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The Agreement

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Serenity perched on the plain outside the great gates of the town of Pollux, on the moon of Castor. Not far away stood two other cargo carriers. A dozen smaller craft, local fliers, were anchored to the tarmac, rocking noticeably in the gusting wind. It was cold, a bitter, biting cold, the kind that cuts through the thickest jackets, threatens toes in heavy, wool socks, and threatens the tips of ears exposed for only minutes.

Pollux was a small town, one of the older settlements of the System, and far enough from the Alliance's reach to have developed a personality uniquely its own. It offered a curious mix of cosmopolitanism, with basic technology and communications, and agrarian ruralism dependent on animal skins and horse power. For the most part, being so far out on the Rim, Pollux was left to its own devices, of which there were many, especially in the supposedly cosmopolitan regions of the planet.

Doctor Simon Tam was engaged in one of those, in a small male whorehouse. Fielding's was located at the curving foot of the mountain, which surrounded the eastern reaches of the gated town. He had arrived just as dusk was deepening into night, and quickly transformed into one of the many anonymous lengthening shadows that entered by the alley door. He had timed it that way: The earlier part of the day had been spent working with his sister in yet another series of cognitive tests, followed by ordering and inventorying the infirmary, and, lastly, performing a handful of cortex searches. It was his turn to take a little R and R, while Kaylee and Jayne gathered replacement parts for the ship, Zoe and River studied system charts, and Mal went about his own business—whether securing another commission for the ship, or finding himself somewhere to unwind, Simon did not know; and he knew better than to ask.

Since Miranda, the destruction of their sanctuaries, as well as the loss of Shepherd Book and the death of Wash, the ship and crew had spent a lot of time simply drifting. River was not, nor ever would be, Wash's equal as a pilot; but her vast knowledge and instantaneous and all-encompassing comprehension had made her a good choice for the job. It also offered her a focus that commanded her intellect, and seemed to make her notably less erratic. She flew alongside the captain sometimes, but more often than not, lately, with Zoe, who seemed to take comfort in sitting near where her husband had worked and played.

Inara had returned to the Companion House, not long after the ship had been repaired, claiming that she was not yet ready to rejoin their group, and that she had commitments to fulfill. Simon suspected her leaving had had more to do with Mal, who, in taking responsibility for all of their losses, had perforce slowed his own healing. In the doing he had reflexively kept at arm's length anyone who would attempt to help him—and more than anything, Inara excelled at helping others. Not that Mal, on the surface, had changed overmuch since the Alliance's operative had shattered their comparatively stable existence—which, it seemed, had been returned to them. He was often harsh and cruel and matter-of-fact—as well as silly and droll and surprisingly kind. Adding another thorn to the paw of the Alliance had rekindled some of his jauntiness, which there for a while had suffered under the terrible scourge of desperation.

But the deaths of all of those who had ever sheltered the crew of Serenity continued to weigh heavily upon him, each visit to one of those slowly recovering Rim worlds underscoring the arrogance and insensitivity of the ruling elite who had allowed such wholesale destruction. It was not uncommon for him to appear late in the evening in the infirmary, long after everyone else who was off duty had disappeared into their cabins. Purportedly he was doing his rounds—assessing the state of his crew and his ship. Simon, hollow-eyed himself from hours at his download tablet researching ways that might help River, had often suggested a soporific—even a mild one; but Mal had always refused. Yet his visits indicated that he was seeking something. What, precisely, Simon deemed it wise not to ask.

The crew, their numbers diminished, took solace where they could. In many ways, their harrowing experience had brought them closer together. No longer were Simon and River viewed as outsiders, or as temporary and inconvenient passengers. As one they had stopped running and struck back at the Alliance. And together they had won an improbable victory. As a group they remained on guard and, when possible, under the radar. All knew that the Alliance was not to be trusted to leave them alone. And they lived their lives accordingly. But among themselves, there was a security, a kind of home.

For himself, Simon still harbored intense regret for bringing Serenity's people under the brutal scrutiny of the Alliance—even though it had been Mal who had collected River off the bloodied floor of the bar on Beaumonde and carried her back to the ship; he, who had engaged the Reavers, unthinking accomplices though they had been, in revealing the truth of their creation to the ‘Verse. And yet even Simon took joy where he could: for River was free, physically if not always mentally and emotionally. And she was better. Encouraged by her ability to shut out most unnecessary stimuli when on the bridge, he hoped that she herself might be able to develop shields against the chattering psyches of those around her. What delicate balance she had achieved was simply that; to be truly whole, her wounds must be completely healed. And that was something, so far, outside Simon's skills to effect.

* * *

He stepped into the alleyway, dimly lit by the glow from the opening in the brick wall. The door rapidly clicked shut behind him. In near total darkness, he walked quietly to the street. Taking a moment to get his bearings, he stepped aside as a short, rotund figure hurried past, and watched with darkened gaze as the man disappeared into the building he had just exited.

The wind had dropped to a steady breeze, but it was fiercely cold, and Simon's cheeks were burning. Pushing his hands into the pockets of his long coat and tucking his chin into his thick scarf, he started down the pavement, scanning the passers-by, well aware that this was a part of town that invited miscreants and general no-gooders. He did not carry a weapon, an item, whether projectile or edged, which he had learned to handle only since his months on Serenity. There were few people about, but each seemed bent on his, or her, own purpose. In that he took a certain comfort.

He was alone and lost in his thoughts when he reached the next alleyway. Unexpectedly, a tall form separated from the shadows and stepped out, blocking his path. Heart in his throat, Simon took his hands from his pockets, bunched into fists, prepared to defend himself.

The shadow spoke. "Little Kaylee'd have your guts for garters if she knew where you just spent the last couple of hours."

Relief was dizzying. He knew that voice. "Captain!" He exhaled sharply. "What are you doing here?"

"Looked like you were heading into a part of town that might earn you some damage. Imagine my surprise when I saw where you ended up."

"You followed me?"

The captain shifted a little, legs braced apart, arms folded across his chest, and did not answer. He stared down at Simon, and there was no escaping the intensity of that scrutiny. Resisting the urge to squirm, Simon countered, "Well, you're wrong about Kaylee. She—" He stopped himself before he could say more; he would have said nothing at all if he had not been so thoroughly disconcerted.

"Thought you two must be going through a rough patch," Mal drawled. "So you're turning to men-whores for comfort?"

Simon sighed. There was precious little that happened on—or off—Serenity that everyone else did not know about. "In this case, no," he replied flatly. He started to say more, but a flash of resistance shut his mouth tightly; there was really no need for him to explain himself to Mal.

But Mal was not going to let this go. He remarked, "You were in there quite a while. For doing nothing."

Had the captain stood outside the whole time Simon was in Fielding's establishment? Feeling himself flush from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, Simon said defensively, "The men are indentured. And some of them were in need of a doctor."

"And were you doctorin'—or playing doctor?" Mal asked.

"I never play doctor," Simon said coldly. "So you can stop worrying about Kaylee. Not that she'd—" He closed his mouth again. The wind against his face was full of knives; its coldness—or Mal's words—had stripped him of all warmth. Hunching into his collar, he muttered, "I'm heading back to the ship."

Mal gave a little snort. "You won't get far."

"What does that mean?"

"Gates are locked by now." There was satisfaction in Mal's voice. In Simon's experience, Mal never failed to be pleased when Simon displayed any level of incompetence.

"Locked? But there weren't any notices!" Mal tsked with false sympathy, a gesture that annoyed Simon beyond reason. "Then I'll find a room," Simon said.

Mal smirked. "Don't think you will."

"Why not?"

"It's pay week. Everything's booked up."

"And you'd know that how?" Simon asked.

"Got the last one. Back at Callister's."

Beginning to shiver, Simon watched two men walk down the street past them. He dredged up a wry smile. "Then I'm sure there's a bench—or a doorway I can settle in till the gates open."

"Long time till dawn," Mal observed. "Might be dangerous. And even if you don't get knocked on the head, you'll probably freeze to death."

"I'll manage," Simon said shortly.

"You might. Or—" Mal paused "—you could stay with me."

There was something in Mal's tone that didn't quite make sense. Simon ignored it, filled with sharp relief. "That—that's generous of you, Captain."

Mal laughed. His teeth shone briefly in the dark. "You'd better consider the terms before you agree."

"Well, of course, I'll pay half," Simon began. He ground to a stop at Mal's expression: "You want me to pay more than half—?"

"Don't expect you pay anything for the room." Mal tipped his head toward the end of the street—and Fielding's whorehouse. "You see, I wasn't following you."

Simon blinked. "I…I don't understand."

"But I don't do slaves, neither."

The breeze lifted Simon's hair, freezing his ears. "You and me?" Simon's disbelief came through his voice like an insult. Not that he meant it that way, but he saw Mal stiffen and his eyes narrow. "Is that what you're offering?" When Mal said nothing, Simon hazarded, for he had to be sure, "You want to sleep with me."

"Quaint way of putting it, doctor. But I gotta tell you—so there's no misunderstanding—sleeping ain't really what I got in mind."

Taken by a sudden, violent shiver, Simon insisted, "You're serious? You can't be serious."

"No?"

"You— You just want to set me up. To—to humiliate me!"

"Humiliate you?"

"We'll get back to the ship and you'll tell everyone you pranked me into believing I had to—" Horrifyingly, the only word that came to mind was the one he'd heard Jayne use. "—to sex you. And then you'll laugh and make a big joke out of it."

"Will I?" Mal said silkily. "I must be quite the prankster to be standing outside here in this filthy weather, when I could already be cozy in my bed at the Callister."

"You just don't want your ship's doctor to freeze to death," Simon countered.

Mal's eyes glinted and one corner of his mouth twitched up. "Take it or leave it." He pivoted on his heel and started striding away, the hem of his coat flapping about his knees. Simon hesitated for all the time it took for another blast of frigid air to rock him where he stood. Seconds later, he found himself stumbling behind him, as if caught in some kind of personality-forged tractor beam. Mal had that effect on people, and Simon hated him, and himself, sometimes, that he could have that effect on him, too.

What Mal had proposed was, on the surface, ridiculous. It was probably—undoubtedly—a colossal setup. This was the same man who had once made Simon believe that Kaylee was dead, just to—what? Make him sweat? Make him sick at the thought that his calculated delay had cost her life? There was no question that the captain's sense of humor was more than a little skewed.

But—

Mal had been outside Fielding's whorehouse, which Simon knew from firsthand experience was not an easy place to find. So, say, it wasn't a setup. Could he believe that Mal had come into town to sleep with a man? Other than his interest in Inara, which had appeared to be pretty intense, Mal had seemed removed from temptation—though there had been that friend of Inara's, the one who had been killed defending her whorehouse and her girls. Mal had spent the night with her, according to Jayne, and sleeping had been—again, according to Jayne—the least of what they had done together.

"But I don't do slaves, neither."

So, Simon had to assume that Mal had gone to Fielding's with intent. And, there, had seen Simon going in with apparently the same purpose. And had he then learned that Fielding's stable comprised mostly indentured men, many of whom were barely of an age to agree to their contracts? And—what?—angered by that knowledge, had he spent the next two hours waiting to confront Simon with it?

Simon pulled the heavy collar up around his cheeks, his eyes stinging. Lost in his ruminations, he only now noticed that snow had begun to fall, coming straight down in fat, wet clusters. The lamplight at the end of the street was haloed with them, for all the world reminding Simon of fireflies swarming in the dark.

Ultimately, it didn't matter. If Mal was joking, he would soon find out. And if he wasn't joking—well, Simon would still soon find out. If nothing else, he would be out of this dreadful weather.

A moment or two later, they at last reached Callister's, a rough wooden establishment near the center of town. Mal pulled open the door, his hand braced against it until Simon could prop it with his forearm. The captain had not once looked back this entire time, but he had seemed sure that Simon was following. The sudden glaring brightness, raucous noise, and bludgeoning odor were a shock to the senses. In a daze, Simon followed Mal to the welcome desk, waiting, dripping where he stood, while Mal picked up his key.

Callister's was crowded and smoky, the bar and dining area thick with overheated, unwashed bodies. Most of the patrons were clearly deep in their cups, singing and talking loudly. Few gave them even a passing glance as they walked up the stairs to the second floor. Mal went first and Simon lagged behind, catching himself watching the muscles in Mal's calves, clearly defined by the fabric of his trousers legs—all that could be seen beneath the drape of his duster. Was it really possible that there would soon be a good deal more of him on view? Simon scowled to himself. Despite the warmth of the building, he shivered again. Not in fear; not in dread. Nerves. Just nerves.

Mal stopped outside a room, worked the keycard, and pushed the door wide. He gestured wordlessly for Simon to precede him, and when Simon had done so, closed the door behind them.

Simon stood for a moment, letting his heart settle as he gazed around. It was a small room, and minimally furnished. The bed took up nearly the entire space; beside the door was a chair-cum-coat rack; on the far side of the bed, a nightstand; and across from the bed, a chest of drawers with a washbasin and a ewer, filled with water, set on top. There was a window in the wall opposite the door, and a frigid breeze soughed under the sill. In fact, the room was colder than the corridor had been. "At least it's clean," Simon murmured. He flinched at the sound of something heavy plopping onto the chair behind him. It was Mal's coat. While Simon had been examining the accommodations, Mal had shifted the suspenders off his shoulders and already moved on to deal with the buttons on his shirt. The captain hesitated, fingers poised. "Second thoughts?" he asked.

His mouth suddenly dry, Simon said hoarsely, "I still need a place to sleep." He forced a smile as he peeled off his coat and hung it from one of the prongs on the tall back of the chair. He picked up Mal's coat and hung it on the prong opposite."To stay," he muttered.

Mal grinned back, apparently approving Simon's correction, but his eyes were as cool and flat as ice on a pond. "Well, at least you've got a place to lie down. Sleeping's not necessarily part of the bargain, as you properly noted."

"Ah." Simon swallowed. "Well, then." Taking a steadying breath, he faced the other man and took a step closer. He would treat this as he would a particularly difficult and entailed surgery. He would focus on the mechanics of what they were about to do and keep his mind utterly emotionless.

