Simon's shoulders were tense to the point of pain, and he forced himself not to look around. The threat wasn't here, and what he was waiting for was nothing as simple as an unseen blow. It would be a distant scream, a shout, an explosion, a gunshot, the sound of Serenity lifting from the ground and leaving him behind again.
He did permit himself, then, to look away from his fruitless search to where Inara stood, admiring this third rate world's general store notions as though she'd ever consider buying any of them. He wasn't alone, he reminded himself, and they wouldn't be left behind, not if Mal had any other choice. He knew that much.
They'd been given an hour to leave the ship and shop for supplies, provided they stayed in pairs and on the town's main street, while Mal, Zoe, and Jayne went to complete the sale of their seemingly innocuous cargo. Book had offered to accompany the girls on their window shopping, but River hadn't wanted to leave the ship, which no one had taken as a good sign. Once she calmed down, they left her with Wash and departed in a watchful cluster.
River is safe, he reminded himself. If nothing else, River is safe. Simon took a deep breath and focused again on the bin of ‘corder chips, sifting them through his hands and looking for anything other than brightly colored cheap labels splashed with the titles of decade-old pop hits and collections of patriotic Alliance tunes.
He jumped at the touch on his shoulder, flinging chips from one hand. Inara arched one perfect eyebrow and then gathered up her skirt and crouched beside him, carefully gathering chips. "Sorry," Simon muttered, dropping quickly to his knees to gather the ones that had bounced farther. "Startled me."
Inara was giving him a frankly assessing look when he glanced up again, and said quietly, "Why don't we go get some tea, Simon? Kaylee and the shepherd were going to head over there." Calm down, her eyes said, You're being conspicuous. He knew better than this, he'd been in tense situations before, and he knew how to look calm, even how to be calm, when he had to--surgery required steady hands, after all. Still, knowing and doing seemed far apart today.
He dumped the spilled chips back in their bin as he straightened up, checking the window's reflection to confirm that the proprietor was still half-dozing behind the counter. "Give me a minute? I need to find some music."
Inara cast a dubious glance into the bin. "I don't think the selection is quite up to your standards." She looked up at him again, and seemed to see that he needed to do this, tossing down her own handful of collected chips. "What were you looking for, then?" Her fingers hovered with incongruous grace above the bin of garish musical remnants.
Simon sighed, feeling a fool for having hoped to find anything, here, but he'd already let it go too long without even trying. "Dancing music," he said, quietly. "For River. On Jiangyin, right before we--" he waved one hand, unable to think of a discreet, compact way to say ‘before we were kidnapped by genuinely needy yet homicidally small-minded, ignorant, and paranoid townsfolk and abandoned but then rescued in the nick of time by our dear captain,' but Inara nodded her understanding, so he didn't bother to try. "There was a country dance of some sort in progress, and River joined right in. She looked so happy, so much like herself, it was amazing. I should've done something like this sooner, but I thought if I could find the music she used to dance to, in her recitals and things, before, maybe it would help, or at least..."
Inara laid one hand lightly on his helplessly gesturing arm, and gently raised an eyebrow as if to ask him if he knew who he was speaking to.
"Oh," he said in a small voice, and then, "Inara, if you wouldn't mind, could I..."
She nodded crisply, withdrawing her hand with a forbearing smile. "I have a portable ‘corder you can borrow and an extensive collection of music. You can come over later and we'll pick out something appropriate. Now, tea?"
Simon nodded his agreement and gratitude, and when Inara turned away he followed, sparing an apologetic smile for the shopkeeper when he looked up to see them leaving empty-handed.
What with one thing and another--tea was interrupted by gunfire and a hard run back to the ship, and then Simon was in the infirmary for a few hours, stitching up Zoe's cuts and splinting two of Book's fingers, dispensing a carefully calculated dosage of painkillers to Jayne for injuries he refused to specify, and cleaning up the wreckage of his space when everyone had finally trooped off to celebrate a job well done--the "later" Inara had spoken of turned out to be well after dinner, when the ship's crew were all settling down for the evening. He stuck his head into River's room to find her coloring again, and fought down an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.
"It's all right," she said, without looking up. "You can go if you want."
"I'll be back in a little while," he assured her. "And then I'll have a surprise for you."
If that's possible, he thought, as he pushed back from the door, and then River did look up, unsmiling. "I like surprises, Simon." He smiled a little weakly, and his baby sister was suddenly grinning back.
