TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 18. Darkness.
Friday, April 22, 2005

An interpretation of what is really going on in Objects in Space. Mal and Simon get closer. Much closer.


WARNING Spoilers for 'Objects in Space'.

Another warning Mal and Simon have been falling in love. With each other. They decide to do something about it.

RATING NC-17 lite seems to sum it up nicely.

Thanks to the scrupulous and conscientious wedjat without whose beta-ing skills this might well have been unintelligible. And you should know she writes fabulous stuff herself. Seek it out.

* * * * *

TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 18. Darkness.

* * * * *

Previously, in Trauma Medicine:

“There's something that ... that I should have done a long time ago and I'm sorry – for both of us - that it's taken me this long ...”

For an agonizingly hopeful moment Mal thinks Inara might reach out for him. There ain't nothin' hurts worse than hope.

“I'm leaving.”

He watches her go. Numb. Mute. Then he turns in silence and walks down the empty corridor to his bunk. The bed is cold and hard.

He wa'n't broken before. Else now there wou'n't be this splinterin' inside him. Wou'n't be this black despair nor the crumblin' of half-repaired dreams. Somethin' deep in him snaps an' his gut twists like somethin' savage is tryin' to claw its way out. Somethin' ugly an' savage he can't fight. Or don't want to no more.

His back straightens an' he makes up his mind.

“Where the hell is that boy?”

* * * * *

Half way down the staircase it occurs to Mal he ain't so much lookin' for his medic as huntin' him down. An' that his intentions ain't exactly honourable.

Oh, he don't feel guilty about it. Why should he, when the boy's been makin' it clear he wants beddin' for months? No – all Mal's doin' is takin' advantage of what's on offer. An' if the boy wants any more than that, if he ends up gettin' hurt, then that ain't hardly Mal's fault, is it? Only a ruttin' backbirth would imagine there could ever be anythin' more than a quick grapple between the two of them. The Doc can't ... surely? Ain't he supposed to be in the Top Three Percent?

Mal shrugs, dismissin' the niggle of conscience at the back of his mind. He reckons he's earned this. Been through more'n enough - done more'n enough for Simon Tam an' his sister - to deserve some kinda recompense. A reward. It ain't really like he'd be takin' advantage .... So why in the name of suoyou de dou shidang is he suddenly thinkin' about the Special Hell? Gorram preacher an' his religiosity! Mal don't abide by those rules no more. Lives by his own code these days. Anyhow – he's got this naggin' suspicion Book ain't no Shepherd.

The infirmary seems less of one without the Doc in it. Weird, Mal muses. Everythin's neatly stored away, every surface sparklin' clean. Dumbass boy an' his obsession with order. Life ain't neat an' tidy; it's messy – complicated. Not clean an' pressed an' buttoned-up-to-the-neck. Maybe Doctor Tam ain't so smart after all. Too much brain, not enough common sense. Core born an' bred, he's got no understandin' of how the rest of the 'verse operates. How in the good gorram did someone like him end up a trauma surgeon? There much call for one of them on the central planets? 'Bout the most trauma you get there is not gettin' a seat in your favourite restaurant or maybe breakin' a nail.

There was plenty of trauma in Serenity Valley. Blood an' death an' worse ... Mal realizes his own nails are diggin' into his palms an' his teeth are clenched. Mayhaps Simon wou'n't be so ruttin' superior an' smart-mouthed if he'd seen what Mal's seen, felt some of that pain. It sure might help the boy understand what he's dealin' with.

Mal reaches the passenger dorm an' stops, arrested by the creepifyin' possibility of li'l sis burstin' in on him an' her brother at the most inappropriate juncture. That'd be a real annoyance. Shame she can't jus' melt away. She's always gonna come first in Simon's life. Jus' like Serenity an' her crew are always gonna come first in Mal's, the Captain reminds himself. Well, they got that much in common at least – people dependin' on them.

Mal frowns.

Some days it's a real burden.

Days like this when he wants to be thinkin' about his own needs rather than other people's. Gorramit – this'd be so much simpler if it was jus' him an' Simon on this boat.

Because .. Wo de ma! – what if Inara caught him sneakin' into the Doc's bunk? There's no way he'd be able to persuade her to stay after that. An' no hope she'd come back some day if'n she did leave. Which'd mean Mal would never be certain she was okay. Job like hers – always puttin' herself in the way of danger an' into the beds of men who see her as nothin' better than an expensive whore - one day she might pick a rotten apple from the barrel ...

