Mal’s brain is pleasantly fuzzy. His arm is slung around Zoe’s shoulders for support– his, not hers, since she of course is steady as a rock. It is summer on Greenleaf, or at least this particular part of Greenleaf, and the air is body-temperature warm and wet enough to swim through.
His ears are buzzing gently, blocking out traffic noise and Zoe’s quiet complaints alike. He knows she is complaining because that is her accepted role at times like this. He is dizzy in that way you are when you’re drunk, when the world stands still but your brain is spinning slowly in your skull.
And he is drunk. Oh, yes, definitely.
Not that it was his idea. This is entirely Zoe’s fault.
She has left her faithful husband all alone and dragged her captain out to two… three… several bars tonight.
Yes. Of course this is the way it must have happened.
They turn a corner, and he stops short. A smile spreads across his face.
There is a certain note of weary patience in her voice that he chooses to ignore.
“That’s my ship.” There are times when this still takes him by surprise. “Ain’t she pretty?”
He could stand here a damn long time just watching the way the moonlight falls on her hull…
Zoe starts walking again and, perforce, so does he. He might not fall over if he let go of her, but it’s not something he wants to test just now. He feels good, and the ground hitting his face would not feel good.
They swim out of the warm, damp air into Serenity’s cargo bay.
She sighs. “Yes, sir?”
“Why’d we leave that last bar?”
“Because you made a pass at that guy, and he didn’t take it too kindly.”
“Guy that looked like Jayne.”
Mal stares at her. “I made a pass at a guy who looked like Jayne?”
She smirks sidelong at him. “That you did, sir. And I’m not saying it wasn’t funny to watch, but I thought I’d better save you from yourself.”
“This is why I don’t drink, Zoe.”
“Yes, sir. I remember that.”
Even pleasantly fuzzy, he catches her emphasis. “You implying something with that statement?”
“Just that it might have been good if you’d remembered it a little earlier in the evening.”
“Hey, don’t look at me, this was your idea. I’m the innocent victim here.”
“Whatever you say, Captain.”
This was her idea, wasn’t it?
He thinks hard, dredging his brain for anything that might have sunk below the surface.
He remembers setting out by himself as the sun was setting, remembers Zoe catching up with him.
He remembers fire eating at Serenity until he purged her, and biting cold afterwards. His ship silent, lifeless, drifting. His crew gone, telling himself it didn’t matter because there are some things you do alone even if you’re in a room full of people, and dying is one of them.
He pushes thought and memory away, but although his brain is still fuzzy, the feeling is no longer so pleasant. His gut hurts, and the stitches pull at his skin.
No, maybe it wasn’t Zoe’s idea.
He stumbles away from her to sit on a crate. “Go on to bed,” he mumbles. “I’m just going to sit here a while.”
To his surprise, she does leave, although through the door to the infirmary and not up toward the crew quarters. Well, no matter. She’s gone anyway, and he’s alone.
He hunches over with his head in his hands, feeling suddenly queasy. The problem, he is sure, is not that he’s drunk, but that he’s not drunk enough any more. If he could stand up and walk straight he would go and find another bottle, but that is out of the question for the moment.
He hears footsteps. Shiny shoes enter his field of vision.
“Zoe says you’re in pain, Captain.”
He looks up, taking in neat black pants, shiny vest, silky shirt. The fabric of the shirt looks smooth and cool, and he has the sudden urge to rub his face against it.
“I’m okay,” he mumbles, looking back down.
“That was a very serious wound, Captain, and you’re treating it like it was a scratch. You’re lucky you survived, and barely a week later you go out on a drinking binge? What were you thinking?”
“‘S’not a binge. Wouldn’t call it a binge. I think those have to last longer.”
“If I had you in a proper hospital you wouldn’t even be out of bed yet.”
“If you had me anywhere at all, I wouldn’t be thinking of getting out of bed yet.”
He looks up to find Simon staring at him with wide eyes and open mouth.
He isn’t quite sure why until he runs a quick review of the last thing he said. Oh. Yes, there are very good reasons why he doesn’t drink much.
He opens his mouth to say something apologetic, but it doesn’t quite work out.
“I like your shirt,” he says.
“You like my…” Simon’s features smooth over. “Come on, Captain. There are some pills I’d like you to take, and then I think you should lie down.”
Simon takes his arm, and Mal gets to his feet.
“You’re going all doctory on me, Simon.”
The man beside him freezes for a second, then gets both of them moving efficiently in the direction of the infirmary.
“It’s my job, Captain. It’s why you hired me.”
“Not the only reason.”
Mal remembers watching him work on Kaylee, every move calculated for maximum efficiency, every word quiet and calm. Mal had as good as told him that his survival depended on saving her life, and he worked under that pressure as cool as if he was bandaging a scraped knee instead of patching up a gut wound, as if he had all the time in the world to do it, as if she wasn’t bleeding to death right there on the table.