In truth, he had some experience being with men—well, young men, anyway, as he had been a very young man himself when that experience had occurred. There had been fumbling and furtive heavy breathing and the shock of sudden pleasure. He had thought—well, he had been wrong. And while the experience was not repeated, he could not say that he hadn't enjoyed it. He had. A great deal.

Now, here, in this small, nondescript room, in this frozen backwater of a town, Mal regarded him warily. Resolutely meeting that stare, Simon took hold of the other man's wrists and moved his forearms down to his sides. Then he continued what Mal had begun, prying each button free of its mooring with surgical precision, if less than his usual adeptness—which was tested suddenly when Mal set his hands on Simon's shoulders, his thumbs lapping at the hair at the nape of his neck.

To focus his mind—no matter how surreal the moment—Simon studied the chest that was gradually bared to him. He pushed the fabric aside. He had seen it before, of course. All too many times, actually, in his infirmary. But now, here, he could examine it with a different interest. Tentatively, he began to map with his fingertips the scars puckering pale skin. Mal went very still at his touch, his respiration slow and shallow. After tracking the ghostly ridge of each wound, Simon, on a whim, bent forward, framing Mal's flanks with his palms, and placed his ear against his breast. As he listened to the rapid beat of the other man's heart, he felt Mal's fingers tighten on his shoulders. Then the big hands rose: one came up to curve round the side of Simon's face, fingers slipping into his hair; the other, to gently cover the knobs of his cervix with a palm.

"Is it the original?" Simon asked, pleased that he managed to sound so normal.

"Surely is," Mal replied breathlessly. "And, just so you know, it works just fine."

"Shh." Simon finally looked up as he drew away. "So it does." He shrugged. "Taking a baseline. Wouldn't want to overstress you."

Under other circumstances, Mal's expression might have frightened him. It was dark and intense, and his eyes were deeply blue and filled with purpose. He started to lean toward Simon, his gaze fixed on Simon's mouth. But all at once he pulled back, lips thinning and nostrils flaring.

Simon dared not move as Mal raised his hands to Simon's vest. He flicked each button out of its closure, abruptly pushed the cloth aside, and performed the same action on his shirt. Simon closed his eyes as Mal reached inside and around and began to search the line of his spine and the sleekness of his flank—his fingers dipping just below the waist at the back of his trousers before skimming round to the front—those same fingers leaving trails of heat, astonishing heat, against his abdomen as they glided upward over the vulnerable hollow beneath his breastbone, the spread of his chest, and lastly, the base of his throat. Feeling warm breath upon his cheek, he blinked his eyes open to find Mal very close, his mouth scant inches away. It was, he thought dizzily, not a joke, after all….

Mal stretched out an arm and switched off the light. Darkness rushed into the room, surrounding them, protecting them, heightening Simon's sense of touch. He felt the air stir as Mal's arm came back, his wrist brushing against his shoulder; felt his skin prickle as both hands came up to frame Simon's face. And he only just managed not to gasp as Mal lowered his lips to Simon's mouth. This he had not expected. Rough, abrupt handling; coarse, hurried use. The kind of sexual activity that had everything to do with immediacy and nothing at all to do with tenderness.

This was tenderness. Mal's kiss was slow and deliberate, and stunningly…the only word Simon could apply was courteous. He wasn't being ravished or pushed beyond what he was ready to offer. And Mal's kiss was irresistible. Simon's intended reserve never had a chance, falling instantly before Mal's careful seduction. His insides clutched as he felt pleasure spreading its tendrils throughout him, and he pressed closer.

A sharp, shrill note pierced the air. It came from Mal's coat: his handset. "Gāisǐ de!" Mal exclaimed in a harsh whisper, releasing Simon so unexpectedly that he staggered. He switched on the light and went at once to the chair and shoved his hand into the pocket of his dangling duster. He glared back at Simon, who winced at the exasperation in his expression. "Where's your handset?" he demanded.

"I—"

But Mal flicked the receive button and grunted a less than friendly greeting into the speaker. "Go on." He raised the unit to his ear and listened for a few seconds, his expression hardening. He glanced dismissively at Simon. "I think I know where to find him. Everyone else on board? Then get her prepped. Be there in half an hour." Clicking off, he shoved the unit back into the pocket. "Turn it off, did you?" Mal asked dangerously.

Simon nodded, belatedly beginning to redo his clothing. "Well, yes." He gestured toward Mal's com unit. "What is it?"

Mal's fingers were hurriedly but efficiently climbing up his own shirt, one button after the other. "Alliance incoming. We've got maybe an hour to make black." As Simon watched Mal snap his suspenders onto his shoulders, he opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it. He returned his efforts to the task at hand and was startled when, cursing, Mal moved forward and slapped his fingers away from his shirt. Thrusting a hand beneath the fabric, he jerked Simon close, their bodies molded together, Mal's thigh hard between Simon's legs. Mal brought his mouth down on Simon's lips. This kiss was ruthless and angry, and Simon felt his bottom lip split with the force of it. He gave a small grunt of pain—but as suddenly the kiss changed and, for an instant, no more, it was meltingly tender and searching, as before. And then Mal pushed him away. "Get dressed," he ordered thickly.

Two minutes later, they were hurrying down the stairs. Simon held on to the rail and shakily followed in Mal's stiff-legged wake. At the sign-in counter, they stopped and Mal negotiated a partial return of his money. Normally, Simon suspected, this would have been met with some defiance; but Mal's coldly furious expression and looming, no-nonsense manner decided the clerk to be reasonable.

And then they were out in the cold again, and all the warmth of their encounter was sucked away into the night. He huddled in his coat, lengthening his stride to keep up with the other man. The wind had grown even stronger, and the air was alive with snowflakes. As they drew nearer the west end of the block, and the small garage where the unmanned skimmers were kept, Simon's brain suddenly resumed functioning. He exclaimed, "Captain!"

"What?" his companion prompted tersely.

"The gates!"

Mal shot him a searing glance. "What about ‘em?"

"They're locked. You said—"

Lips compressed, Mal turned away; shaking his head, he kept walking. They reached the small building, crowded with battered and discolored flyers. Mal shoved a coin into a small two-seater with a torn canopy and climbed behind the controls. He waited, hands gripping the wheel with barely contained violence, for Simon to load himself into the companion seat. Giving him mere seconds to secure his belt, he launched the vehicle out of its berth and into the middle of the empty road at breakneck speed. They rounded a corner, Simon holding on to his seat edge and a grab handle in the door, as Mal forced a sharp burst of speed from the usually sedate transport. And there before them the gates stood. And they stood open.

Simon sucked in a mouthful of frozen air, snow catching on his lashes as he stared at the evidence of Mal's deception. He started to say something, to demand an explanation. But then, as comprehension collided with confusion, he closed his mouth and said nothing at all.

* * *

Back on Serenity, Simon stood alone in the cargo bay. Kaylee had activated the door immediately after they had arrived. She had given Simon one long, dark look before sprinting after Mal up the stairs to the fore deck. Sighing softly to himself, Simon stripped off his coat and shook it clean. And then he ruffled his hair and watched the snow hit the grating at his feet. It melted almost at once.

As he made his way to the passenger dorms, he sensed the ship's motion through the atmosphere—lift-off, the picking up of speed—followed by the almost palpable relief when friction fell away and Serenity was free to soar into the black.

In his room, he stored his coat and tidied his clothing. He paused as he tugged his vest into place, remembering the cool solidity of Mal's hand on his chest. Then he emptied his pocket of the memory tabs he had brought back from the whorehouse in Pollux, holding them for a moment as if they were the most precious things in his world. He set them on the desk beside his tablet. And then he went into the washroom where he scrubbed his hands and tended to the small trickle of blood on his lip and chin. No wonder Kaylee had frowned at him.

Everyone was already at the dinner table when he arrived. He sat next to River, who tipped her head and gazed at him sidelong before handing him a bowl filled with something whipped and green. His last meal had been in Pollux several hours ago, a meal consisting of real vegetables and real bread. Simon contained his aversion and filled his plate. Around him there were islands of conversation. Zoe was updating Mal on the status of the ship. The vessel they had avoided had been an Alliance supply ship, which had shown no interest in Serenity. Jayne was eating with great appetite and little finesse as usual, teasing Kaylee about having to stay on the ship to complete minor repairs while he and Zoe had gone out to pick up parts and some fresh stores.

"I helped," River announced.

Kaylee smiled at that. "You did," she agreed. "Between flying and learning how to repair her, you're going to captain Serenity some day."

"Now, hold on," Mal objected. "Still a ways to go for that. Not to mention, me having to be dead first."

River's lips quirked and she began to say something—then stared at Mal for the space of several heartbeats.

He stared back at her, shaking his head warningly. "Don't go all strange on me."

"Not dead. Not captain."

"What happened to the doc?" Jayne interposed. He pointed at his own lips. "Get in a dust-up in town, did you?"

Simon dabbed at his lip; it was seeping blood again. "This?" he said brightly. With a cool glance at Mal, he said, "Friendly fire, actually. Though I suppose I deserved it."

Jayne's head swiveled round and he broke into a wide grin. "Mal popped you?"

Shrugging, Simon said off-handedly, "I turned my handset off."

"Captain!" Kaylee exclaimed.

"Huh," Jayne snorted. "Lucky for you—unlucky for us—that he found you."

"Yes," Simon said quietly. "Lucky."

Mal regarded him briefly and impassively, all while continuing to eat with quiet dedication.

Suddenly, River said, "Baseline." Her quizzical expression slowly changed to an almost crafty comprehension, which she turned full on Mal. "Works just fine."

Mal choked. Simon discovered that he was holding his breath. River seemed all at once to understand what she had said, and a hint of alarm came into her eyes. She turned toward Simon. "I shouldn't have— That isn't for every—"

But Simon interrupted her. "It's all right. No harm done."

Jayne heaved a theatrical sigh. "I like the way you pretend to know what the hell she's on about, doc. Not as much as I like you having a split lip, though, you know."

"You all right, captain?" Zoe's attention was focused on Mal, who was beet red with coughing.

He waved his chopsticks and raised his glass to show that he was not in any danger. "Fine," he croaked. He took a couple of careful swallows. "Just fine."

"Are you sure?" Simon asked.

Mal nodded vigorously, declining all help with an abrupt gesture. He rose from the table and took his plate to the sink. Simon glanced across at River and saw that she was studying the captain. "Frustrated," she said, so softly only Simon could hear her. She turned again toward Simon and worry had crept into her expression. "Angry."

He smiled weakly. "It's all right," he assured her. He shoveled a chunk of something green into his mouth."Tell me about your day."

* * *

Simon was eager to begin reviewing the tabs waiting on his desk, but he was also ready to fall into bed and sleep the night through. River had gone with Zoe to the bridge; Jayne had turned in for the night; and Kaylee had disappeared into the engine room. The ship was humming her familiar, rhythmic tune as he switched off the lights in the infirmary.

He staggered to a halt. Mal was standing just outside the door. "I need your services," he said bluntly.

"My—?" Simon overcame his startlement and gave the captain a quick once-over. "You appear to be all right."

"In the cargo bay." Mal flicked a thumb for him to follow.

They went to the catwalk and down the stairs, Simon trying to convince himself with no great success that the sudden lurch of his heart had not been obvious. Mal went purposefully to a small, tarp-covered box tucked under the metalwork. He hauled it out and stripped off the covering. Simon's brows rose. "That's an organ transporter."

Mal fixed him with an approving smile. "Exactly what the gentleman called it."

"What gentleman?"

"The one who gave us the commission. We're taking it to Mater."

Simon's brows went up again. "Organs to Mater? That's on the Rim. I doubt they have the technology to make best use of…." His voice trailed off as he crouched beside the cryo unit and punched in the code to pull up the manifest.

"He said a doctor has to confirm that the unit came on board in working condition, and continue to monitor it till it's delivered."

"SOP. But I'm no longer a licensed doctor," Simon felt compelled to point out, scanning data as it scrolled across the small viewscreen.

Mal feigned disbelief, "Do tell. But they ain't particularly picky on Mater."

"Why would they want organs on a backwater moon?" Simon muttered to himself. He shot Mal a sudden, measuring glance. "I'm going to hate myself for asking, but was this a legal transaction?"

"You doubting my ethics, doctor?" Mal asked dryly.

"Always. Was it?"

"In this case, yes."

Simon returned his attention to the manifest, which was now displaying a list of contents. He began to laugh under his breath.

"Something funny?" Mal asked, deceptively patient.

Having forgotten that laughter was probably not recommended at the moment, Simon was brought up sharp by a spurt of pain. He gently licked his lip. "Ah."

"Ah?" Mal repeated.

Typing in his authorization code, Simon locked down the unit and then rose to his full height. "Nothing to worry about."

Mal replaced the tarp. "If there's something I ought to know…," he began doubtfully, nudging the cryo box back under the metalwork with the heel of his shoe.

"Nothing to concern you, captain," Simon stated. "Everything is fine."

Mal looked from Simon to the cargo. "Be sure that it is. This commission is going to pay for our meals and fuel for some time to come."

Simon winced as he was seized by a yawn. "I need to put a seal on this." He gingerly poked at his lip. "Good night, captain." He was almost at the hatchway that led to the common area when Mal asked, "How much does little sister know?"

Simon shrugged resignedly. "Oh—probably everything." He felt the weight of Mal's gaze on his back as he walked away, but the captain said nothing more.

* * *

A dream woke Simon before ship's dawn the following day. As it involved Mal, the hotel in Pollux, and the bedroom in the hotel in Pollux, he decided it would be advisable to leave his bunk rather than linger to review details—and perhaps act upon that review. Somewhat bad-temperedly he rose and splashed water on his face, callously but effectively dispelling the remnants of his sleeping mind's waywardness. Redirecting himself was a trick he had learned some years before—he would never have advanced his medical training so rapidly without the gift of concentration. He used it now as he immersed himself in the information stored on the tabs in the sterile comfort of the—his—infirmary. Hours passed without notice. Only a light touch bestirred him: it was River, a slight smile curving her lips, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.