Only thing he can think of worse than Inara findin' him here is Kaylee comin' round that corner. He can picture her face all too clearly. Her eyes'd be bright with tears held back and she'd try real hard to be brave an' happy for him. An' all the while that sweet, gentle heart of hers would be breakin' in two. Kaylee's so gorram full o' sweetness, she's jus' askin' to get soured up. One day she's gonna find out people got darkness in 'em, kind of darkness she can't even imagine. Tian sha – he ain't sure whether livin' in dread of that day might not be worse than it arrivin'. At least then he wou'n't be constantly tryin' to shield her from it ...

This is what comes of lettin' people in instead of shuttin' 'em out. Shoulda stuck to Zoe an' Wash an' Jayne. Mal don't have to worry about them. Not about what they think, nor about keepin' them safe. Zoe and Jayne can take care of themselves - an' who exactly is gonna mess with Wash if it means havin' Zoe to contend with? Not no-one.

Mal slides the door to River's room open a fraction an' peers inside. No sign of her. Where'd she go? See – this is exactly what he di'n't want. He wanted simple, he wanted in-and-out, he wanted easy. Now he's gotta worry about where that moon-brained mind-readin' genius has disappeared to.

An' worry about what it'd do to her brother to lose her.

With a rueful glance at Simon's closed door, Mal turns his back on what he ain't so sure now he had any right to want an' heads off in search of River.

* * * * *

“We're all just floating.”

Floating on the fathomless waters of time and space.

Floating in and out of each other's lives on the tide of change and chance and constantly meeting ourselves. The person we used to be, the person we're to become. The person we wish we weren't.

Some people believe that's nothing more than coincidence. And some think it's all part of God's plan.

And some think none of it means a damn thing.

* * * * *

River awakes, instantly alert. Was the voice in her head or outside it? It's so hard to tell nowadays where she ends and others begin. Especially Mal.

She's very close to him, even if he doesn't see it.

She walks on his feet and hears through his ears.

And, like him, she was forced to look into the darkness.

But whereas Mal sees the Black, River sees the stars. That's why she's here. She's his light.

And Mal is her purpose.

* * * * *

Mal was here, right here, outside the passenger dorm, although River's not sure when. Intense feelings persist, bending time and meaning. They're still here, filling the commons with the ghosts of Mal's thoughts.

Thoughts about Kaylee, an' how she oughta be sittin' here on the couch with Simon. Her bare legs an' feet in his lap whilst he strokes them absent-mindedly like they've been intimate for years.

Kaylee oughta be laughin'. Mal loves to hear her laugh. The sound chases away some of his shadows. “You couldn't possibly have!”

An' Simon would dip his head shyly as a slow smile creeps across his face. “I wish I was lying. I just – well, we'd all just made surgeon, that was it. We were the elite, the world was ours, you know ...”

“So you had to be naked,” Kaylee might say an' shake her head in disbelief.

“Naked. And on top of the statue of Hippocrates. And – can you just picture me?”

Mal can. Did. Stood here doin' jus' that an' quiverin' a little.

Before tellin' himself it cou'n't ever be.

“Naked. I'll have to conjure up ... It'll be tough.” Kaylee would most likely fake a frown of effort, then beam at Simon, tappin' her toes against his chin. “So the Feds came?”

“No. There were no Feds.” The Doc'd pause an' look sheepish. “Until I started singing.”

Then there'd be a burst of laughter from Kaylee. “Oh no – what were you singin'?”

“This is not funny.” Mal imagined Simon being all mock stern-ness and serious faced. “This is a morality tale about the evils of sake.”

River smiles wistfully. Mal's a good man. Just broken, is all. Told himself this story so well it nearly convinced that Kaylee and Simon belonged together. He was creepin' silently away when he realized it was just a story.

And then Kaylee's face was a silent accusation of betrayal, an accusation Simon put it into words. Cold, hard words. “I would be there right now.”

In the empty commons, the smile slips from River's lips. She's confused now and unsure if these recriminations are the ones Mal tortures himself with or if they're the ones inside her own head.. All she knows is she doesn't want to be here. She heads for the stairs leaving Simon and Kaylee to resume their phantom conversation as if she had never been there.

* * * * *

He loves this ship. It's more home to him than any place he's been since ... Serenity may not win any beauty prizes but her walls aren't bare – they're richly clothed with memories.

