It's late. Serenity is quiet.
Mal can't sleep.
He groans and rolls out of his bunk. No point in staying here; not when he can be awake and doing something. Anything but staring at the ceiling. Anything to make the time go faster.
Mal pulls on his pants and a shirt, buttons everything and pulls up his suspenders. He grabs his gun belt—unthinkable that he would dress without a weapon—and with a push on the switch, he's up the ladder, nice and slow, ascending to the deck. He pauses, considering his options as he buckles on his belt. Tea in the galley, a walk through Serenity, watch the stars on the bridge... He decides on the last. There's plenty of time left in the night to wander the ship, and tea would be best right before morning.
Mal makes his way to the bridge, and freezes in the doorway. Someone's here. Last time someone wasn't where they were supposed to be, people ended up bleeding and on bounty hunters' ships, and he himself had been an unconscious pile on the floor of his room.
Mal's hand strays to the gun on his hip before recognizing the shadowed shape. He lets a breath out with a name.
It's not a greeting; it's not a question, either. It's a hard statement of fact. Simon turns to Mal, not surprised at all. "Captain. You're up late." Mal catches the strained inflection in the boy's voice, but it's not an apology, nor anything that ought to be there. Just the strain and a bit of arrogant distance.
"What're you doing on my bridge?" Mal demands. It's blindingly unfair how Simon has no fear of Mal. Mal's dangerous; he's crazy. He's supposed to be a hard-assed smuggler, but he can't seem to instill respect in his gorram crew.
Simon shrugs. "Thought I'd keep an eye on the dials."
Mal frowns. He knows it's a lie—Simon was standing, staring out into the black when he entered the cockpit—but he asks the question anyway. "You learning to fly the ship now?" Simon's eyebrows lift.
"It could come in handy."
Mal tenses. It sounds like it should be a threat. But Simon's voice is inflectionless, cold. He's not threatening to mutiny. At least not today. Leaving, perhaps?
The thought settles in Mal's gut, leaden. He ignores it. He doesn't care about Simon and River. But he does, dammit. It doesn't matter if they'd be safer away from Serenity. Mal wants them nearby.
As if the thought propels him, he steps closer. "You know, you and River can stay on Serenity. You're part of my crew."
Simon snorts. "And don't think we don't appreciate that, Mal." Mal frowns. Simon doesn't use his given name often, only when he's flustered or worried. Something's definitely wrong here.
"Then why're you up here?" Mal can see Simon's eyes now. They're shuttered and dark, and something in them fills Mal with dread.
Simon changes the subject and asks, almost too calmly, "Do you know why I became a trauma surgeon, Mal?"
"You were really smart?" Mal tries to lighten the mood; he's not sure he wants to go where Simon wants to take him.
The answering laugh is hollow. "That's why I became a doctor. But a trauma surgeon... I was scared a lot when I was a kid. River was the brave one, daring me, dragging me along on adventures, challenging me to try new things."
"Working in the ER is like working...it's like a war zone, Mal." Mal winces, but holds his tongue as Simon continues. "Every second, there's a choice to make, there's a chance someone will die if you so much as breathe wrong. River made me see how much I craved that shot of adrenalin, the rush that comes from getting away with the most impossible surgery, the utterly preposterous premise. There's blood and gore and it stinks...and it's glorious. We're all gods in the ER. Sometimes it doesn't work, but when it does..."
Mal is still confused. "How is this River's fault?"
"Without her, I would have never realized how much I thrived on challenge. I probably would have ended up in a nice, safe specialty. Maybe even research. River made me what I am...was. And now, I can't return the favor."
The answer seems blatantly obvious. "You got her out."
Simon's voice is colored bleakly with despair. "She'll never be out. She'll never be who she was. Neurons regenerate, but oh, they grow back so slowly. The amount of damage...even if I was a neurosurgeon, I couldn't help her. Not like she deserves."
Mal has no response. He moves toward the window, closer to Simon, but refuses to look at him after his tirade. The starfield outside the window seems blacker than usual. He swallows, and almost misses Simon's final, nearly silent statement.
"She's a ghost. And I'm completely useless to her." Startled, Mal looks closer at Simon. The young man is trembling with repressed emotion. It's been years since Mal's seen this kind of despair in someone else.
It's been a few weeks since he's seen that kind of despair in his mirror. Without even thinking about it, Mal reaches out and places a hand on Simon's shoulder; within a few moments, the trembling stops. Mal leaves his hand where it rests. "Don't be so hard on yourself," he says. "She's here, she's safe…relatively speaking, and you're doing the best you can."
"It's not enough," Simon says. "My best isn't enough. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to fix her. If only…"
Mal squeezes Simon's shoulder gently. "Don't go down that route, you'll just make yourself crazy. I should know. You can 'what if' and 'if only' until you're screaming and it doesn't do a damn bit of good—you can't change what was and what is. You are doing the best that you can with what you've got and from what I can see, that's a hell of a lot. She's not nearly as messed up as she was when you first came aboard."
"It's all cosmetic. Done with drugs that temporarily block and soothe and calm, none of it is real. As soon as the drugs wear off, she's back to square one. For all I know, I'm making it worse, messing with her brain chemistry, but I just can't stand to see her suffer. And she is, Mal, she's suffering and I can't do a gorram thing to stop it or fix it."
"Maybe she can't be fixed, Simon," Mal says quietly, knowing the words will not be welcome.
"Don't you think I don't know that?" Simon says harshly as he shrugs off Mal's hand. "It haunts me. But I have to keep trying. I can't leave her the way she is. I need more information. I need to know what they did, how they did it and then maybe I can reverse it."
Simon pauses and in a cold voice that sends chills up Mal's spine, he says, "I hate them, Mal. I want them dead. It was deliberately done—they wanted her to be like this. Whatever it is that they were after, they took my beautiful sister and tortured her and experimented on her, changed her into…something, something else…a freak." Simon is falling apart in front of him, his cold façade crumbling as his voice cracks with emotion, his body starting to tremble once more.
He doesn't know why Simon's anguish cuts him so deeply, but he feels a pang in his chest when he looks into Simon's eyes. He's filled with a need to make that look of despair go away. No one as young as Simon should have that look in his eyes. You did, comes the unwanted thought from the back of his brain. He chases it away. Mal takes Simon by the arms, holding him steady.
"So, we keep looking, keep trying to find some way to help. Maybe we'll raid another big-city hospital so you can use their equipment, maybe we'll find a new drug, one that works better and lasts longer," Mal says.
"We?" Simon questions.
"We," Mal states bluntly. "Don't know why I have to keep telling you this, Simon, but you're my crew. I took you and your sister on, that makes you my responsibility."
"Thank you," Simon replies. "But I can't ask you to put yourselves in any more danger because of us. It's bad enough that we're here in the first place."
"You didn't ask," Mal counters. "I offered. And I ain't planning on taking any extra risks, but if the opportunity arises, then I don't see any harm in trying to help your sister."
"Thank you," Simon replies once again. Mal lets go of him and shoulder-to-shoulder, they turn and face the stars. After a long moment of silence, Mal says, "I was thinking about some tea, would you care to join me?"
"I'd like that," Simon replies.
Mal gestures for Simon to precede him and the two men leave the cockpit together.