"All right then," he said, "I'll just be a little while." He slid her door shut and walked, at a normal pace, down the corridor.
He tapped at the door to Inara's shuttle, and without hesitation she called for him to enter. He found her perched on the edge of the bed, with a portable ‘corder and the larger one that supplied music within the shuttle both lying on the velvet surface connected with a transfer cable and looking much more like something he'd have expected to see Kaylee working with than Inara. She smiled, invitingly but not invitingly, and handed him a sheet readout. "Copy over whatever you think will be most helpful," she directed. "I've tried to queue the pieces River might be familiar with."
Simon nodded, already scanning the list and selecting the titles he recognized. He worked for several minutes, until Inara drew his attention by getting to her feet. "I'm sorry," he said automatically, "should I--" but he had no idea what he ought to do. It wasn't a situation he'd ever been taught the appropriate etiquette for, a Companion treating him like a neighbor, perhaps even a friend.
Inara smiled again. "I was just going to get some tea. We never did manage to drink any, earlier."
"Oh." She turned her back, and Simon wasn't sure whether she'd meant tea for them both, didn't know whether thanking her would be presumptuous or not thanking her would be rude, and took refuge in the readout, scrolling through the list. River's spring recital, when she was seven: he knew the piece but couldn't recall the name, and hoped he'd recognize it if he saw it.
There were the small sounds of a tea service being set out, and then a brief, pointed silence. When he looked up, Inara smiled, an eyebrow rather sardonically tilted, and Simon quickly hit the command to begin transferring the titles he'd already selected, then crossed to sit where Inara indicated. He understood tea, at least, and the near-ritual murmurs of please and sugar and thank you eased a little of his nervousness. He murmured something about the tea being very good, and when he looked up from his hands--steady now when it didn't matter, naturally--he found Inara studying him. "Simon," she said, before he could move or stutter or apologize, "you seem quite well brought up."
He blinked, but the words came automatically. "My parents would be honored that you noticed." It was the first time in years that he hadn't had to think before speaking. He took a sip of tea, and felt at home, even if he was still nervous and confused. This was the sort of bewilderment he'd been born to confront.
Inara smiled slightly. "Well brought up, and well spoken of by some of my colleagues, as well."
The return to his fugitive mindset actually hurt, a sick lurch of his guts like a rough take-off. He swallowed hard, and carefully modulated his grip on the fine cup in his hands. "Inara--"
"Simon," slightly reproving, this time, a tone of authority that reminded him firmly of what Inara was, and so let him feel again that he fit into her world, as he once had. The shifts were starting to make him dizzy. "You know perfectly well that Companion-client confidentiality is closely guarded. Neither I nor anyone I spoke with will place you in any danger."
He nodded, wondering just who Inara had spoken with, and how much confidentiality clients had when Companions spoke among themselves. "Thank you," he murmured, "of course."
"What I meant to imply," she said, "was that I know that something is troubling you and that, while some aspects of my professional capacity are off-limits to crew, others are available, to friends." Simon looked up, searching her eyes. Friends? But she wished him to believe it, by her gentle and slightly knowing smile--she would be perfectly aware of his calculations--and so he would. He had been well brought up, after all. "Whatever's bothering you," she went on, "I'd lay odds it's not the sort of matter you wish to discuss with the good shepherd. Perhaps I could be of some assistance?"
Except. He looked down, smiled a little, and then apologetically back up. "I'm not sure I should discuss it with you, either."
Her eyes and mouth tightened, showing lines at their corners for the barest instant, and Simon wondered just how old Inara was, and was a little shaken by the liberty she permitted him in showing her unhappiness. Then her face smoothed out, her smile only seeming grim because he remembered the small ugliness of her frown, and she said, "No, I think you should, if you'd like to talk. At least you can be certain I'll understand."
Simon licked his lips, holding her gaze steadily. "Mal," he said, cautiously.
Inara blinked first, but she nodded.
"It's nothing, really," he said, "just, you know. I keep thinking about it. Him." Simon took a sip of his tea, and Inara took a sip of hers. The ‘corder emitted a beep, and Simon said, "That's all. Just... thoughts."
She smiled, but her eyes showed the effort of it. "I see." Smoothing her face so he couldn't see the work behind the friendly expression, she said, "Did you want to...?"