Like this spot right here. River reaches out her hand, homing in on the panel where the heat from two bodies ardent with need still lingers. A special place. A crossroads. Maybe even a door. She stares at her hand for a moment, surprised not to recognize it. Well, that's downright morbid an' creepifyin'. She sways, feeling nauseous. Mal is making her dizzy and she's glad to step down into the mess where an earthy conversation between Jayne and the Shepherd grounds her.

The mercenary is regarding Book with ghoulish fascination. “They don't cut it off or nothin'?”

The Preacher smiles that worldly smile of his. “No. I'm more or less intact. I just direct my energies elsewhere.”

“You mean like masturbatin'?” Jayne asks without a trace of embarrassment. Or delicacy.

“I hope you're not thinking of taking orders yourself,” the Shepherd replies mildly.

Jayne laughs. “That'll be the day!”

Then he turns and looks directly at River. Regret and shame pour off him. “I got stupid. The money was too good.” Was that an apology? An excuse? A plea for forgiveness. And if so, from who? From whom, River corrects herself.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, Book doesn't seem to have heard. “I don't give half a hump if you're innocent or not,” he sneers, “So where does that put you?”

River is shocked. Why does Mal torture himself like this? And then she remembers, or realizes for the first time. She was just a kid, but they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.. Doesn't matter half a hump whether Mal was innocent or not; he feels guilty.

* * * * *

In the foredeck hall it's as peaceful as a deserted beach on a desert island. The waves lap against the shore, rising and falling like breaths. In and out. Flesh in flesh. And it's beautiful.

When Wash and Zoe kiss time stands still and the 'verse empties, till it's only them and all eternity.

Mal envies them. Always did want everything and forever. River feels his ache for the healing touch of someone who loves him. Someone who will wash away the taint of blood and death and hurt. She wraps her arms around herself briefly, sighing - nearly whimpering - with need and the picture changes. Someone is screaming inside her head and a girl is bleeding. She staggers backwards. So much darkness in him. He's not right. She can't go with him ...

But here he is anyway, outside the entrance to the shuttles.

“I appreciate your not saying anything,” Inara is saying quietly.

“I don't,” he answers her bluntly. “So make up your mind.”

Inara understands what he did. She just doesn't comprehend. The Companion turns her head and pleads. “I'm a big girl. Just tell me.”

Mal steps back, wishing he could. Tell he who he really is, what the Real Mal is like, but the moment for that's passed and he's too ashamed and scared to try to get it back. What good would it do? What's the point of any of it? “None of it means a damn thing.”

* * * * *

River lurches down the stairs and into the open space of the cargo bay. If Serenity's walls are hung with memories, her deck panels are carpeted with the past. Today the carpet is one of fallen leaves. The shadow of autumn. Autumn on Shadow. This is where Mal lived. Before. When he was a boy. When he played out in the fields all day long, making toys out of anything that came to hand – broken farm equipment, stones, sticks ...

Something snaps under the sole of River's foot and she bends down to inspect it. It looks familiar. She picks it up, weighing it in her hand. Lighter than it looks – she thought it would have had more heft to it. “Just an object,” she tells herself. “It doesn't mean what you think.” And then she smiles, because that was a ridiculous thing to say. Objects always mean what you think.

Suddenly everyone is shouting at her. Kaylee, Simon, Mal.

“Get it away from her!” Mal yells at Simon.

The medic is only vaguely aware that the Captain is implying that somehow this is Simon's fault. “Just put it down!” he urges River.

She stares at him, bewildered by the whirlwind of fear and agitation surrounding her. Following the others' gaze, she looks down at her hand and gasps. She's pointing a gun at Kaylee, and the mechanic looks petrified. But she must know River would never hurt her; Kaylee is Mal's beating heart. “Kaylee ..?”

Simon's scolding of River is cut short by Mal who snatches the gun from her hand. “Fully loaded, Safety off.” he points out, after checking it. He glares at Simon. “This here's a recipe for unpleasantness. Does she understand that?”

“She understands,” River answers. “She doesn't comprehend.”

“Well, I'm glad we've made that distinction.” Mal don't know who to be madder at – River, Simon or himself. He waves the weapon in River's face and says slowly, as if she were stupid, “No touchin' guns, okay?”

River looks at him sadly because she's never seen a man more in need of touching nor one more scared of it. “No touching,” she repeats. Because that's what he means. What he really means. She can see them – all the people who've tried to reach out to him, all the ones he's pushed away – hear their voices in her head.

“River -” Simon calls after her as she takes to her heels.

