the sting out of that choice—not dwell on what it really meant for so long... Filling up his days with medical research, new patterns, new simple joys to replace the old.
"I don't even know if the captain will let us—" he began, and she cut him off.
"No, I mean... isn't there anything about this place you're glad of?"
You, he wanted to say—but he couldn't push the word pass his lips.
Just hours ago, he'd been happy. Truly happy as they'd sat in the passenger dorm lounge, laughing and talking and enjoying an evening of peace and something real. Something true and real and wonderful that kept him from thinking so much about all he'd left behind. Companionship. Friendship. The promise of something more, if he would just let himself believe in it. And maybe he was just running away in a different way, finding joy in Kaylee's company. Maybe it was just desperately searching for his place in this new and so very different 'verse than the one he'd known his entire life.
Maybe... but he didn't care.
Serenity was her home—the way it had become River's home. She loved River almost as much as he did—he could see it the way they played together, the way Kaylee pretended that River's spells didn't frighten her. The way she pushed past her fears and worries and treated River like a normal girl without evening thinking about it. Or letting it show, until tonight. It must have terrified her, seeing River shoot those men. He knew that—but he'd been unwilling to let it really sink in, just how changed River had become. She had killed three men in cold blood without even seeing them fall. That was not the sister he'd known. But it was who River was now. And sooner or later, he was going to have to stop running away from that simple truth as well.
Her cheeks were flushed, and there was such hope in her eyes. Everything was so simple for her. He wished he could let it be simple. He wanted it so bad he could taste it—like apples. Clean, and pure, with no hidden venom to spoil it. Just the way he imagined her kisses would be. He could drown in her, find some way to capture that perfect simplicity and take it into himself. They were close now—so close he could feel the heat of her body just inches from his.
She was waiting—and Simon discovered so was he. Waiting to see what he would do next, with almost as much fear, trepidation, hope and longing as he could see in every line of her body. For a second, everything was simple. All he had to do was close the space between them. She was waiting, and he wanted to. For one second, he just wanted to do exactly what he wanted, have what normal people had. Feel what other people felt. Pretend that this was the life he chose for himself with no regrets.
He reached up to stroke her cheek just as Book came around the corner.
"Good night, you two," Book said as he passed between them, and the thread of tension snapped as if it had been a physical thing. The shepherd's eyes had been shining with suppressed mirth—even after the drama of the evening. He disappeared down the hall, his footsteps fading, leaving them alone again.
But it was too late. The moment was gone. Lost.
"I, uh..." Simon began, unsure of what he would say—what he could say.
"Don't, yeah, I..." Kaylee trailed off, and he could tell she'd felt it too—the severing of their connection. Feel him withdrawing back into himself. She covered the hurt in her eyes quickly—her habitual bright smile coming up to mask it.
"Good night," he said, because there was nothing else he could say.
"Don't let the space bugs bite!" she called after him as he fled towards the stairs.
Simple things, all lost.