Simon finished his tea and set down the cup. "Actually, I should get back to River. You know. And it's nothing, really, anyway."
Inara nodded. "Yes, I see. Well."
Simon stood, and Inara rose after him. "Thank you for this," he said, gesturing to the tea set and the ‘corder, though he knew neither of those had cost her nearly as much as the other.
"You're very welcome." She gestured gracefully toward the bed, and Simon went to it and disconnected the ‘corder, gathering it up carefully. "Do let me know if there's anything else I can do."
Simon paused in the doorway and met Inara's eyes again. "For River," he said, and saw the faint relief in her face. "Yes, I will."
Inara's smile of relief seemed strangely honest as he slipped out through the door.
River seemed willing enough to come down to the lounge, though she cast an unhappy glance toward the infirmary doors, which he'd closed before he tried this. The ship had gone night-quiet, everyone having retreated to their bunks to continue their celebrations individually. He sat beside River on the battered sofa and queued up the first song he wanted to try, the piece River had danced to in her very first recital at the age of four.
River jumped to her feet at the first chord, shoving the table on which the ‘corder sat halfway across the floor. Simon jumped up, reaching after it, but the table and its load came safely to a halt, and River was doubled over with her hands to her ears. "It's too small, Simon, there's not room. It bounces and bounces and there's not room here, we have to move."
Simon glanced toward the ‘corder, which had been set to the size of the space. "Where to, River? Is there somewhere on the ship that's big enough?"
She looked up at him then, through her hair and her tears, and the pained look slowly faded from her face. "Cargo bay," she whispered, and took off running. Simon picked up the ‘corder, kicked the table more or less back into place, and followed.
It was just like box seats, except that he'd never been able to dangle his feet off the edge before. River, on the cargo bay floor, was dancing her way through every routine she'd ever performed and a few he thought she was making up on the spot. One piece of music faded almost seamlessly into another, and Simon propped his chin on his arms and watched, smiling. River was happy, and more importantly, while the music played, River was River.
He didn't realize he wasn't alone until Mal dropped down to sit next to him, sliding his legs out to hang over the edge. Simon straightened up quickly. "Captain," he said, "I'm sorry, is the music--"
Mal shook his head as he looked down at River, intently, not smiling but not apparently unhappy. "Just checking up. I doubt it's bothering anyone else."
Simon waited for him to say something else, or leave, but Mal went on watching. After a moment, he leaned forward, resting his arms along the cable as Simon had, getting comfortable. Simon looked back down at River, but with Mal at his side, he saw the grey box of the cargo hold, the door at the opposite end that lead to vacuum and dark fields of stars with no up or down or end. "I've been meaning to tell you," he said finally, quietly. Mal, in his peripheral vision, didn't move, but Simon had no doubt he heard. "Whether River found out or not, I shouldn't have been thinking what I was thinking. It was inappropriate, and I apologize."
River improvised a series of backflips, and Mal raised his eyebrows. "It's all right," he said, after a moment, and Simon was tempted to defend River's acrobatic skill until he realized Mal was referring to him. The captain looked sideways at him, a brief, measuring glance, and then back to River. "No harm done. People think some pretty strange things in a dry spell." Simon turned his head slightly, looking at Mal. After a moment, he looked back, a small smile twitching the corners of his mouth, a rueful look in his eyes that Simon couldn't help return. Dry spell, yeah, that was one word for it. It was almost enough to... "Almost makes me miss the war," Mal muttered, his smile hardening into place. "Except at the end, you could always find somebody with twenty minutes free who wasn't in your chain of command."
Simon wondered which part had changed, at the end: the ability to get free for twenty minutes, or the chain of command. He didn't ask, though, remembering the lines around Inara's eyes. He already knew what Mal looked like when he hurt--he knew these small uncomfortable things about everyone aboard the ship--and he didn't really want to see more of it right now. "Yes," he said, instead. "Medacad was like that, too. I guess it was the same thing, really, the natural human reaction to the proximity of death."
As he'd hoped, the analogy pulled Mal from his reverie, and he glanced over at Simon, actually looking at him for a moment, eyebrows raised, and then back at River. Simon looked down too. She was doing some chorus part, stiff moves meant to be seen in long lines and waves, and he wanted to explain that to Mal, but the captain gave no hint that River's dancing was less than perfectly enthralling, so he had no opening. Instead, Mal said in a thoughtful voice, "I never thought about that. I guess you weren't too good at your jobs yet, then?"