She fends off his desire to follow her with an exasperated flutter of hands. “It's getting very crowded in here.”

Mal turns to Simon. “I thought she was on the mend.” There's that accusing tone again, harder this time, only more under control.

“The medications are erratic,” Simon attempts to explain “There's not one that her system can't eventually break down and you have to recalibrate ...”

“I want a lot of medical jargon thrown at me,” Mal interrupts, “I'll talk to a doctor.”

Simon does a double-take. “You are talking to a doctor.”

That suprises Mal. Tamade – he'd forgotten, he'd actually forgotten for a moment there. He was thinkin' of Simon as somethin' else, something more.“Yeah, okay,” he says, pulling himself together. “Point is, it coulda been you she mighta shot jus' then -” Mal don't wanna think on that possibility too hard. Why's it every time he cares for someone they end up in danger? “The doctor,” he reminds himself. Because the boy's safer that way. “- As you jus' made note of. An' who exactly could fix you? Not nobody. We're in deep space, Doctor. Corner of No and Where. You take good care of her - “Take good care of yourself too. “Cos we're very much alone out here.”

* * * * *

If it weren't for the reactions of the others – Kaylee's pained reluctance to tell her story, Jayne's professional jealousy – Simon might think that guilt over Nandi's death had toppled the Captain into psychosis and that this whole thing was another sadistic joke at Simon's expense. Simon knows he has to think about what happened between Mal and Nandi at some stage – about how it throws what Inara told him into doubt and what the hell that means – but he can't do it right now. He has more pressing things on his mind.

Zoe just suggested River might have been turned into an assassin.

“She's just a kid ...” he says quietly.

Just a kid. Mal stares at his medic, wondering if he's some kind of reader too.

“She just wants to be ... a kid,” Simon insists.

Yeah – an' that poor kid on Hera jus' wanted to fight for freedom an' look what happened to her. They took her ... she was just a kid, just seventeen, the youngest of the ones who survived ... but they took her anyway. And he cou'n't do a damn thing about it.

Mal looks into Simon's eyes – sees the pleadin' in them an' wants more than he'da thought possible to reassure the boy. Only he can't. “I wish it were that simple,” he says sadly, wishin' all of it was gorram simple. Wishes he could live simple, be with the person he wants to be with but he can't be trusted. He's dangerous. An' so, as it turns out, is River. More ruttin' complications.

“Yeah - an' if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak,” Jayne grunts. “What do we plan to do 'bout this?”

“Well, that's the question ...” Question Mal's got no good answer to.

“I don't think she'd ever hurt any of us,” Simon says.

An' he ain't jus' sayin' it – he believes it. Trouble is, the boy got no understandin' of what people are capable of. Mal's only gotta think about the way the Doc trusts him to know that. Wishes he was more worthy of that trust. Not so long ago, he was plannin' to put the boy's body to all unseemly manner of use. Makes him more'n a mite ashamed. Mayhaps that means he ain't so bad, nor so beyond savin' ...

“Maybe you're right.” The Captain pauses and looks round at the rest of his crew. “Well, I ain't makin' a decision till I've thought on it a while. We hit New Melbourne ...” - New Melbourne – where Inara's decided to walk out of his life an' never come back - “ ... in three day's time. We'll see who -” ... she's gonna go an' he can't ask her to stay ... He takes a deep breath and focuses. “We'll think of what to do then. It's late. Let's get some rest.”

People start movin'. Mal expects Simon to stay behind an' argue with him. Had been picturin' the boy gettin' all heated an' then flustered an' conciliatory. Instead he's one of the first out of the door.

Mal feels oddly disappointed.

* * * * *

Simon doesn't know whether to be angry, anxious or hurt by the realization that he still doesn't belong on this ship. He's only here under sufferance and only as long as Mal says so. And right now Mal is thinking about letting him go – thinking about dumping him and River on some out of the way ball of mud. Simon sighs. He'd better find River and try to explain it to her.

“Simon!” Kaylee's calls after him.

Anger gets the upper hand. It's visible in the way he moves. “I gotta go check on my assassin.”

“Oh please don't be mad. I had to say something,” Kaylee begs and he turns to see her looking embarrassed and guilty. She looks so genuinely apologetic that Simon's temper instantly subsides.

“I'm not mad at you,” he replies gently. “It's just ... she loves this ship. I think it's more home to her than any place she's been.” He omits to add it feels like home to him too. Because home is where the heart is, right?