"Good morning," Simon said, wrapping an arm round her waist and hugging her close.

"You're reading," she observed, leaning against him.

"If you have time, I'd like you to read some of this, too." He gazed up at her, awaiting her reaction.

River studied him through unblinking eyes. "You think it will help me."

"It may." His mouth bent ruefully. "At least there're no needles, no medication. It's a dissertation on techniques to close out unwanted stimulus."

"Earth That Was," she murmured.

"Old research, yes. Used to help people who suffered Sensory Integration Dysfunction."

"They did not suffer. Those who did not understand them—those who considered themselves normal—they were the ones who suffered."

"Because they wanted them to see things as they did, do you mean?"

"Yes."

"I think it could help."

She brushed the hair off his brow and kissed his temple. "Then I will read it." She added, "I do not always want to know what Jayne is thinking." She drew free and started for the doorway.

Simon muttered, "If I had to know what Jayne is thinking, I'd use a whisk on myself."

River stopped and looked back, her eyes solemn. "I would not let you."

For a long while after she had gone, Simon stared at nothing. Since Miranda, since purging some of the horror that had been trapped inside her mind, River had improved remarkably. He did not understand why it should be so, for he had believed her irregular behavior and frequent distress and confusion to be caused by her inability to process all of the information storming her mind—a mind that was vulnerably open to the thoughts of all of those around her. For she was psychic—or as the folk of Serenity labeled her, a reader—a fact he himself had been reluctant to accept. He had always known her to be strongly intuitive, and when they were children he had teased her about having a "third eye." Scientists at the Academy had exploited this ability, experimenting upon her as cold-bloodedly as if she had been a test animal. By the time Simon had found a way to free her, she had been damaged almost to the point of insanity. The normal barriers in her mind had been stripped away, like a body stripped of its flesh, leaving her raw and dreadfully sensitized.

Simon rarely revisited those first days. He had not known what to expect when he had finally seen her again—two years having passed since his last communication with her—but even his worst imaginings had not prepared him for the creature his sister had become. Naked and helpless, brutally roused from cryo sleep by Mal, she had spilled over the side of the chamber, distraught, bewildered, terrified. Yet she had known him, and his presence had steadied her. A small miracle, in his mind.

And so they had begun their lives as fugitives. In truth it was River whom the scientists of the Alliance wanted, though they and the authorities understood that if they found Simon, they also found her. They had wanted her badly, for she held within that shattered brain knowledge that could destabilize the Alliance's power and obstruct its goals. Simon had spent many angry hours pondering why she had been so badly used—despite what Dr. Mathias had told him the day he had effected River's escape. His theories ranged from the Alliance's attempting to discover the source of her "telepathy" so that they might activate it in others, to, and perhaps including, its using psychic ability as a military tool. Shepherd Book had suggested that she might have been groomed to be an assassin, the very thought of which had sickened him. The shepherd had been proven right in the end, though perhaps weapon was a more accurate term than assassin. To those killed by her, he supposed the distinction was a negligible one.

He had been grateful to Mal when they had been given refuge until they might find somewhere safer. As the months had passed, the ship itself had proven to be a form of therapy. River had bonded with it, often wandering about in her bare feet, undiscouraged by cold metal gratings and sharp corners. She seemed to hear Serenity's heart beat in a way that only Mal and Kaylee could comprehend. Despite her ravaged mind, she had begun to adapt to this life and to form relationships with the others on board.

More quickly than Simon had himself. For years he had turned his own formidable intellect on finding and recovering his sister. Once he had rescued her, he had been met with the monumental undertaking of healing her—a task he had not anticipated. And it had been almost overwhelming. Rarely had he slept through the night, for her nightmares became his nightmares, and it had fallen to him to comfort her when she woke screaming. For that matter, it had been months before she could sleep at all—so Simon had spent daylight hours playing her keeper, and once abed never slept so deeply that he would not hear her first anxious mutterings.

Since Miranda, however, her nights had been less often disturbed, and she suffered fewer sudden emotional breaks. She had become less dissociated, conversing more or less conventionally with Serenity's crew—even with Jayne on occasion. Helping Mal and Zoe to pilot the ship had given her a purpose for that fragile but incomparably brilliant mind and renewed the self-confidence he had always admired in her. And since Miranda, blessedly, Simon had sometimes managed to sleep through the night.

He would never again know the rare, sweet girl who had been his little sister: she was gone, never to return. But the young woman he had liberated from the Academy was beginning to find her way, and he felt certain that this research could aid in that process. Filled with hope—something that, until recently, had been excruciatingly short in supply—Simon returned to his studies.

* * *

"You missed dinner."

Kaylee's voice brought Simon's head up with a start. "Hello," he said with a vague smile. "I did?"

"It was your turn."

"Oh, no!" Simon scrambled to his feet. "I forgot."

She pointed to a tray of food perched on the edge of the counter. "I took care of it."

"Kaylee, thank you," Simon said, chagrined. "I've been reading."

"You've been reading for two days," Kaylee said mildly. "It's a wonder your eyes ain't crossed."

"Aren't they?" The tray was heaped with a mixture of packet and fresh food, the latter picked up on Castor. Simon had been unconscious of hunger until that moment. His stomach let out a low complaint as he reached for the plate and a pair of k'uai zi. As he sat back down on the stool, he said, "This is great—but you really should have called me."

"Don't like to disturb you when you're busy. ‘Sides, the others didn't seem to mind."

His mouth full, Simon grinned cynically. "That's because my cooking is deplorable." He took a swallow from his glass. "Awful. What have you been up to?"

"The usual. You must have heard us a couple of hours ago in the cargo bay. Could have used you on our side."

"Probably not," he countered realistically. "I never have learned the rules properly—supposing there are rules."

"There are. Of a sort." She began to wander round the small room.

Simon watched her warily. He could guess what was coming. "I haven't figured out how the point system for knocking me down works," he mumbled around a mouthful.

‘It's called a foul," she said, running her finger down the side of the tablet, which he had left on the table in front of him. "Have you…maybe thought on what we talked about before?"

Swallowing, suddenly, became difficult. Simon set down his plate and reached for the glass. He said gently, "I haven't changed my mind, if that's what you mean."

She sighed. "It bothered you that much, me being with those fellas?"

With a bland smile to remove some of the sting, Simon corrected her. "Those three fellas. On Battle, Flint, and Tas."

"Didn't think it was that obvious." She grimaced. "So it did, then?"

"It made me think," Simon conceded, "about us."

Kaylee perked up a little. "'Us'?"

"I can't change you—nor would it be right for me to ask that of you. But neither can I—"

"They didn't mean nothing, Simon! They was just a bit of fun."

"I understand, Kaylee," Simon said, choosing his words carefully. "I do. And that's all right. It's just—for me—I want it to be more than that."

She drew a face. "It's just sex, Simon!"

He took a deep breath and released it. "It can be more."

Looking very forlorn, she whispered, "Was it more with me?"

With a slow nod, Simon replied, "Yes."

"Well, it'd still be more again, then," she said with certainty. "And I could try—"

"No, Kaylee." He spoke quietly but absolutely. He would not give her false hope. "That wouldn't be fair to you."

She pressed her lips together and touched the tablet again. "So you'd never be with someone just for fun?"

"Not just for fun," Simon said.

She looked straight at him, and there was pain in her eyes. "Unless you paid for it? Like those men on Castor?"

Startled, Simon began, "How—?"

She tapped the tablet. "It was on the screen. I came looking for a wrap for my finger while you was gone."

Thinking furiously, Simon cast his mind back to that afternoon. He had been working on the downloaded data, it was true, and he had called up the directions to Fielding's. But it was his habit to wipe the screen when he was finished, and he was quite certain that he had done so that afternoon. It was, however, not his habit to clear the buffer: anyone could have reviewed the listings. So, who—? He met Kaylee's eyes. "Yes, I went to the brothel. But not to purchase anyone's services."

"Why else would you go?" she challenged.

It was Simon's turn to sigh. "The doctor in Pollux. He's a…former colleague. We interned together. He's been researching sensory dysfunctions—something similar to what troubles River." He nodded in the direction of the tablet. "He gave me information that may help her."

Kaylee's cheeks filled with color. "Oh."

Simon reached out and took her hands in his. "If we went back to—well, it wouldn't be right. I won't use you that way, any more than I'd buy someone for pleasure. But I'd like to be friends. Can we still be friends, Kaylee?"

She shrugged and pulled her fingers out of his grasp.

"Kaylee?"

She moved her shoulders again and turned away—but not before Simon saw a tear run down her face. A moment later she was gone.

Feeling wretched, he contemplated going after her. That was something else that had happened after Miranda: his relationship with Kaylee, fumbling and uncertain up to that point, had finally progressed to the next level. She had been sweet and giving, and their being together had helped them to recover from their injuries, both physical and emotional. There were still moments when Kaylee mentioned Wash or Book, and tears filled her eyes and the light went out of her face. It had been a good time, those days and nights with Kaylee—but Simon had neither looked to the future nor permanence. And although he had not expected devotion, much less fidelity, and knew enough about Kaylee to correctly determine his place in her life, it had hurt to a surprising degree when she had ventured out with that young man on Battle so soon after they had become intimate.

Winningly contrite, she had won him back for a few weeks—until Serenity had stopped for a couple of days on Flint. Simon had been working with River and unable to spend time earthside. It was Jayne who had informed him of Kaylee's indiscretion. And to Simon's discomfort, the big man had evinced a hint of sympathy—or, so Simon had imagined. He had chosen to ignore Kaylee's straying, conscious that this time her betrayal had hurt rather less. And that, he had realized, was not a good sign for their fledgling relationship. The third time, on Tas, he had taken it philosophically. And then, he had, with kindness, ended it.

Yet he missed her tenderness and warmth, her knowing hands and mouth, but most of all the respite she had given him from himself. With her, there had been pure oblivion. But to continue, on those terms, would be to use her. And that he would not do.

Eventually, he finished the meal she had brought him. It was late evening by then, and the food long cold. Afterward, he took the tray back to the kitchen, traversing the corridors unmet. While there, he made himself a mug of tea. While he waited for it to steep, he thought of River. She had stopped by the infirmary during the afternoon and read through some of the documentation he had recommended. They had not discussed it, but she had left with a thoughtful expression. He had not seen her since then. Knowing that the bridge was the most likely place that he might find her, he disposed of the tea bag and cautiously carried the hot mug to the fore deck. At the hatch, he paused, as yet neither seen nor heard. Mal and River were talking; it took a moment before he could pick up the thread of their conversation. He stood, listening, determining whether an intrusion might be acceptable.

"—tations are easy." That was River.

"You're telling me Wash was overpaid," Mal said.

River spoke in a strange, attenuated voice. "He was the world."

Simon heard Mal's sharp inhalation. A few seconds went by before he commented, "Might be, you've been spending too much time with Zoe."

"She is— Her feelings are—" River stopped. Breathlessly, she went on, "Simon is helping me with some new tricks."

"Tricks?"

"Techniques to block out the thoughts and emotions of others." And then, with one of those unexpected shifts that could be so hard to follow, she said, "He—he used to let me pilot his flyer."

Mal, characteristically, was unfazed. "Did he? Despite you being underage and all?"

"I was very careful. He's taught me many things."

For a moment there was only a clicking of switches. "I expect he has," Mal said. He went on lightly, "You know, you're lucky he puts up with you. Me, if I'd had a little sister like you, I'd've drowned her like a kitten years ago."

There was the briefest of silences before River remarked, "If you'd had a sister like me, that would have been the right thing to do." Simon bit his lip. There was no self-pity in River's voice, just a composed matter-of-factness that made him want to weep. "Though…you saved one once. A kitten."

Mal grunted a laugh. "And an almighty mistake that was. Worst gorram cat ever."

River giggled. Simon felt himself relax. "Which is why you let it sleep with you."

"Stop it," Mal said good-naturedly. "Keep your mind to your own self."

"Even though it made you sneeze."

"Enough, I said." This time he spoke in the no-nonsense tone that Simon was all too familiar with. "Maybe you should be practicing those new ‘tricks' your brother's teaching you." Simon heard a finger tap on the console. "Now tell me about this panel." River immediately began a very technical and complete description of the purpose of each rocker and toggle. Mal interrupted, "In a language that I understand, little one. Start over."

As River explained each item in simple prose, Simon turned and soundlessly took his mug of tea away.

Later, as he lay in bed, comfortably relaxed and with sleep only a few deepening breaths away, a thought curled through his mind that brought him, just for an instant, almost awake: If he'd had sex with Mal, would it have been "just for fun"? He could never have convinced anyone that the captain had coerced him. And, thinking back, did he really believe Mal would have left him in the cold? Mal could be unpredictable and unkind, but would he have—? Simon slept.

* * *

"Do you want to try?"

River nodded, a shadow of wariness at the back of her eyes. Simon had completed a program of therapy, and presented it to her that morning. She read through the data on his handheld one more time, and nodded again, more confidently.

"Let's go into the bay," he suggested. "No one should be in there for a while."

He held out his hand and she took it, her fingers small and seemingly delicate in his. With some pride—perhaps misplaced—Simon recalled what those hands had been capable of doing when they encountered the Reavers. She was trembling, and he gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Nothing to hurt you, mei mei," he murmured. "If you want to stop, I promise we will stop."

Save for the unceasing drone of Serenity's engines, it was quiet in the cargo bay. He took her to the center of the floor and there urged her to sit. She settled, cross-legged at his feet. He took his place a short distance away. Between them he placed his encyclopedia and a glass container, which held a single candle. With a small lightstick, he lit it.

"Close your eyes," he said softly.

She obeyed.

"Can you see the candle?"

She nodded slowly.

"Concentrate on it. See how the flame moves? The colors? The faint trail of smoke? Don't follow the smoke—watch the candle. Watch the flame. Study it. Memorize its shape; how it forms and reforms."