Simon frowned, trying to parse what Mal was saying, and then felt almost sick when he realized. "No, no! Not patients, they'd never let us try to treat anyone when we didn't know what we were doing. We hardly saw patients, even to observe, until third year." Mal's look was a mute question, and Simon focused his eyes on River, anchoring himself in this place and time, as he said as nonchalantly as he could manage, "When I said it was like being at war... It was us dying. The students. Three people failed out of the class. Three, from an entering class of six hundred. And three hundred fifty-eight of us graduated."
Mal made a startled, disbelieving sound, but Simon didn't look over. "Most of that wasn't deaths, of course. We were right there in the middle of the best medical facilities in the core. It's a difficult place to die. Most of them did live, but were excused from the program for reasons of severe physical or psychological unfitness. Enough died, though. Suicides and attempted suicides, mostly. Assaults and murders, a few times, I think--they didn't tell us much about what was really happening to our classmates, but of course we talked--and those lead to more suicides. People overdosed on anything you could overdose on, mostly accidentally, and died trying to dry themselves out before they OD'ed. I was in a class once that was disrupted when the girl sitting two seats behind me had a first break psychotic episode." It had been hell trying to get notes from people in the other session, too. Bastards.
River danced on, unconcerned. The steps were unfamiliar, but Simon recognized the music; she'd waved it to him in his first term at Medacad. It had been the first of her recitals that he'd ever missed, and he'd never found time to watch the recording she sent later on, though he told her he had.
Mal, beside him, said, "So only the really sane ones actually get to be doctors, that it?" There was a tinge of respect in his voice, something Simon had heard from him now and again before, something that warmed him inside no matter how much he told himself it was just his captain speaking, that his thoughts were just thoughts, that it was just a dry spell.
Still, however much he liked it, he couldn't let Mal go on thinking what he obviously did. Simon pushed the sleeve on his left arm up to the elbow, and glanced down. There was nothing to see on his skin, of course, he knew that, but he always expected to see it again anyway. Without allowing himself to think about what he was doing, the way he'd reach for a scalpel in surgery, he reached out and took hold of Mal's hand He guided Mal's fingers to the inside of his forearm, to the fine scar that ran from the base of his hand halfway to his elbow. "The comparatively sane ones get to be doctors," he said, quietly. "We used to joke they wouldn't let you graduate without at least one of these."
Mal's fingertips were warm on his skin, even after Simon let go. He rubbed lightly, pressing harder of his own volition, moving back and forth across the infinitesimal width of the scar, and then withdrawing, but not really pulling away as Simon would have expected. He allowed himself to be more heartened by that than he should, and explained, "A friend would stitch up your slashed wrists. A good friend wouldn't report it as suture practice."
When he looked over, a muscle was working in Mal's jaw, the same one Simon had seen in the infirmary, before the sedatives kicked in. He wondered what was hurting Mal now, what horrible memory he'd stirred up, and cursed his blind fumbling faux pas. But Mal's voice was even as he said, "What would a best friend do?"
"A best...?" He trailed off, frowning at the captain, and finally Mal turned his head, meeting Simon's gaze straight on, unflinchingly.
"A best friend," Mal repeated. "Those jokes always go in threes. A friend will bail you out of the lockup, a good friend will break you out of prison, your best friend will be right beside you planning your escape."
"Oh." Simon considered pointing out that it wasn't a joke, but thought that would only worsen whatever hurt he'd caused, and instead cast his mind back to what he'd once thought would prove to have been the hardest time in his life. He'd missed River horribly, he'd been going a little crazy from the figuratively and literally cutthroat atmosphere, to say nothing of all he was learning, too much too fast, but, hell, also getting laid rather a lot. "Oh, yes. Okay, a friend would stitch you up, a good friend wouldn't report it, and your best friend would let you bleed out on the floor and get laid at the wake."
The music eased prettily to a close, and River sank into a deep curtsey. Beside him, Mal let out a rather explosive sigh, and they both applauded. As a new piece started up and River began to dance again, Simon suddenly laughed. "Wo de tian a," he gasped, trying to rein in his hysterics as Mal stared at him, hoping he wouldn't distract River from her dancing. "That makes me and Jayne the very best of friends."