That's the kind of thing Kaylee believes in. Only she wants to believe Simon's heart is hers. “What about you?” she asks.

Simon's not an idiot. He knows what she's driving at, but he'd rather avoid more unpleasantness tonight if at all possible. “I'm ... I thought the hospital was home. I was really making a difference there... and embarrassingly large stacks of money, and I could've... I would be there right now if she hadn't... if they had just left her alone.”

“Is it so bad here?” Kaylee pleads.

Simon shakes his head, shrugs. “I don't even know if the Captain'll let us ...”

Kaylee takes a tiny step closer. “No, but – isn't there anything about this place you're glad of?”

Suddenly Simon feels ashamed – ashamed of having been such a coward, of having used Kaylee's crush on him to his own advantage. He has to tell her. It's only fair. He reaches out a hand to stroke her cheek in the hopes that it will somehow soften the blow when he tells her that he can't give her what she wants. When he tells her he's in love with someone else. He takes a deep breath, opens his mouth to speak ...

.... and Shepherd Book appears. Kaylee jumps back and Simon tries to look like nothing was happening. “Good night, you two,” the Preacher says and continues on his way down the corridor.

“Uh – I ...” Simon tries again. He wants to get this over with, he really does.

Kaylee gives him a weak smile. “No, yeah ...”

She's already backing away and he can't hurt her like he knows he's going to if he can't offer her some comfort too. If he can't stroke her hair or whisper soothing words to her like he does with River. The moment has gone. “Good night,” he says quietly.

“Don't let the space bugs bite!” Kaylee chirps, then rolls her eyes at havin' said somethin' so ruttin' stupid.

Simon wishes he could love her. Because she is so very loveable.

* * * * *

How in the good gorram is a man supposed to sleep with a decision like this one weighin' heavy on his mind? There's no point even tryin'. Mal reckons he might as well do somethin' useful instead. Take another walk round the ship, make sure everythin's okay.

At night, Serenity is all Mal's. Time alone with his ship is somethin' he cherishes. Sometimes he talks to her an' sometimes he jus' listens to her breathin'. The steady hum of her engines brings him a kinda peace he don't get from anythin' else.

But tonight Serenity's not peaceful. She feels ... unhappy. Very unhappy. Like somethin's crawled under her skin an' is gnawin' on her insides. Mal shakes his head at the fanciful notion. That's how he feels, not Serenity.

His mind returns to the decision he has to make. River's a problem an' no mistake. But she's also a kid. {i]Just a kid{/i}. An' one Mal can mayhaps save from the Alliance. If only he could figure a way for her to stay without puttin' the others at risk.

Mal looks up and starts as suddenly a figure emerges from the hallway that leads to the airlock. As the figure turns around, Mal realizes with a jolt there's something about this man he recognizes. Realizes he's been dreadin' this encounter for years.

This fella di'n't come down no chimney. He's always been here. Like the Black an' the darkness.

Wo de ma! - he's come for River.

He ain't havin' her. Mal aims a punch at the intruder's jaw.

But the fella's too fast. Blocks Mal's attack and drives his fist into Mal's ribs. She might be a danger.

Mal sucks in a painful lungful of air. She's just a kid.

An elbow smashes into Mal's face. A kid that's dangerous. Can't be controlled.

A sharp kick to Mal's thigh follows and the ground beneath Mal's feet quakes. Remember the butcher's knife?

Nerves in the small of Mal's back spasm under the impact of another powerful blow. Next time it might be Inara. Or Kaylee.

Mal steels himself and puts everythin' he has into landin' a solid blow to the side of his combatant's face. Government thought her brain was a ruttin' playground.

The hundan sags, like it's all over, then his boot comes flyin' round, striking Mal dead in the centre of his chest an' knockin' the wind out of him. Tamade, she had a gun pointed at Kaylee!

Mal was wrong. There ain't no decision to make, cos he don't have any options.

A final punch knocks Mal unconscious.

* * * * *

All manner of terrified, Kaylee is tremblin' from her head right down to her toes. She stares at the man before her, too stunned an' scared to move or even cry out. Who is he? What does he want? An' ... “How did you get on ..?”

“It strains the mind a bit, don't it? You think you're all alone ... Maybe I come down the chimney, Kaylee ... bring presents to the good girls and boys. Maybe not, though ... Maybe I've always been here.”

Suddenly Kaylee feels sick. “What do you want?”