In the stillness of the cargo bay, River sat motionlessly, her face bent forward, as if drawn toward the heat of the candle. Simon began to speak of the space around them, of the sounds beyond the hum of the engine, of the presence of the other crew members. She took them all in and then began to speak of things he could not possibly sense. Slowly he guided her back inward, into herself, describing how to close out those other things, one at a time. She sat in total silence, her features at rest, her hands limp in her lap.

"What can you hear?"

"You."

"Anything else?"

"I—I won't."

"Won't?"

"I could. But I won't."

"Good," Simon said, his voice warm with approval. "Now, tell me where Mal is."

"No."

"Can you see him?"

"I won't. I could—"

"Good. What about Kaylee?"

"I am here. With you. It is quiet. I feel the candle, its warmth. Your voice, Serenity's voice; I won't hear anything else. The floor: I feel the floor beneath me."

"Very good." He rose and walked away. "Think of the candle; watch its flame. I am going to circle you. But focus on the candle, not where I am."

She let out a shaky breath. And then she nodded.

Simon moved step by deliberate step around her. After a moment of tension, River seemed to relax again. "I'm going to touch you," he murmured. "But think about the candle." He lifted the hair from around her face, and with a careful twist laid it between her shoulders. He resumed walking around her, his circle widening until he was near the bay doors. A moment passed. She was shivering a little, and the muscles in her face were twitching.

"I'm here, River," he whispered. She turned her head, eyes still shut, in his direction. Pleased out of all proportion by what he believed that signified, he repeated, "I'm here."

She let out a heavy breath and opened her eyes.

He smiled and walked back, holding out his hands. She raised her arms and allowed him to pull her to her feet. "It was quiet in my head," she said with something like wonder. "I made it quiet."

"Excellent." Simon's smile widened, and he gave her a quick, crushing hug. "It's something you can always do, River." She frowned her confusion at him. "When you fight," he said. "Or when you dance. You close out everything else. You do it."

Laughing, she spun away. "Dance with me now, Simon."

"Dance?"

"Something fast. Something happy."

Infected with her joy, he went to the encyclopedia, blew out the candle, and carried both to the side of the bay. He replaced the data stick with one that contained a selection of music. He chose a reel, propped the handheld open on the floor, and went to stand before her. She curtseyed and he bowed. He commanded softly, "Play."

The music began, a curling of pipes, backed by a twanging of strings, and all underpinned by a rapid idiosyncratic thumping of drums. He spun her about and skipped a few steps this way, then a few steps back. In their childhood, they had both learned to dance, studying everything from the most regal waltzes to the folksiest reels. River had excelled at all of them. Simon considered himself merely competent, but at this instant he worked hard to match her, inspired by the elation in her face, the quicksilver flow of her movements. After several moments, he was breathing hard. When she suddenly stopped, he thought it was out of pity for him. But then she raised a hand toward the catwalk and gestured to someone. Zoe and Mal were standing there. In response to River's beckoning, Zoe glanced sidelong at Mal, who jerked his brows in their direction.

Simon could just make out what Zoe said: "I haven't danced in a while."

"Go on, then," Mal said. "Show 'em how it's done."

Zoe trotted down the stairs. When she was a few feet away, Simon passed River's hand over to her. "Give me a minute to catch my breath," he pleaded. And then he watched, grinning, as Zoe pulled River away. They took up where River and Simon had left off.

They made an intriguing pair, both fluid creatures, both capable of speed and emphatic grace. Simon began to clap from the sideline, mostly in rhythm with the music. He was smiling broadly when he felt a touch on his shoulder. A hand caught his wrist, and Mal pulled him out onto the floor. They fell into the reel steps, and Simon was both astonished and unnerved, this an aspect of his captain he would never have expected. His face impassive, Mal whirled him round to the others. There they smoothly formed a foursome, pairing and repairing, as they danced faster and faster in time to the music. As he came about, Simon caught sight of Kaylee wistfully looking on from the base of the stair. He held out his hand, waving her over, and she tentatively started forward. Mal caught her before she could reach Simon, and, giggling, she joined him, galloping off at Mal's side.

"Hoedown!" a voice bellowed from the stairs. It was Jayne, and Simon did not expect to see the look of approval on his face as he strode onto the dance floor. His enthusiasm wavered when River broke from the others and grabbed both his hand and Simon's. "Why not?" he growled, and allowed her to pull them into the group.

The piece ended and immediately there were calls for another round. Simon, who could visualize the page with ease, commanded the next tune. Back and forth they went, their feet stamping on the metal grating, their heels ringing as they spun out and round. When the fourth piece, a lengthy, demanding square dance concluded, Mal gasped, "Everybody worked up an appetite?" River and Kaylee nodded enthusiastically. "Then let's get some breakfast."

As the others staggered away, some laughing, all still breathing hard, Simon collected his handheld and the candle.

"What was that for?" Mal asked. He gestured toward the candle.

"Trying something new with River." Simon pushed his hair off his forehead. His shirt clung to his chest and back; he plucked at it self-consciously. "Something to help her establish control."

"How'd it go?"

Simon smiled with simple pleasure. "It made her want to dance."

Mal's eyes slanted upward toward the others. "It made Zoe want to dance, too." He watched them disappear off the catwalk. Looking back at Simon, he said, "Good idea."

For a moment, Simon did not know what to say, the respect in Mal's face striking coherent thought from his mind. He murmured, belatedly, "Thank you. I'll just…I'll just put these things away."

"Right."

* * *

Simon spent the remainder of the day reading through the new data. Late in the afternoon, he performed the scheduled reading of the cryo unit stats and approved them. From the cargo bay he went to the kitchen to make up for his night in the rotation. River joined him, and, between them, they put together a plain but passable meal. The others trickled in just as everything was ready. Simon set the bowls on the table while River filled glasses.

"We're sixteen hours out of Mater," Mal said, as he walked in and sat at the head of the table. "Jayne and Simon will come with me to deliver the cargo. Zoe's staying with Serenity, which means Kaylee and River can take a few hours in town."

"What should we expect on Mater?" Zoe asked.

"Not much," Mal replied. "Only one small town to serve the local ranchers and farmers. Good folk from what I was told in Pollux. It's fall there, so the crops should be in. Supposed to have been a good year."

"Maybe Jayne'll see fit to get us some more fresh fruit," Kaylee said wistfully.

"Maybe Jayne'll get to visit the local refreshments establishment," Jayne countered, "after the captain concludes his dealings."

"Maybe," Mal said. "See how it goes."

* * *

The town on Mater was called Bleak. It was like most of the other small Rim towns Simon had seen since boarding Serenity over a year ago, but this one was brutally honest in its naming. A single, rutted road separated wooden structures that ran no more than a block and a half in either direction. The autumn skies were grey, the trees leafless, the grass—what there was of it—yellow, and there were only withered flowers where they hadn't been crushed flat. Serenity was anchored nearly a mile away, inside a field surrounded by naked, spindly trees. They had walked into town, Jayne bearing the small, but bulky cryo unit; Kaylee and River trailed behind them.

Simon was a little nervous about River wandering round town while he went with Mal and Jayne to complete their dealings. Her social skills had improved greatly since Miranda, but she still had a tendency to roam, her curiosity driving her along like a hound on a scent. He had asked Kaylee to keep an eye on her, and Kaylee, though distant and cool, had agreed. Simon clung to the belief that no matter what she felt toward him, Kaylee would let no harm come to River. If she could.

Mal got directions to the meeting place. Accompanied by Jayne's inescapable grumblings, they separated into two groups outside the general store. By happy chance, they were met on the street by one of the buyer's workers and led the rest of the way to the storefront unit where the buyer, a man by the name of Burl Oldridge, awaited them. There they were greeted with unexpected friendliness and courtesy, Jayne being particularly approving of the whiskey they were offered.

"Please verify the condition of the goods, doctor," Oldridge requested.

"Of course," Simon replied. As he keyed in his passcode, he said, "I can confirm that the cryo unit has not been tampered with since Captain Reynolds took it into his possession. The contents should be undamaged." He turned the display toward Oldridge.

"Excellent, excellent," the man said, when he had perused the statement of condition and the confirmed daily inspections. A bag of coins was handed over, and Mal at last seemed to allow himself to relax—a fact that was probably perceptible only to those who knew him.

"You're welcome to stay for lunch," Oldrige said.

Mal's smile remained friendly and professional. "That's kind of you. But we've got a few things to see to…."

"Well, perhaps you'll let me ask for one last service. A paid service, of course."

"And what might that be?" Mal asked.

"Perhaps the townfolk could visit your doctor for the day? We've been without medical care for a couple of months, since our own doctor took off planet. A replacement is coming in, but not for a month or more. It would be a right kindness."

Simon glanced at Mal, who with little more than a twitch indicated his opinion—predictably negative. But Simon, who yearned to practice his trade on more than his few fellow travelers, said, "I'd be happy to help. If Captain Reynolds can spare me for a few hours."

Mal's lips curled at the corners, but the smile did not touch his eyes. "Oh, I can spare you. For a few hours."

"Thank you, Doctor Tam. And thank you, Captain Reynolds."

Mal's demeanor changed abruptly. "You'll be needing your medical bag," Mal said sharply. "We'll have to return to the ship. Maybe an hour?"

"We'll be waiting for you, captain, doctor, er, sir."

Outside the building, Mal muttered, "Expect you will." He strode fast down the street, his attention shifting left and right, his manner implying that he expected gunfire to erupt at any moment.

Simon, nonplussed by Mal's sudden change of manner, hurried along at his side. "Mal?"

Mal snarled in a low voice, "He knows your name. I didn't hear you give it to him."

"Is that what you're upset about?" Simon asked, with a small, unthinking laugh. At Mal's raking look, he raised his hands defensively. "It's embedded in my passcode."

"Why didn't you say something five days ago?"

"We were in the black when you showed the cryo unit to me. Would you have taken it back?"

Mal ground his teeth. "Might have."

"It doesn't matter." Simon raised his hands again; the look Mal gave him would have been actionable on Osiris. Jayne laughed, enjoying himself. Speaking with elaborate calm, Simon explained, "I delayed the scheduled uplink. And I asked River to disable the synch-ware. The Alliance knows nothing and will know nothing. The data they receive will be altered; the doctor's name in the link won't be mine."

This did not improve the captain's state of mind. "Oh, brilliant, doctor. Tampering'll show up on the manifest. Oldridge must know what you did. As well as who you are."

"I'm sure he does. But I didn't do anything—to the unit, I mean. It had already been modified when you brought it aboard Serenity. And what was done doesn't affect the integrity of the contents."

Mal was baffled. "Who woulda modified it? Why?"

Simon shrugged. "People like you?"

This time Mal came to a complete halt in the middle of the boardwalk and gave Simon a long, measuring stare. Jayne shook his head. "He knows who you are," Mal said.

Simon shrugged. "He knows my name."

"They have postings in places like this, too."

"I think we can trust him."

"Oh, you do?" Mal started walking again. Simon had to take a couple of running steps to catch up.

"I do. But you've known men like him. What do you think?"

Mal's eyebrows angled upward. And then he let out a soft, not very pleasant laugh. "Get your bag. Jayne, go with him. Let Zoe know what's going on."

"We get to spend some time in town?" Jayne asked, his blue eyes glowing. "Some fun time?"

"Yeah," Mal said gloomily. "I think we do."

* * *

They were back within the hour. Mal accompanied Simon to the rancher's storefront building, and stayed with him when they were escorted to another building down the street. It was the doctor's office, showing evidence of very recent cleaning—in fact, the examination table was still streaked with damp. Simon checked the cupboards and the drawers, talking quietly to himself as he inventoried the supplies.

Mal stood in the doorway between the waiting room and the doctor's office, arms folded loosely together. "Looks like word got out," he remarked.

Drying his hands on a blindingly white towel, Simon walked over and peered through the door. News of his arrival had clearly been spread around: a line was beginning to form on the boardwalk outside. A little overwhelmed, Simon muttered, "I should have asked River…."

"I'll find her," Mal said. "And then you're on your own."

"Mal, thank you."

"Just try not to get kidnapped this time." Mal sighed as he walked out of the building.

* * *

The remainder of the day melted away. True to his word, Mal sent someone to help Simon, but it was Kaylee who turned up rather than River. "River went back to the ship," she told him. Simon soon saw the wisdom of Mal's choice. Kaylee was friendly and sympathetic and instantly created a rapport between patient and doctor. She stayed in the room with some of the shyer women while Simon completed his examinations and entertained small children while their mothers were in consultation. Some of the townsmen trickled in during mid-day. There were a few mechanical injuries, most of which had already been rudimentarily treated. A poorly knit fracture had to be reset, both doctor and patient grateful for the medications that eased the process. And late in the day a woman whose dress and makeup proclaimed her trade asked him for a refill of the basics needed to keep her staff fit. She introduced herself as Chloe, the owner of the Comfort Stop.

"Your fella's—" she gave her head a shake and smiled admiringly "—well, my girls are getting a workout."

Simon said, "Oh." Then, for wont of anything more intelligent to say, he added, "At least you can be sure they're clean."

She wrinkled her brow at him. "I am." Simon hesitated at her response, and then explained dosages and cautions, all of which Chloe already understood. "Thanks, doc. This'll get us through." She patted his cheek and gazed up interestedly into his face. "Bleak's a good town," she said with feeling. "Maybe you'll consider staying. Perks, if you want ‘em." She gave him a slow, warm smile that stated her case even more eloquently. "Lots of folk needing a good doctor. And a good doctor who's pretty—well, that would be even more welcome."

"That's, um, kind of you." Simon maintained his professional aplomb with some effort. "But, I'm, well, under an obligation."

"A pity," she murmured. Her fingertips traced the line of his jaw, and slowly came to rest on the middle of his chest. "Well, thanks for the goods. My people will be grateful. But don't you forget what I said, okay?"

"Okay," Simon said, the smile fixed on his face.

As the door closed behind her, Kaylee drawled, "Perks, hm?" She yawned. "There's one more patient—and the captain."