Those were good reasons for hiring him, but not the only ones.
Mal stumbles, his foot catching on a seam in the floor. Simon steadies him with an arm around his waist, holding him close for a moment.
“Thanks.” He is just slightly breathless from the feel of Simon’s body pressed against his own. A lock of dark hair has fallen in Simon’s eyes, and Mal pushes it back into place with clumsy fingers. “You’re nice and warm,” he says, despite his attempts to stop himself.
“Really. And that was the other reason you hired me?”
“No. And just ’cause I’m drunk don’t give you the right to laugh at me, you know. I’m not that drunk.”
“Oh, I really think you are.” Simon guides him the last few steps to the infirmary and points to the exam table. “Sit here.”
With some difficulty, Mal does. He swings his legs, kicking the side of the table.
“Stop that. And take these.”
“What are they?”
“They’ll sober you up. Somewhat, at least. We can’t expect miracles. And they’ll minimize the damage you’ve done to your body’s natural healing process tonight.”
Mal takes the pink pills and drains the glass of water.
“Does this mean I won’t have a hangover in the morning?”
“No. I see no reason why you shouldn’t suffer for your mistakes.”
“Oh.” He rests his head in his hands, rubbing at his forehead. It hurts. Maybe the hangover is starting early.
Simon sighs. “Oh, all right.” He turns away, fiddling with something, and then turns back to inject something into Mal’s arm. “Just this once. And don’t tell Jayne, or he’ll be in here every night.”
“No problem. Big secret. Won’t tell nobody.”
Simon is smiling at him now, and he likes that. Nice smile. He doesn’t see it often.
With Simon’s help and encouragement he gets down off the table, and finds he is marginally more stable on his feet. He puts an arm around Simon anyway, rubbing the cool silk of his shirt with his thumb. He was right; it does feel good.
He pauses in the cargo bay, pulling Simon tight against his side as he makes sure the door is properly locked. He could do this in his sleep if he had to, but Simon’s miracle pills are doing their job, and his free hand moves easily over the controls.
He hears the locks click into place and stands still with his palm flat against the console, just listening to his ship, feeling her gentle vibration.
“Captain?” Simon says quietly. “Is there anything wrong?”
“Nope. Everything’s shiny. Everything’s… perfect.”
He hesitates to use the word, but this is as close to perfect as things get. Serenity is fixed. All his people are safe. He’s not going to have a hangover tomorrow. If he can’t use it now, then when?
“You really love her, don’t you?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
Simon smiles up at him. “Come on, Captain. Time for bed.”
Up the stairs to the crew quarters, Simon tucked neatly under his arm. Mal’s head is clearing faster than he really wants it to, and he keeps thinking he should let Simon go, but… he feels good there. And Mal figures he is still drunk enough to get away with it. Simon doesn’t seem to be objecting.
They arrive at his quarters, and Simon opens the door for him.
“Well, doctor? Aren’t you going to come down and tuck me in?”
Simon smiles. “I don’t think so.”
“I might fall and knock myself out.”
“If you’re so drunk you can’t make it down the ladder, you can sleep in the infirmary.”
“I thought so.”
They look at each other for a silent moment.
“Happy birthday,” Mal says.
“My birthday was last week. You know that. It was on my arrest warrant.” There is the faintest tinge of bitterness to Simon’s voice.
“But I didn’t get you anything.”
Mal takes Simon’s chin in his fingers, tipping it up, holding it so carefully. While his hands now seem nimble enough for machinery, they still seem far too clumsy for this.
Simon allows it, and Mal watches his eyes flutter closed. The kiss is brief, almost chaste, and as Mal pulls back he ducks down for a second to press his cheek against the silk of Simon’s shirt.
“So happy birthday,” he says.
He turns toward the ladder, but Simon’s voice stops him.
“What was the other reason, Captain?”
“The other reason you hired me.”
“Oh. I like you. When you’re not all…” He waves a hand vaguely.
“Doctory. Or fussy and sarcastic, which is really most of the time.”
Simon steps toward him, slow and deliberate. He licks Mal’s lips, licks his way between them, stands on tiptoe as he maps the curves of Mal’s mouth, sliding his tongue against Mal’s for a maddeningly brief second before withdrawing.
Mal blinks. It takes a second before he remembers to start breathing again. He realizes he is holding Simon close, one hand on his back, one hand on his ass, and while Simon doesn’t seem upset about this, he is gently pushing against Mal’s chest. Mal lets him go.
“But not all the time,” Simon says.
“No, not all the time… You sure you don’t want to come down?”
Simon just looks amused. “You’re drunk, Captain. Go to sleep.” He walks away down the hall, hands in his pockets.
Mal watches him go, then climbs slowly down the ladder and lies down on his bed. He puts a hand on the wall, feeling that constant, comforting vibration. He smiles to himself.
He is thinking, among other things, that he will not be drunk tomorrow. For the first time all evening this seems like a good thing.