Instead of answering, the man looks at the engine. Feels a kind of fondness for it. “That's her beating heart, isn't it? You pull off any one of a thousand parts, she'll just die. Such a slender thread ...” The thing's vulnerable to all manner of damage, being exposed like that. Oughta be protected by a heavy duty casing. Need a thick skin to get through this life. Less chance of getting broken that way. Leaving the engine open's just asking for trouble. And trouble don't need no second invitation. “You ever been raped?”

Kaylee freezes. She wishes she could scream but it's all she can do to stammer, “The .. the Captain ... is right down the hallway ... He... he can hear you ...”

The man is unconcerned. “The Captain's locked in his quarters. They all are. There's no-one can help you.” A beat. “Say it.” Cos we're all alone in this 'verse, little girl, no matter what lies we tell ourselves to the contrary. Everyone's on their own. And not a one of us matters.

“There's ... there's nobody can help me,” Kaylee repeats in agonized defeat. Somehow sayin' it out loud makes it feel true.

He looks pleased at that, almost relieved - this hateful, inexplicable man. “I'm gonna tie you up now,” he says matter-of-factly. “And then you know what I'm gonna do?”

Kaylee can only imagine. She can't speak. She's in desperate need of a pee.

She shakes her head and tries not to cry.

“I'm gonna give you a present. Get rid of a problem you've got. And I won't touch you in any wrong fashion, nor hurt you at all, unless you make some kind of ruckus. You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain't nothing but a body to me, and I can find all unseemly manner of use for it. Do you understand?”


“Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” the man orders an' even if she was brave enough, Kaylee don't think she could resist. As he binds her wrists together, all hope of survivin' this evaporates. He's goin' to rape her, kill her .... But his voice is calm, gentle even. It takes a while for the full meanin' of his words to register. “Now tell me, Kaylee ... Where does River sleep?”

* * * * *

Responsibility is a heavy burden, Book reflects as he rinses the shaving foam from his face and pats it dry. Especially when it's taken seriously. Doubly so when it's shouldered alone. Doesn't matter how strong you are nor how brave – sometimes it's too much. Sometimes you need someone else to lean on. Sometimes you need faith.

Draping his towel over a shoulder and fastening his wash-bag, Book wishes he could find the right words to convince the Captain of that. The man takes on too much, accepts problems not of his making and tries to fix them. Even the ones that can't be fixed. And that leaves him feeling all manner of powerless, because the Captain fears if he doesn't fix them, no-one will. Malcolm Reynolds can't leave anything in the Lord's hands any more. Can't? Won't. Book sighs. When the Captain stopped allowing himself to get angry at God for all that's wrong in the 'verse, he was left with only himself to blame.

Jubal Early's mouth curls into a knowing smile as he watches the Shepherd make his way down the hallway. That outfit ain't foolin' no-one. That ain't a preacher. That's a man with a dark past.

No wonder he keeps lookin' over his shoulder.

Early launches himself at the Preacher, sliding down the staircase handrail, heavily shod feet first. They slam into Book's head and the Shepherd crumples to the floor.

* * * * *

A light sleeper at the best of times, Simon rouses immediately at the sound of a heavy thump in the passenger dorm. Please don't let it be River, he prays as he opens his door and looks out into the hallway. The Captain has enough reasons to get rid of them as it is. He really doesn't need any more. Simon opens River's door but her room is empty. Tamade! “River?” Oh God, where is she? And, more to the point, what is she doing?

Simon doesn't have time to consider these questions because without warning a weight descends upon him from above. Legs – legs? - wrap around his neck, making it difficult to breathe. They twist and fling him forwards onto the ground. To his own immense surprise, Simon springs instantly to his feet. When did he develop reflexes like this? Has being on Serenity changed him so very much? He recognizes the tell-tale buzz of adrenaline and throws himself at his attacker, grabbing the taller man by the throat. Only to see a pistol pointing directly between his eyes. Instinctively he backs off.

Brown eyes look Simon slowly up and down and the medic realizes his feet and chest are bare. Whoever this stranger is, he seems to appreciate Simon's state of undress. Simon feels a pressing need to cover himself up.

“Doctor Tam,” the owner of those penetrating brown eyes says, like he's ticking Simon's name off on some list in his head. “Why don't you sit yourself down?”

Simon resents the implied order. “I'd rather die standing.”

The stranger sighs. “The intention is not for you to die. The warrant doesn't specify any particular need for you to be alive but ...” He gestures with his gun for Simon to sit and is reluctantly obeyed.

Jubal Early finds this defiant boy's submission particularly sweet.