"Which one first?" Simon asked wryly, and not a little lightheaded. He was tired and beyond hungry. One more patient was just about all he could handle.

"The captain," said Mal, pulling the separating door closed. "Make sure this is the last one. Time we were on our way." Unexpectedly, he smiled wide and winningly, his features untroubled and his gaze benevolent. Simon remembered what Chloe had said and could all too easily conjecture the reason for the captain's improved mood.

"Last one," Simon agreed.

A short while later, Simon's bag was repacked and he was once more a mere visitor. He held the door for Kaylee, and then followed her out and onto the boardwalk. Oldridge was standing next to Mal a few feet away. The two men seemed to be chatting together like old friends.

"All done, doctor?" Oldridge asked.

"All done," Simon replied.

The rancher stepped forward and took Simon's hand in his and began to shake it. "We're more grateful than you can know. You've got quite the touch, from what everyone's saying. If you're looking for a place to settle…."

Simon glanced across at Mal. "Thank you, Mr. Oldridge, but—"

"He has commitments," Mal finished for him.

"That's a pity. But I do understand." Oldridge let him go. "Well, you're all welcome back here. Anytime. We'll have a proper fry-up."

"Good of you, Burl." Mal turned toward Simon. "Got everything?" Simon lifted his case and Kaylee rattled a leather pouch. "Let's make legs, then, people."

Dusk was turning the town of Bleak as grey as the dust between its weathered structures as they walked to the end of the dry street and crossed to the field which bordered the grove where Serenity awaited. Kaylee chattered happily as they walked, and Mal made appropriate, noncommittal noises whenever she paused. Simon made no effort to participate at all, thinking only of his bed and the moment when he could fall into it. He might eat something first, if he could keep his head up long enough. At last they left the trees and there was Serenity, much of her rebuilt and repainted and slightly disreputable, but a welcome sight to Simon's weary eyes.

The inner airlock hatch was closed, so they walked up the ramp and through the personnel door. Mal pushed the button to retract the ramp and spoke into the intercom. The ship stirred. There was a brief sense of weight before the ship's gravity kicked in. Simon was halfway across the cargo bay floor, doggedly making for the passenger dorms, when Kaylee said from behind him, "Here, Simon, don't forget this."

"What?" He swung round, and found himself staring at a leather pouch. Mal's footsteps rang on the far end of the catwalk. He had left without a word.

"Your earnings for today," she informed him proudly.

"Earnings?" he repeated blankly. The pouch was heavy.

"Folks don't hold with charity if they can pay."

Simon smiled bemusedly. "I really wasn't expecting anything." He gave the pouch a shake. It rattled loudly. "Do I have to give the captain a commission or something?"

"I think he'd've said by now."

"Well, then. Half of whatever's in here is yours, you know."

Kaylee was astonished. "Mine?"

"You worked as hard as I did."

"You mean that? I didn't, though—work as hard as you."

"You did," he said emphatically. "We'll count it later, together, if you like."

"Later?" She said in a low, diffident voice, "In your room?"

Simon tempered his smile. "In the common room would be better."

For an instant, she pouted. And then she began to glow again. "That'll be fun." She summoned a cocky grin. "A lot of money in that there pouch."

"Quite a lot from the feel of it. Thank you," he said sincerely. "Your help made everything much easier."

She tossed her head. "Good for something, I guess."

Simon watched her walk to the metal stairs as he continued on to his room. She bounded up each step, her hair lifting off her shoulders. It would have been perfectly effortless to invite her to stay, to reacquaint his hands and lips with her softness and warmth. But, he reminded himself, it would also have been wrong.

Gripping the neck of the pouch in his right hand, Simon shook his head and smiled. It had been a long time since he had used his skills to make a wage.

* * *

A sharp rap at the door brought Simon suddenly awake. Disoriented, he stirred and had to take in his surroundings to remind himself where he was. In fact, he was lying on his own bed, his vest open save for the last two buttons, his thumb tucked between them, mid-act. One shoe was on, the other halfway across the room on the floor. Pulling himself upright, he called out, "Come in."

Mal poked his head inside. "You've got just enough time to pretty up before dinner."

"I must have dropped off," Simon muttered groggily. He rubbed his face then dragged his hands through his hair. To his disbelief, Mal entered the room and picked his shoe up off the floor. Simon held out his hand.

"Made a lot of new friends for us today," Mal said, placing the shoe in Simon's waiting palm. He began to prowl the tiny space. "Bleak's a place where we might could lie low when the need's upon us."

"That's a plus," Simon said absently. There was an undercurrent in Mal's voice—the kind that usually signaled something more, and not necessarily pleasant, to come.

"Yeah. Lot of good folk there."

"But?"

Mal stopped and regarded him with some sternness. "Even good folk talk. Flash doctors trolling the ‘Verse looking to add to their patient base ain't exactly common."

With mild chagrin, Simon said, "I would have to agree."

"Yeah, well, bear it in mind. But that ain't the purpose of the conversation."

"Did I miss it?" Simon pulled on his shoe and stood beside his bunk. "The purpose of the conversation?"

Mal gave a terse snort of laughter. "Only if you've taken to reading, like your sister."

"No."

"We got us another commission. Another cryo unit."

"Ah." Simon was pleased. "Same contents?"

"As it happens, yeah. Which, you may want to tell me what they are some day—felt like I was navigating without a chart. Had to explain that the ship's doctor was in charge of such like, and got me a funny look because of it."

"Not a secret, really. But can I eat first?" Simon asked plaintively, unaware quite how bedraggled and wan he appeared. He stepped rockily past the captain and went to the wash basin.

"There's time—so long as you don't come back here and fall asleep again. Trusting."

Patting his face dry, Simon glanced round. "Hm?"

Mal gestured at the pile of coins on the desk.

"Oh." He had forgotten that he had opened the pouch and poured its contents onto the desktop before sitting on the bed—just for a moment, which had apparently grown into an hour. "I suppose if Jayne murders me and steals my wages, River will—well, whatever River would do."

"That don't bear conjuring on," Mal said with quiet fervor. He pushed the coins around with an idle fingertip.

"Do I owe you some of that? All of it?" Simon asked.

"Nope. Not this time."

"Are you sure—?"

"Buy River a—well, whatever she might like."

Simon nodded. "Was going to do that anyway." He went to the door and pushed it to the end of the channel.

Mal began, "Speaking of Jayne—"

"Were we? Must we?"

"When he wakes up, it's like he may be calling."

"Is he hurt?" Simon paused inside the doorway.

"A mite. He'll have to choose between bragging rights and youthful beauty."

"Stitches?"

"One or two."

Simon smiled artlessly. Mal didn't often play this sort of game with him, and certainly not for this length of time. "Is he asleep or unconscious?"

"More of the latter than the former. Walloped by high-impact liquor, followed by a set-to with a whore's door."

"Perhaps I should go and see to him." As if to underscore the magnitude of this offer, Simon's stomach let out a loud rumble.

"He wouldn't thank you. And he ain't going anywhere." Mal draped an arm over Simon's shoulders with easy but unexpected presumption. Startled, Simon looked up at him. Mal raised a brow, his breath soft on Simon's cheek. "Hungry?" Mal asked, his voice softer than a whisper. His expression was indecipherable.

Simon nodded, swallowed dryly, and nodded again. They stared at each other for a long—too long—moment. Mal took his arm away and gestured for Simon to go ahead, his gaze intense but revealing nothing.

Simon, thoughts of food obliterated, slowly started toward the catwalk. He heard Mal pull the door closed and his steps, a few paces behind him, follow up the stair.

* * *

At dinner, Mal brought them up to date on their current situation. Thanks to the recent cargoes, they were well enough paid to have supplies and spare parts on board. Zoe continued to search the cortex for interest in the Tams, but no renewed warrants had been issued. Nevertheless, Mal felt it safest to stay as far out on the Rim as they could for now and continue to pick up whatever jobs were available there. And their next destination, Zephyr, fit that description perfectly.

Simon sensed relief in the others. Perhaps everyone was adjusting to this relatively peaceful spell, although he knew as well as anyone on board that it could not last. Wanting it to continue as long as possible might be unrealistic, but appreciating it while it was in hand was only sane.

After dinner, Simon exchanged a few words with River on her way to the bridge with Zoe, then went with Kaylee to his cabin—the pile of coins was still on his desk—and there kept a careful distance between them while she counted out their day's earnings.

"This is way too much," she stated with a short laugh, using both hands to pick up her half.

Simon only smiled at her. He was relaxed but no longer exhausted, the nap and dinner having shored up his stamina. So long as he didn't have to commence a lengthy surgical procedure, he would last well into the evening. "How much is too much?" he asked teasingly.

She exclaimed, "This much! It's really sweet of you, Simon."

He shook his head. "What will you buy with it?"

Smiling softly to herself, she gazed at her hands. "I don't know." And then she tilted her head to the side and peered up at him. "I'd buy me a pretty dress if it'd bring you back to me."

Simon allowed his smile to die. "That dress doesn't exist, mei mei," he said gently, using the term for "sister" with intention.

Hurt, chagrin, anger, all raced across her features in an instant. Finally, with some doggedness, she said, "I won't give up."

"You would," he said mildly, "if I did what you ask."

Her cheeks burned as though he had struck her. "You think I can't stick?"

Simon sighed. Keeping his voice kind, he said, "I only have experience to go on."

She bowed her head at that.

Patting her hand, Simon said, "Think of something else to buy. Something that will make you happy. Surely there's something you've been wanting?"

The pinched set of her mouth slowly smoothed out. Ruefully, she suggested, "A new heart? For you?"

At that moment, Jayne stepped half into the doorway and leaned heavily against the frame. "Can I break up this cozy so as to get my head seen to?"

The wound that Mal had so casually dismissed was a considerable cut running from the outside corner of Jayne's left brow all the way to the middle of his cheekbone. Had it been a little to the left, Jayne's eye would have been scored as well.

"Meet me in the infirmary," Simon said, rising at once.

"Whatcha doing with all that money, girl?" Jayne asked, swaying a little as he pushed away, his legs wide apart for support. It was clear that he was none too stable on his feet.

Kaylee poured the coins into her pocket. The fabric of her trousers sagged under their weight. "My earnings for helping the doctor."

"Must've been ‘some' kind of help," Jayne leered.

"Don't start," Simon admonished. By the simple expedient of stepping under Jayne's arm, he braced the bigger man with his shoulder. "Let's go. Can you walk?"

"Got here, didn't I?"

"You should have come sooner."

Jayne grinned woozily. "Couldn't. Was asleep. Or something like it."

"Move your feet, Jayne. I can't carry you."

"That's ‘cause you're a little fella, doc. Real little compared to me."

"Right." Simon grunted as Jayne's weight bore down upon him. "You might regret this tomorrow."

"What's to regret?" Jayne started to tilt, forcing Simon to push him against the wall to keep him upright. As they staggered back on course—more or less—Jayne murmured with pleasure, "That was a good town, Bleak. Hope we go back."

Kaylee, with perhaps the slightest shadow of malice in her smile, waved from the stairs as Simon wrestled Jayne the last few feet into the infirmary.

The surgical procedure Simon had hoped to avoid was not strenuous; but it was time-consuming and fairly delicate work. Jayne made it clear that he wanted "youthful beauty" rather than "bragging rights," so Simon took his time in carefully dressing the wound. Jayne slept through most of it, for which Simon was grateful, as it spared him an advanced recounting of Jayne's adventures on Mater. He woke him while injecting an anti-infection concoction, particularly useful for sexually transmitted organisms. Before dropping off, Jayne had described enough of his antics on Mater to recommend its use. Simon wondered, in fact, if he should suggest it to Mal, as well.

"All done?" Jayne asked groggily.

Simon was tending to the injector. As he removed the used tip, he replied, "Yes."

"I can't feel the side of my face." Jayne reached up but Simon caught his hand and briefly held it. "I infused the tissue with anesthetic. Leave it alone."

"Uh." Jayne swung his legs over the side of the examination chair.

Simon steadied him before he could topple over. "What on earth were you drinking?"

"Don't remember exactly," Jayne said. His eyes were glazed over with vague happiness. "But it was good stuff."

"Hm. Do you need help getting to your room?" Jayne shot him a look that Simon had once found annoying. Nowadays, he just ignored it. "Then see me tomorrow, and I'll change the dressing."

"Whatever you say, doc." Jayne lumbered out with a hand cupped over the bandage, appearing rather more sure on his feet than he had before. He seemed to be humming again, but if that gravelly rumble was a tune, Simon had not heard its like before.

Clean-up, of course, was left to him. He shut off his exasperation and set about doing what was necessary with quiet efficiency. Satisfied at last, he switched off the lights and left the infirmary in darkness behind him. Alone, he considered the remainder of his evening. Working on Jayne had brought him thoroughly back to awareness; in fact, he was a little overwound. A warm drink, he decided, and a few hours of reading would restore his equilibrium.

Serenity purred steadily around him as he made his way up the aft hall stairs to the dining room and kitchen. There, he heated water and brewed a mug of herbal tea. He took a roll left over from dinner and slowly ate it while the tea steeped. He removed the tea bag and raised the mug to his mouth. The first sips were as soothing as he had imagined. Snagging another roll, he went to the table and sat down in the semi-darkness.

He might have been the only person on the ship. As a child, he had sometimes stolen into the kitchen late at night, especially when he had been studying for exams. The family cook had adored him and prepared special treats, which were left for him to find. Then, as now as he finished off the roll, he had seemed to be the only person alive.

Footsteps in the main hall reminded him that he was not. Light flooded the dining room as Mal entered. "Sorry, doc," he said. "Did you want the lights off?" He went to his locker and pulled out his mug.

"Well, yes, but—" Simon broke off as Mal dropped the room into semi-darkness again. "—it's not important," Simon mumbled, and took a long drink of his tea. He remembered that moment of almost-intimacy earlier in his cabin and found it impossible now to put it out of his mind. Mal, for his part, seemed as unperturbed as ever, preparing his own tea with deft, easy assurance. Unobserved, Simon continued to watch him from under his lashes.