He's all manner of pleasin' to look on too. Smooth, muscled torso, strong arms, delicate feet and long, shapely toes. Damn near good enough to eat. But right now Early's got the job in mind. After ... well, he's sure he'll -

“Are you Alliance?” Simon demands.

“Am I a lion? ... I don't think of myself as a lion. You might as well though – I have a mighty roar.”

Simon struggles to make sense of the exchange that follows. Whereas his own thinking is ordered, direct and purposeful, this stranger's conversation is random, tangential. He talks like most people dream. And he's clearly out of his mind. A lunatic. And a bounty hunter.

“I''m a bounty hunter,” he announces just seconds after denying it. “I'm named Early. I'm known to some. Been tracking you since the Feds were tipped off on Ariel.”

Ah, it's all being to make sense now.

“She sleep with anyone?” Early asks suddenly. “She grapple with any of the crew? She might be in their quarters,”

“No!” Simon cries. The very idea of it is absurd. She's just a kid!

“Maybe she does and you don't know about it.”

To Simon, that sounds like an accusation. As though he hasn't been taking enough care of his sister. It's true his mind has been elsewhere of late but this man can't know that. Simon hugs his knees to his chest. “This is insane. I'm not going to help you find her in any case,” he declares firmly, meaning it.

The bounty hunter gazes at his gun and invites Simon to admire the beauty of its design. Objects are so much less troublesome than people. Objects have purpose, a right to be here. People – well, not many of them got the strength needed to pursue a purpose. Simon Tam does – that much is clear. You can see it in his eyes. It's what keeps the boy sane after giving up so much. Shame then that old Early's gonna have to steal that sense of purpose away from him and turn him into another confused, lost soul floating round the 'verse in search of meaning.

“You're gonna help me,” Early states calmly, “Because every second you're with me is a chance to turn the tables, get the better of me, and it's the only chance your sister has. Maybe you'll find your moment. Maybe I'll slip. Or you'll refuse to help me, I'll shoot your brain out, and then I'll go upstairs and spend some time violating the little mechanic I got trussed up in the engine room. I take no pleasure in the thought but she will die weeping if you cross me.”

Simon stares at him, horrified. What kind of a wangba dan would use Kaylee as a bargaining chip? “You're out of you mind,” he diagnoses quietly.

Early shrugs. “That's between me and my mind.”

* * * * *

Now his initial shock has worn off, Simon finds himself getting angry.

“The people you're planning to sell her to cut her up in a lab like this,” he snaps at Early as the bounty hunter scans the infirmary. “Tortured her. A teenage girl.” He doesn't seem to be listening. Simon goes on. “Not some bandit on a murder run, an innocent girl -”

“You ever been shot?” Early interrupts.

In the face of cold indifference, Simon's fire dies back a little. “No.”

“You oughta be shot,” Early declares, making Simon start at the implied threat. But Early continues with his musing. “Or stabbed. Lose a leg. To be a surgeon, you know? Know the kind of pain you're dealing with. They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don't make surgeons get cut on. That seem right to you?”

Oddly, Simon finds himself thinking Mal might have asked the very same question.

* * * * *

Inara doesn't like having her space invaded nor her home treated like it's just another part of the ship. She made that clear to Mal from the very start. She watches with quiet rage as Jubal Early pulls back curtains and looks behind furniture.

“This is pointless. You know that,” she says eventually.

Like he ought to know that. It don't endear her to old Early none. “Two hundred thousand seems fairly pointed to me,” he replies. “Money like that, I could retire. Not that I would. What's life without work?”

Inara decides to try another approach. One that consists of persuading Early his search is futile. “Serenity is a smuggling ship. I've been here a year, I couldn't name all the places she might hide.”

“I don't have a year,” he growls, increasingly irritated by the Companion's manner. Seems to think she don't have to do as he says. That makes him all manner of mad. He turns to Simon. “Your sister's becoming a real annoyance.”

“I feel for you,” Simon replies, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his voice.

Inara admires the medic's spirit. Mal has tormented and humiliated him since the day he first came aboard Serenity and yet has never managed to knock the fight out of him. And Simon will never let Mal have the last word. He may be young and inexperienced, but there's a quiet strength to Doctor Tam that Inara finds appealing. She knows Mal sees it too. It's the reason he offered him sanctuary in the first place. The Captain likes strength – it's weakness and vulnerability that make him afraid.