"Long day," Mal commented, glancing up.

"Yes." Simon searched for something to say, not really accustomed to making small talk with the captain. "But a…a beneficial one."

A tiny smile played about Mal's lips. "Yeah. Worked out okay." He poured hot water into his mug.

"Jayne came to see me."

"Did you stitch him up?"

"Yes, I did. Could have been nasty, had he waited much longer."

Mal was apparently not paying attention. "Good," he said. And then, as his tea steeped, he leaned back against the counter and regarded Simon straight on, his expression stern. At once Simon was put on his guard. "Kaylee," Mal began, "is a mite grumpy. You wouldn't know anything about that?"

Simon felt heat rush into his face. What, he wondered, had she said? "I—It's personal."

"You back together?"

Embarrassed, Simon replied, "No. Well, not that way."

"Why not?" Mal asked bluntly.

Simon just stared at him. "Mal, gentlemen don't discuss such things."

One corner of Mal's mouth jerked upward in an ironic grin. "And that's a problem here how?"

"I—" Simon sucked in a deep breath. "She wanted— So we—" He spread his hands. "But maybe I wasn't— So she—" He bit his lower lip. "Well, we're not."

Mal blinked. He remarked, "Mayhap it ought to worry you, doc, that some days your crazy little sister makes more sense than you do."

Biting back a retort, Simon took refuge in his tea.

"All the same, I understood that. Or I think I did. It wasn't you, you know—if that's what you were thinking. Just our little Kaylee. Likes variety. And a lot of it. Elsewise, she wouldn't be trying to woo you back into her bed now." Mal studied Simon sidelong. "She is trying? To woo you back?"

"We're friends," Simon said curtly. He rose and took his mug to the sink. As he rinsed it out, he commented, "This stuff is supposed to be relaxing. Funny how it's not working right now." He glanced up sharply as Mal came up beside him. "Am I in your way?"

Mal appeared almost contrite. "There's something else."

"I'm not saying anything more about my private life, captain."

"Imagine not. Being that articulate must take a toll on a body. But you would discuss a problem? My problem?"

Covering his surprise with a well-practiced professional demeanor, Simon replied, "Of course. What sort of problem? Are you in pain?"

Mal shrugged. "Not pain, exactly."

Unpleasantly, Simon remembered the whores in Bleak. It was early for the captain to be suffering the consequences of his actions—unless it was a matter of conscience, which in Mal's case seemed unlikely. Regardless, he should probably get treatment now rather than later. "I'm a doctor, Mal. You can tell me what's wrong. No matter how personal."

"Yeah, embarrassing, that," Mal murmured. "Tell me—that little thing we were going to take care of on Castor. Did you ever do anything about it?"

"Castor," Simon echoed. All at once, he was back in that cold hotel room in Pollux, in Mal's arms, and Mal's mouth was searching his. "I—I thought this was about you."

"Well, it is," Mal countered, plainly. "Did you?"

"There hasn't been…much opportunity."

Pointing a forefinger in the direction of the crew quarters, Mal said, "Miss Kaylee would disagree with you."

"I wouldn't use her that way."

"She wants you to," Mal said, all bland assertion. "How is that using—?"

"I told you. We are friends." He tried to regain some control of the conversation. "What is this about? You said you're in pain."

"You were going to use one of those whores at Fielding's, if he'd been a free man—and a proper age."

"I wasn't—" Almost too late, Simon caught himself. He had allowed Mal to think that; now was probably not the best time to set the record straight. "Paying for someone's services isn't the same thing," he said carefully.

"Isn't it? That night I let you think I followed you? Then I told you I hadn't?"

"I thought we'd established that," Simon said. Then, completely confused: "What?"

"I did follow you. Knew where you were going from that map on your tablet. Wanted to see what you'd do when you found out they were all indentured—which I'd heard tell from the locals. See if you were the man I think you are."

Borderline infuriated, Simon forced a laugh. "I don't believe I'm hearing this. You were worried about my character?"

Mal moved nearer, his jaw jutting forward. "Killing them would be kinder."

"We agree on something, then," Simon snapped back, refusing to give ground.

"We agreed on something else, too," Mal said pointedly. "But we were interrupted."

For an instant, Simon was incapable of speech. "Are you saying—? Is that your problem?"

"And it's damned well unresolved."

"Unre—!" Simon collected himself—though, with Mal standing so closely that the heat of him was actually discernible, it required all his self-possession and years of training to do so. With seeming disinterest, he continued, "What about on Mater? It's none of my business, of course, but I understand you availed yourself of the services in Bleak—"

"No. Didn't," Mal interjected flatly.

The conviction in his voice was hard to dismiss. Simon repeated, "Didn't?"

"Wasn't what I was hankering for."

Simon felt the breath evaporate in his lungs. With a weak laugh, he said, "And what you were hankering for is—?" He could not say it out loud. He simply couldn't.

But Mal nodded, unhurriedly and somehow inexorably. "You."

Simon swallowed. "Me." He bit his lip, thinking furiously. "Really? Most of the time you act like I—"

Mal interrupted again. "Don't have to explain the whys and wherefores. Just is. Dong ma?"

Simon was forced to regroup. "I see," he said, gratified to hear that he sounded quite calm even in his own ears. "Right. Well, then. How do you propose—suggest—resolving your ‘problem'?"

A slow smile curled Mal's lips. It almost reached his eyes. "There's some virtue in knee-tremblers," he murmured speculatively, and came a half-step nearer. Before Simon could edge away, Mal said, "But I prefer horizontal for a full-on plundering."

"Plundering." Simon stood a little taller, gathering his dignity about him. He was wholly in Mal's shadow, and that purposeful closeness should have been oppressive. But Simon found that he wanted to lean nearer, to press into that warmth rather than away from it. "You tracked me to a whorehouse, and you think that I haven't—?"

"I think that," Mal said. "Women, yes. Men—well, not yet."

Simon regarded him archly. His outward reserve concealed a thumping heart and a sudden, fierce hunger. Mal was almost right. What he'd gotten up to as a young man was probably a far cry from what was in Mal's mind now. It was certainly a long way from what was in his own mind. Their agreement in Pollux had been based on a lie. Simon had been—well, to all intents and purposes—coerced. But Mal wanted him, and he wasn't afraid to say so. Just is. From seemingly a long way away, Simon heard himself say, "I'd like to kiss you."

Mal raised his brows. "You may have noticed that I am not averse to kissing. So long, you know, as it doesn't put me to sleep. Though sleep does generally come af—"

Simon silenced him with his mouth. The kiss that followed was warm, gentle, and tinged with passion—but mostly chaste, even when Mal would have made it something more. After a moment, Simon drew a little away, a hand on Mal's chest to keep him from following, more affected than he dared show. Their almost-encounter on Castor notwithstanding, it was important to know that he could place boundaries between them and that some kind of rules would be observed. Sensing that Mal was holding himself back by main force—but in any case holding himself back—Simon nodded. He said, with quiet whimsy, "I believe I'm ready to be plundered, captain."

"You're— " Mal took a deep breath. "Simon, you talk like that and we may be conducting our business right on this here table."

Simon smiled slightly, distracted by Mal's mouth, caught up in the memory of the taste of it. "Your bunk would be better."

"Agreed," Mal said. "Now?"

Simon wanted more than anything to say yes, but he gave his head a small shake. "Half an hour. There are a couple of things I have to see to first. River. The cryo unit."

"Half an hour," Mal echoed. Before Simon could move, Mal placed a hand at the back of his head and kissed him, his mouth soft yet firm, hungry yet gentle. Simon had no defense against that kiss, melting against Mal's solid form, meeting his need with his own urgency. Simon's mind was spinning when Mal drew a few inches away, and Simon half followed him. Holding him in place, his voice filled with promise, Mal said, "I'll be waiting."

An hour later, Simon finished wiping down the examination chair for the second time that night. Jayne's wound had been resutured and rebandaged and he was back in his cabin: Simon had taken him there himself this time.

After seeing to River, who had been on the bridge with Zoe, he had gone to the cargo bay and updated the information on the cryo unit. Then he had stopped in his quarters just long enough to freshen himself and brush his teeth and comb his hair. It was then that Jayne had appeared, his bandage sodden and red. He would not explain to Simon what had happened, and Simon could not be bothered to surmise. Sensing the ticking of the clock as he worked, he had nevertheless repaired the damage with his customary calm and deliberation, finding it not quite so extensive as he had feared. Jayne had refused his offer of physical assistance, but had not argued when Simon had followed him to his cabin.

Now, at last, Simon restowed the antiseptic wipes, shut off the lights, and exited the infirmary. River had passed by a while before, stopping to peer through the window at him while he cleaned, a curious expression on her face. And then she had smiled that fey, knowing smile Simon had yet to learn how to interpret, and walked round to the passenger dorms and her room, leaving him alone.

He wondered if Mal had given up on him.

As he went from the cargo bay to the stairs leading to the fore deck hall, Simon began to think the entire day had been a dream. The hour was late and he was tired. It was probably ill advised to attempt a mutually satisfactory rendezvous now. In fact, it was probably ill advised to imagine such a thing possible at all, not with Malcolm Reynolds. Nevertheless, he had promised to return, so he made his way up the stairs, and from there stepped onto the grating of the fore deck hall. The door to Mal's cabin was only a few feet away. Simon paused outside. Should he knock? He raised his hand, but decided against making any unnecessary noise. Instead, he put his foot out and activated the hatch. With a hiss, it opened. Before he could talk himself out of it, he started down the ladder.

The cabin was empty. This the last thing Simon had expected, he began to chuckle ironically to himself. At once he began to feel like an intruder and stood very still in the middle of the room. And then, because he was worn out and now beginning to feel incredibly ridiculous, he went to the bed and sat down.

Mal would be back, of that he was certain—but should he wait? Perhaps Zoe had called him to the bridge to check on something. It might be hours before he returned. Simon closed his eyes and let his head fall forward, his chin resting on his chest. How long should he remain? Should he undress? If he climbed into Mal's bed, he would be asleep within seconds. And yet he knew that if Mal were here, right now, sleep would be the last thing on his mind.

Simon took to his feet. He studied the captain's maps and charts, the wall-hangings, the plants, even the rug on the floor. Ten minutes passed, fifteen. Simon returned to the bed. He took off his shoes. He unbuttoned his vest. He lay back for just a moment—and startled awake when the pressure release signaled the opening of the hatch.

He was pulling himself upright, hair tousled on his forehead, limbs ungainly, when Mal clumped down the stairs. From his stiff posture and manner, Simon guessed that he was angry. When Mal turned at the bottom step and saw him, Simon was sure of it.

He stood. Stupid with sleep and the shock of adrenaline, he said, "Something's wrong. I'll go."

Mal snapped out an impressive string of expletives. "The wrong is that I just went from one end of this gorram boat to the other looking for you."

Simon made a gesture that included the room behind him. "I've been here." As Mal stalked toward him, he continued, "But I was delayed. I apologize. Jayne did something to his stitches. I had to resuture— Were you going to drag me back by my hair?"

Standing right in front him, separated by no more than an inch, Mal buried the fingers of both hands in Simon's long, thick hair, close to his scalp. "Got enough of it, if I'd a mind to," he muttered. He tightened his fingers and pulled him nearer. Simon let his eyes fall shut. Mal kissed him, and there was nothing in the least hesitant or chaste about it. By the time he was released, Simon's heart was pounding wildly in his chest. "You're a man of your word, Simon," Mal said, next to Simon's ear. "Something might have gone wrong. Seems to happen often enough on my boat."

"There's not much about Jayne that's right, so your instincts were undoubtedly good," Simon breathed. They kissed again, their hands on buttons and fastenings, which were quickly—but not quickly enough—undone.

Mal made a sound—something that came from deep inside his throat—that stirred a shiver as Simon was guided down and onto his back. He had brought something with him from the infirmary, and from the look on Mal's face, he thought it might be necessary. But he was given no chance to mention it, as Mal unbuckled his own belt and stripped off his trousers. Simon took in the size of him, erect and seeking, and reached out a finger to run it along that impressive length. Mal growled, his own hands tasked with removing the remains of Simon's clothes. At last, kissing him hungrily, Mal lowered himself on top of him, inserting himself between Simon's thighs, and began to move slowly and deliberately against him. Simon pushed upward, gasping as Mal sucked then nipped his throat, an ear, a nipple. His analytical mind ceased cataloging every caress, every kiss, much less the shared needful motion of their bodies. When molten heat spread through him, lifting him, lifting him, Mal held him tightly, and Simon's thoughts were eradicated by a sunburst of pleasure.

* * *

Simon's internal clock told him that it must be early morning when he awoke. He was cozy and comfortable, warmer on one side than the other. He turned toward the greater warmth, unhurriedly opening his eyes. In the dim, twenty-four-hour lighting, Simon found Mal lying on his side closely pressed against him, his head propped on the heel of his hand, his other arm lying heavy across Simon's middle. Mal's face was schooled to stillness—the very expression, oddly enough, that Simon knew best. But there was something in his eyes, something Simon had seen when the man was on the rocky edge of abandonment, that was unconcealed now. During the last hours, Simon had learned much about Mal, some of which he had suspected, some of which he would never have guessed at, and which now filled him with quiet awe. At this moment, in the haven of Mal's warmth, Simon felt more at home than he had in the last five years.

He raised one hand and brushed his thumb across Mal's lower lip. Then he threaded his fingers in Mal's hair and drew him down. Just before their mouths met, Mal murmured, "Was hoping that's what you'd say."

* * *

It was still early when Simon awakened again. Mal was deeply asleep, sprawled half beneath him. With a gentle kiss upon the back of Mal's neck, Simon raised himself off both the sleeping man and the bunk in one careful motion. He gathered his things and quickly but silently dressed. With a last wistful look over his shoulder, he opened the hatch and went up the ladder. Just as he was about to step off, he heard a loud gasp.

"Simon!" He closed his eyes, grimacing. It was Kaylee. With one foot still on the ladder, he craned round to face her. She stood a few feet away on the engine-side of the fore deck hall, her every emotion writ large on her face—and among them betrayal stood out starkly. In one hand she held a mug of steaming tea; in the other, a bowl of porridge which was drooping at an alarming angle.

"Kaylee—"

"How could you?" she cried, outraged. "How—?" She caught her breath. "Was that just for fun?" she demanded bitterly.

"Kaylee, I—"

"Or did you tell him that you love him?"

"Love?" a voice repeated loudly from the cabin below. Mal's head appeared level with the deck. His eyes were sleep-smudged and his hair stood out like wild grass in a bird's nest. "Was he supposed to say it, too?" He shot Simon a scathing look. "You brute."

"Captain, how can you joke—?" Kaylee began, but Mal had already disappeared back into his cabin.

Simon stretched out a hand. "Kaylee, please don't—"

"Oh, I know what you were doing," Kaylee said angrily. "You were just getting even, that's all. Well, two can play at that game. You wait and see. I can sleep with the captain, too."

Below deck, Mal let out a startled, "Whoa!" He shot halfway up the ladder, his unbuttoned shirt hanging off his shoulders. "Miss Kaylee," he said, "you aiming to punish him or me?"

"Oh!" She spun round and hurried down the corridor toward the engine room, porridge and tea flying out in almost equal portions as she went.

Staring after her, Simon stepped off the ladder onto the grating. Shaking his head, Mal remarked sympathetically, "Bad timing, doctor." He flashed him a "you're on your own" look and retreated back into his cabin. The hatch closed with finality behind him.

Simon sighed.

* * *

Telling himself that he often took the side stairs, Simon returned to the passenger dorms. He looked in on River who was still asleep, her face peaceful and glowing. With a touch of envy, he pulled her door completely closed and crossed to his own quarters. He gathered clean clothes and went to the passenger showers, where he applied a thorough scrubbing. Afterward, he took his time toweling himself dry. Much of his waking contentment had been shattered in the face of Kaylee's dismay. Nevertheless, he clung to the shreds that could be distinguished from sheer exhaustion. On top of a very long day, his night with Mal had provided very little sleep. He cast a yearning glance at his bunk, but instead dressed and went up to the dining room. It was still early for the others to be up—despite the soft sound of conversation between Mal and Zoe on the bridge—for which he was grateful, as he made tea and grabbed a couple of stale rolls.

Back in his quarters, he settled in with the last memory tab and what constituted his breakfast. An hour or so later, River rapped on the door frame and peeked inside. He invited her in with a smile, and she came to stand beside him, her hand resting on his shoulder.

"More to read?" she asked.

"How did you guess?" Simon said lightly, scrolling the screen back to a section he believed might prove helpful. "From here through the next four pages," he instructed.

"All right." She studied him expectantly. He braced himself for a discomfiting observation. But River simply smiled. "You need to sleep."

"That I do," he concurred, irony soft in his voice.

"I'll look at this later."

"All right."

She seemed to withdraw into herself, listening to something he could not hear. And then she frowned. "I think I'll go and see Kaylee." Simon turned away, concealing his expression, but she bent round, looking at him closely. "It's all right," she murmured, and he felt, strangely, as if he had been absolved. She kissed his forehead and he hugged her. As he watched her walk through the door, Simon took a deep breath. And, then, he returned to his reading.

Mid-morning he was hailed from outside his door by Jayne. "Doc! Got a patient for you!"

A little guiltily—he had forgotten all about Jayne's injuries—Simon put down the tablet and immediately went out. He was startled to find both Jayne and Kaylee waiting for him, Jayne with his bandage only a little stained, and Kaylee with a towel, dark red with blood, wrapped round her forearm.

"What happened?" Simon stepped in front of Jayne and guided Kaylee into the infirmary, Jayne agreeably pacing behind them. Simon helped her onto the examination table. "Kaylee?"

She looked at him mulelishly and held onto her arm, unspeaking.

"Jayne?" Simon cast a quick questioning look up at the other man as he began to unwind the makeshift bandage. "Fill me in."

"Tell him," Jayne commanded.

Kaylee glared at the opposite wall. "Was the edge of the housing of the port igniter."

"Go on, girl," Jayne prompted. Despite his brusque tone there was a measure of gentleness in his voice. "Tell doc what you told me."

A little sulkily—and a little embarrassedly—Kaylee recited, "Wasn't paying proper attention. Burned myself on the refraction globe. When I jerked my arm up, it hit the metal rim of the port igniter housing."

"That's a manly slice, ain't it, doc?" Jayne's voice conveyed his admiration.

The "manly slice" was about two inches long and appeared painfully deep. Blood was caked all around the wound; there was no oozing. Simon's expression conveyed his disapproval. "This happened a while ago," he said. "Why didn't you come sooner?"

Kaylee stubbornly set her lips and turned her head away.

"She wasn't planning on coming at all," Jayne said meaningfully. "Said she was mad at you." His voice deepened and he pressed a little nearer. "What'd you do to her, doc?"

"I—I didn't—"

"You did," Kaylee said accusingly.

"Doc—?"

Simon paid no heed to the rising menace in Jayne's voice. "Kaylee, that had nothing—"

"He slept with the captain." Kaylee reinforced this sudden bald statement with a wounded look.

Giving up on diplomacy, Simon directed his focus to her injury. He lobbed the soiled towel toward the recycle bin with barely a glance. It landed with a satisfying plop.

Jayne was confused. "What captain?"

"Our captain," Kaylee replied, her voice laced with outrage. "Mal!"

For the length of a dozen heartbeats, all that could be heard in the infirmary was the low-range hum of equipment, all quietly idling. Then Jayne spoke: "You and Mal had sex?"

At that Simon straightened from what he was doing and took Jayne's arm. With a manner that presupposed compliance, he guided him to the door. "Thank you for seeing to Kaylee, Jayne. Be assured that I'll take care of her." It aggrieved him to add, "Come back in an hour and I'll have a look at your dressing."

Jayne was grinning down at him, apparently unaware that Simon still gripped his elbow. "Right, doc." He suddenly snorted. And then his face scrunched up as if he were in agony, and he exploded with laughter.

"I won't stitch that wound again," Simon warned him. The big man continued to laugh hard, his hand pressed to the injured side of his face. As he walked away, his laughter rang off the walls. Simon was not even sure that he had been heard. Swallowing his annoyance, Simon took a calming breath and returned to the infirmary.

Kaylee sat there glowering at him. And then, to Simon's amazement, she said miserably, "I shouldn't have said nothing. I'm sorry."

"I didn't—what happened was not meant to hurt you. And I'm sorry if it did." As Simon spoke, he collected the items necessary to treat Kaylee's injury. He began to soak the blood off her arm.

"I was just—shocked, is all," Kaylee muttered. "But—Mal!"

"This is going to sting," Simon prepared her. She hissed as he injected a local anesthetic. "I can butterfly most of it, but you should have a couple of stitches. Okay?"

She nodded. Simon saw the glint of tears in her eyes. "I oughtn't've given you up," Kaylee said miserably.

"You wouldn't have, if it'd been important."

"You are important."

Simon could not resist a tiny smile. "Thank you," he said, "for saying that." He applied an antiseptic inside the wound, and then set about sealing the edges with sutures. "You're important, too," he said. "That hasn't changed." He took quick note of the small burn on the back of her hand as he worked. It was superficial, and it appeared that she had already applied a salve to it.

"But you said," she reminded him in a low, fierce voice, "that you wouldn't do it just for fun."

"I meant what I said. And it wasn't."

Kaylee was quiet for a long moment. When Simon glanced up again, he found her studying him doubtfully. "What about the captain?" she asked.

Simon opened his mouth, closed it. He shook his head. "I can't speak for the captain."

"Oh, Simon!"

"Hush," he said. "I'm almost done."

When she was gone at last, Simon perfunctorily cleaned up yet again, sterilizing the table and the floor where a rag with Kaylee's blood had fallen. He should probably not have revealed so much to her, but he had unthinkingly hurt her far too many times to do so when he could avoid it. Now she felt sorry for him—and she was undoubtedly right to feel that way. He had no delusions about his relationship with Mal. Last night—well, it had been good. Great. Mal was an enthusiastic yet attentive lover—but he was also Mal. And Simon had no delusions about Mal himself. So, he really had no delusions at all. What he might want and what Mal might want were unquestionably two different things. Unfortunately, after this morning, there would be nobody on Serenity who didn't know what they had done. So he would have to get on with his life in front of them—which meant that he would have to pretend that he didn't want or expect anything at all. Considering that he had been doing that for months now, he should have enough practice to continue this pretense with ease.

With a humorless smile compressing his lips, Simon dug out the kit needed to treat Jayne and then settled in to wait for him.

* * *

After enduring the ordeal of treating Jayne's injury—the man didn't stop guffawing for a second, even though by then he was clearly in pain—Simon retired to his room and indulged in a nap. He roused mid-afternoon, feeling less giddy and far more alert than he had all day. The cryo unit commanded his presence for the few minutes it took to confirm the daily monitoring, but once done with that, Simon went back to the infirmary and continued his reading. He told his empty insides that they would just have to wait. It was early evening when he put the tablet down at last and spent a few minutes considering the implications of what he had discovered.

"Simon."

River stood in the half-open doorway.

"Hey," he greeted softly.

"It's time for dinner."

"Ah, well— Maybe I'll get something later—"

She stretched out a hand. "Mustn't hide."

"Easy for you to say." Her answering smile was slightly mocking but familiarly affectionate. Simon raised his hands. "All right. I'll run the gauntlet—can't put it off forever."

She gave a bolstering nod.

They walked together up the stairs to the aft deck corridor and through the ship to the dining room. As Simon had anticipated, almost everyone was already seated and food was on the table. He and River took chairs across from Kaylee and Jayne. Jayne, his damaged face unbandaged, giving him a savage, piratical look, floridly welcomed him with, "Ah, the doctor," and proceeded to snort and giggle simultaneously. Simon made a mental note that Jayne's wound, despite Simon's best efforts, was going to result in a scar—of which he would be, no doubt, inordinately proud—and said nothing.

Mal was sitting at the head of table as usual. He glanced up as Simon settled himself and gave him a small, uncomplicated smile. His defenses demolished, Simon smiled back. And, then, coloring, he dropped his gaze to his plate.

Zoe came in from the bridge and took the chair next to Simon. She noticed the bandage on Kaylee's arm at once. "What'd you do, hon?"

Mumbling, Kaylee began to reply, but Jayne's voice drowned her out. "She found out that Mal and Simon had sex," he confided loudly. "Together."

"And you hurt yourself because of that?" Zoe asked, dismayed.

"No. ‘Course not. Were an accident."

"Oh, well, good." Zoe began to dish food onto her plate. Tucking the spoon back into the bowl, she turned to Mal. "You finally get that out of your system, sir?"

Mal chewed thoughtfully. "Off to a good start," he responded amiably.

Waggling his brows, Jayne said to Simon, "Always suspected you was sly, doc."

"Why thank you, Jayne." As Simon reached for the bowl that Zoe had put down, he was hardly aware of what he was saying. Mal's pleased openness had taken him by surprise. And Zoe's remark—did that mean Mal had spoken of feelings toward Simon, or just his state of frustration in general? River giggled. Simon gave her a quick, awkward grin and piled some food onto her plate, too, earning himself an equivocal baring of teeth.

"Not a compliment in my part of the ‘Verse," Jayne informed him.

"Well, he weren't sly till the captain turned him," Kaylee pronounced darkly. "And I can vouch for that."

"The captain?" Jayne regarded Mal suspiciously, as if only then realizing that slyness had to exist on both sides in order to account for what had happened between Mal and Simon.

"Even though Simon went to that Fielding's in Pollux—which I thought he was going to for man-sex?" Kaylee widened her eyes for effect, staring round the table to ensure that she had everyone's attention. She shook her head with a broad back-and-forth motion. "But it weren't. He was just seeing a doctor friend. Ain't that right, Simon?"

Simon sat frozen, the tips of his chopsticks an inch from his mouth. He dared a quick glance at Mal. The captain seemed oblivious, reaching for the plate of rolls. "Um, yes, that's…right.

"You got doctor friends in whorehouses, Simon?" Zoe asked, impressed.

Trapped, Simon said faintly, "In that one, yes." He could think of nothing to say that would undo the damage of Kaylee's words. Mal might pretend that he was not listening to their chatter, but Simon knew better. He poked the food into his mouth and chewed automatically.

"Well, that don't mean he weren't sly afore then," Jayne persisted. "And, anyway, it's obvious he was, if they're…if he and Mal— Gah—it just don't seem right, do it?" He spoke with sudden entreaty, "Mal!" It was obvious that he was hoping that Mal would deny everything.

Mal ignored him.

"But, he weren't, I'm telling you," Kaylee insisted. "Not till the captain got hold of him."

"'Conniving, scheming, devious,'" River quoted. "You're sly, too, Jayne."

"Only in a good way, little one," Jayne countered solemnly. "Not like your brother, I ain't."

"Well, you'd best watch out," Kaylee said, her voice low and ominous. "The captain might take it into his head to turn you, too."

"Me!" Jayne scoffed. "Couldn't." He lowered his brows. "Wouldn't never try it. Ain't that right, Mal?"

"Stop ruining my appetite, Jayne," Mal said. "Never in a million years. A million million years. Now could we maybe leave off discussing my corrupting ways and talk about something else?"

For a brief moment, no one spoke. And then River announced, "Bovine semen." Her voice, clear and high, brought all heads swinging toward her. Simon could not repress a laugh.

"Bovine semen," she repeated. "Our cargo for Zephyr."

"Bovine," Jayne said slowly, as if testing the word for potential hazards. "As in cows?"

"Well, as in bulls, strictly speaking," Simon corrected. "For improving the herds."

"Huh," Jayne grunted succinctly. "That has to take some of the fun out of it for the— Now, what are you looking at?" This he directed at River whose attention was fixed on him, her face displaying growing wonder and delight.

Simon looked at her quizzically, until she turned—and conferred the same amused contemplation on him. He raised his hands, palms out. "I don't want to know."

"Bovine semen, hm?" The quietly uttered words drew Simon's eyes back to the head of the table. Mal's expression was never more unreadable. But his gaze was set on Simon and it was as unblinking as a reptile's. He knew that Mal was not thinking about their cargo.

When dinner was over, Simon remained behind to help Kaylee clear the table and load the cleaner with the dirty dishes. Zoe and River went with Mal to the bridge, and Jayne headed off, going, he said, to his bunk. That garnered a few trailing looks, but nobody could bring themselves to speculate on his mission.

"Well," Kaylee said softly when they were alone, "that must've been embarrassing."

"Looking like an idiot—on Serenity, anyway—seems to come naturally to me," Simon said with a good-natured sigh.

"It oughtn't. You're smarter than all of us, Simon. Um—except maybe for River. And the captain. Well, River, anyway."

Simon laughed. "Maybe."

Looking abashed, Kaylee faltered, "I said too much, didn't I?"

Taking a fortifying breath, Simon said, "It's not important." Having spoken, he found that he meant it. He gestured toward her arm. "How's that feeling? You're probably due something for the pain."

"It is kind of sharpish," she agreed meekly.

"Well, then, let's go to the infirmary. I'll give you something to help you sleep."

Gazing up at him, her eyes wide and imploring, Kaylee whispered, "I know something else that would help me sleep."

"You don't give up," Simon said wonderingly. He held her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "Come on. Your doctor will give you something for the pain."

"You don't give up, neither," Kaylee grumbled, but she leaned into Simon's arm as they walked into the main deck corridor.

Simon sat in the common area, playing cards with Kaylee until the medication began to take effect. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier, and at last he encouraged her to go to her cabin before she risked falling in. To be on the safe side, he went with her. Once she was at the bottom of the ladder, he bade her good night and returned above deck.

From her room he went to the bridge, expecting to find River there. Instead, he found the place deserted. For a few moments he stared out at the star field spread wide in front of Serenity's nose. That black vastness no longer terrified him as it once had, though it had yet to fill him with comfort as it seemed to do River. Wash's toy dinosaurs still lined the pilot's console. Because of him and River these toys were now ownerless, something that he would forever regret. He carefully picked up one of the stegosaurs and ran a finger lightly over its plated spine.

"Hey, doc." Zoe strolled onto the bridge, bringing with her a friendly smile.

"Zoe." He set the dinosaur down, taking care to replace it exactly as he had found it. "I was looking for River."

"Funny," Zoe said, dropping unceremoniously but with her usual innate grace into the pilot's chair. "She was just looking for you."

Since Miranda, Simon had had little opportunity to follow up with the first mate, other than to check on her wounds—once his own had begun to heal. He decided that this moment might be the only chance he would ever have. "How is it going, Zoe? Are you all right?" When she did not reply, he added, "Please understand: I ask as a doctor. I don't mean to pry."

She pulled up a couple of readouts before speaking. "I do understand." She glanced up at him, and there was a hint of fondness in her dark eyes. Encouraged, Simon gestured with a tip of the head for her to continue, but she returned her attention to the readouts. He waited a moment. Finally she stated quietly, "Some days are better than others. And maybe there are more better days than there were."

"Are you sleeping?" he asked solicitously. "If you—"

She quelled him with a look. "More or less. But don't you worry. If I need help, I know how to ask." His skeptical expression raised a tolerant smile. "I mean it. But maybe you should be looking to yourself."

"Me?"

"Captain's a handful at the best of times."

"Ah." Simon could think of nothing more to say. That Zoe acknowledged so much was a revelation. And it gave him sudden hope.

Zoe shifted back to the readouts, effectively dismissing him. "River was in the cargo bay with her candle," she said. "‘Bout five minutes ago."

"Thank you," he said sincerely, wishing he could somehow convey how much he appreciated her kindness. "Good night, Zoe."

"Good night, doc."

* * *

Simon walked the length of the ship, coming down the catwalk and stairs to the darkened floor of the cargo bay. River sat in the shadows beneath the starboard stairs, her eyes closed, the candle before her swaying gently as the flame consumed the wick. In her lap, she held his tablet, her hands resting gracefully upon it. As he came noiselessly nearer, he felt a familiar surge of affection. She seemed small and fragile, nothing like the killing machine she could become when triggered, or when driven by necessity. What had it cost her to admit to herself that she was capable of such uncompromising violence? That she had done so only to save Simon's life merely increased his sense of responsibility toward her. Perhaps some day she would speak openly of what the Alliance had done to her. And perhaps on that day, she would see the world freely.

He hunkered down before her. She slowly opened her eyes. "Did you read it?" he asked.

"Yes."

"What do you think?"

"Maybe you should have drowned the kitten." Despite her words, there was no despair in her voice or expression, only a certain resignation.

"Never."

She smiled at his vehemence. A thought seemed to occur to her. "You're happy."

Simon nodded slowly in agreement. "Yes."

Her expression turned playful. "Jayne is jealous, you know."

"Jayne?" Simon repeated hesitantly.

"Of Mal." River spoke thoughtfully, her gaze far away. "He wants to—"

"No!" Simon forced a laugh. "No, mei mei. Don't think I want to hear that."

She bent her head to one side, her hair spilling over her shoulder. "Closed him out," she said, her voice filled with quiet elation. "A little late, but—"

"That's good news," Simon declared quietly. "I would hate for you to have to know…" He grimaced as he realized precisely what she must know. "…everything."

"Can be worse," she said simply. Suddenly she looked up toward the catwalk.

Simon followed her gaze, but saw no one. "River?" he prodded.

"He is coming," she whispered. For a moment her eyes were slightly unfocused, and she smiled slightly to herself. Her face relaxed. "It'll be all right," she said with that preternatural calm that so unnerved him sometimes. "Now go away and let me practice."

"Right." He leaned forward and dropped a butterfly-soft kiss onto her forehead. "Good night," he said. She grinned contentedly to herself in reply.

* * *

Simon strode on quiet feet down the deep length of the bay. A single glance back assured him that River was absorbed in her exercise. Nervously he scanned the iron stairs and the catwalk again—and there he was. Mal's posture implied that he was relaxed and at rest, leaning forward with his forearms braced on the rail, his head canted a little to one side, watching Simon's approach. His body language was a fraud, however, for when their eyes met Simon saw tension in the other man's face. Still, even though there was not overt welcome in his expression, neither was there rejection or anger.

His heart beating with the tiniest flicker of optimism, Simon went to the stairs and made his way upward. A few feet away, he slowed, unintentionally cautious.

This seemed to amuse the other man. Mal lifted his chin toward the young woman at the opposite end of the bay. "That candle thing. Is that what you brought back from your friend on Castor?"

Simon nodded. "Yes."

"Seems to be helping."

Compelled to honesty, Simon said ambivalently, "Might be. Or she might just be healing on her own."

"Such modesty," Mal mused.

"Just the truth."

"Hm. Truth." Mal blinked slowly, a predator's blink.

"I can explain," Simon said uncomfortably.

Mal smiled slightly. "You mean about why Kaylee knows more about your doings on Castor than I do? Oh—and maybe why you lied to me?"

"I didn't lie," Simon replied obdurately.

"Knew the truth of the thing but let me believe something else," Mal countered with unexpected mildness. "Lie."

"You made an assumption," Simon defended himself. "I…just didn't correct it."

"Hm," Mal murmured again.

Simon whispered harshly, "You caught me coming out of a whorehouse, Mal! Would you have believed me if I'd told you I was there only to meet a friend?"

A barely controlled grunt of laughter was his response. "Simon, I'd've sooner believed you were there to repair the plaster than to get yourself sexed."

Stunned—and a little wounded—Simon said stiffly, "Really?"

Mal bit his lower lip and slowly nodded. It appeared that he was resisting another snort of laughter. "It ain't exactly you," Mal observed.

Taking a fortifying breath, Simon pointed out with great precision, "And yet it seems to have been what you wanted to believe."

Dipping his head in concession, Mal said, "Can't entirely deny that. Though, I have to say, the notion of you wearing yourself out in that company wasn't the friendliest thought I'd had in a while."

With those words, Mal undid the slight sting he had inflicted. Simon shifted to stand alongside him, mimicking his stance, and faced out over the bay. "I really thought you were setting me up for a joke," he admitted sheepishly.

"Did you?" Mal gazed down at him with wry affection. "That would be why you started undressing me?"

"I was calling your bluff."

Mal bent nearer and said confidentially, "That was some almighty assured bluff-calling."

Feeling a little more sure of himself now, Simon said equably, "Rather pleasant, too."

Mal's mouth twitched wider. "And you sussed it wasn't just a captainy prank when?"

"When you kissed me," Simon replied quietly, and looked straight into the other man's eyes.

For a long moment they simply stared at each other. Mal broke away first, directing his attention back out over the bay. "And Kaylee?"

With some embarrassment, Simon explained, "She saw the download tablet. It upset her that I'd gone to a whorehouse. I felt I owed her the truth."

"Did you." River was sitting as still as when Simon had left her, the flickering light of the candle casting strange shadows against the bulkhead. "What about your famous friend?" Mal asked.

There was the slightest edge in Mal's voice, the kind Simon had learned not only to hear but to heed. It told him that this was important to Mal. He answered candidly. "He used to teach at the MedAcad. His specialty is brain trauma. Some of the men at Fielding's were students at the Academy. He's trying to help them."

Mal's brows rose thoughtfully. He commented, "You ought to've told me. You put us at risk."

"James hates the Alliance." Simon shook his head. "We were never at risk."

"From James, maybe," Mal said, giving the name a contemptuous twist. "What about that Alliance ship?"

"Supply vessel. Zoe said so. James told me about it. I—I almost mentioned it but—"

"—it would have given you away."

Simon opened his mouth. And then he closed it. Finally, he said, "Yes. But I did try to call you. Your unit wasn't receiving." He winced. "Before I turned mine off again."

A moment passed before Mal said, "Might be because I turned it off while business was being conducted." He studied Simon sidelong, his lashes partially concealing his expression. "So what Kaylee said—"

When Mal did not complete the sentence, Simon hazarded, "That you turned me?" When Mal did not correct him, he said, "I guess it's true. Partly true. Mostly true?"

Mal looked at him. "Oh?"

Simon flushed. "I experimented a time or two when I was a teenager. It didn't take."

"Is that right?" Mal remarked lazily. "Well, you had a choice in Pollux."

"Oh, yes." Simon's voice took on a slight edge of its own. "Sleep with you or freeze to death." When Mal did not respond, Simon went on, "You told me that the gates were locked shut, remember? Some people—maybe one or two, anyway—would consider that a lie. If that's what this is about. If that's why you're angry."

Mal did not acknowledge the implied rebuke. "Your pal James would have taken you in."

"He'd already gone home," Simon sighed. "I spent a while longer reviewing some materials that I couldn't bring with me."

"You could have stayed at the whorehouse."

"Fielding would have made me work for my lodging."

"Did you think I'd be less work?"

Flushing despite himself, he confessed, "I didn't think at all. And when I did, I—just hoped you weren't joking."

Mal pushed away from the rail. Jamming his hands into his pockets, he pointed out, "My place is a fair bit more private than yours."

Simon slowly nodded. "I would agree."

"Good. Meet you there." With that, Mal strode across the catwalk toward the steps that led up to the main deck. Simon watched him go. At the far end of the bay, River continued to practice with her candle. Simon hoped very much that her ability to close him and the others out was growing stronger, for his mind was full of the possibilities that awaited him—and some of those images were not meant to be shared.

* * *

Slow, gliding movement; the whisper of fabric; the rush of increased breath; the tension of straining bodies: a broken groan hushed by moist lips. Simon clung to Mal, lost in his kiss, vaguely aware of the blood-warm fluid caught between them. Mal continued to apply gentling kisses, while Simon caught his breath.

"You haven't—?"

"No hurry," Mal whispered. Lying on his back, his knees bent around Simon's hips, he pushed up and up again, scraping himself against Simon's slick, taut belly. Murmuring wordless approval, he slid a hand out from beneath the sheet and remarked, "Found this in the covers this morning."

The thing Mal held slowly came into focus. "Oh, that," Simon said. "Thought…."

"Yes?"

"Maybe. Sometime."

"This good enough for now?" He raised his hips again, his legs holding Simon in place; Simon gasped, still sensitive.

"It's very, very good."

"Plenty of ways to go about this. We'll get there eventually. Maybe." A kiss, long and needy. For several moments, the cabin was quiet, disturbed only by their hushed breathing and the rustle of the mattress. With Mal sprawled out beneath him, Simon began to put his hands and mouth to use. He loved the weight of Mal's hand on his head, lightly riding up and down with his movements. Gently, he brought him to the precipice time and again, holding him down when Mal would have increased his pace to serve his need. And then Mal hissed his name, urging him to switch places with a touch. When they were resettled, Simon was pinned to the mattress, Mal's mouth covered his, and his kisses conveyed his hunger as explicitly as the urgent thrust of his hips.

Moments later, they lay together, Mal curled half on top of Simon, arm flung across his chest, a leg crooked over his hip. Sleepily brushing the tips of his fingers through the dusting of hair on Mal's forearm, Simon drifted, eyelids drooping, his cheek sketching an arc across Mal's shoulder. Mal's breathing was regular and slow: Simon believed him asleep.

But then he spoke: "This won't always be easy," he said, his voice very low, "you and me."

Simon did not immediately respond, considering the detached tone in which Mal had delivered this warning. Taking a deep breath, he murmured, "But worth a try?"

Mal opened his eyes. His steady blue gaze was surprisingly warm. "Worth a try," he agreed. He tugged Simon nearer and kissed his temple. Simon smiled to himself as Mal's grip relaxed and his lashes shuttered downward.

Simon's smile slowly faded, the last vestiges of it clinging to the corners of his lips as he drifted into sleep himself. Come morning this would not be a dream. And come morning, maybe Simon would confess that Mal hadn't really "turned" him at all—this, with Mal, after all, was what he had wanted for a long time.

End