Early ignores him. Boy's got a smart mouth. No need for Early to go encouraging it. Instead he addresses Inara again. “I'm not gonna waste any time threatening you, because I think you believe I will kill people if someone upsets my plan. I'm gonna seal you in though. You just sit.” Don't want you going nowhere. Your place is here.

“You can still walk away from this. I know you're tired ...”

There ain't much in this 'verse that makes Jubal Early angrier than being told what to do. Especially when it's someone who thinks herself better than him that's doing the telling. He brings the back of his hand and the gun in it down hard across her face to silence her.

Even though the taste of blood is filling Inara's mouth, she still can't believe he actually hit her. He split her lip. And somehow she knew he would. She just didn't know when. Or why. She shrinks back against her pillows, pulling up her covers to conceal her exposed legs from his gaze. “Don't go visiting my intentions,” Early snarls. “Don't ever.”

Don't ever .... don't ever tell me ...

Renci Fozu – they sound exactly the same.

Early is staring at her with something like hatred. As if she has something he wants. “Man is stronger by far than woman,” he remarks, ushering Simon out of the shuttle. “Yet only woman can create a child. Does that seem right to you?”

Good God, Simon thinks to himself, the man wants children! Whatever kind of a father would someone as unbalanced and dangerous as Jubal Early make?

* * * * *

Early's patience is running out. In frustration he declares loudly, “Now I know you're on this ship, little girl, so here's how it goes. You show yourself and we finish this exchange, or your brother's brains'll be flying every which way.” He pauses and directs an apologetic smile at Simon. “You understand, I'm on the clock here, it's frustrating ...”

Cos what the boy don't know – although he oughta be smart enough to work it out – is that Jubal Early ain't the only person like to be going after the reward on River's head. Two hundred thousand's gonna attract all manner of undesirables. Probably including that red-headed whore he picked up a few weeks back. He knows she went through his stuff, used his Cortex link. She may have had the wit to try to cover up the fact, but he could smell her on his things. Her dirty whore scent was everywhere.

“You're wrong, Early,” a disembodied voice tells him.

It takes the bounty hunter a second or two to realize the voice is not in the room but coming over the comm system. “I'm not wrong, dumpling. I will shoot your brother dead if you don't ...”

“Wrong about River,” the voice insists. “River's not on the ship. They didn't want her here but she couldn't make herself leave, so she melted. Melted away.”

Through a fog of pain and confusion the words reach Mal and he stirs. Truth can do that.

“They didn't know she could do that ... but she did.” Early doesn't understand, nor comprehend, so River clarifies. “I'm not on the ship, I'm in the ship. I am the ship.”

Simon doesn't know what to make of this either. Except that his sister is alive somewhere. “River ....”

* * * * *

Even if she weren't bound hand and foot, Kaylee would be paralyzed by fear. She can't even cry. She's all alone and no-one can help her. In the whole of her life, she's never felt so lonely.

“Kaylee?” At first she's not sure whether the voice is real or whether she imagined it. “Kaylee – can you hear me?”

It is real! It's kind an' gentle an' it's River ... an' how can Kaylee speak to River when she betrayed her?


“You're afraid.”

Afraid. An' guilty. It all comes spillin' out. “He tied me up ... I don't know where he came from, he just ... I told him where you were, I'm sorry ... I didn't know what ...”

“Shh. I'm fine,” River tells her, her reassurance wrapping comfort around Kaylee like an embrace. “Only I need you to do something for me. Gotta be brave ...”

Kaylee ain't sure she can be. “I'm tied up. I can't ...”

River dismisses the excuse. “Got tools,” she points out, cutting off further argument. The way the Cap'n does. “Something sharp. I'm right here.”

Some of her confidence seeps into Kaylee and she draws strength from it. Enough to wriggle into a sitting position and start scooting across the engine room floor on her butt in search of a needle file.

* * * * *

“You hurt people,” River or Serenity states calmly. There's no blame in her voice. Just objective assessment.

“Only when the job requires it,” Early qualifies.

“WRONG. You're a bad liar. You crawl inside me uninvited and you hurt my crew. I see all that passes -”

“I only hurt people,” Early interrupts hotly, “Cos they keep getting in the way of finding you!” He jabs his weapon towards Simon. “Tell her!”

Simon raises a bored eyebrow. “What am I, your advocate?”

Early's eyes narrow. “You are starting now.”

Simon tilts his head to one side, as if considering carefully what to say. “He's really very gentle ... and fuzzy. We're becoming fast friends.”

“You folks are all insane!” Early explodes in exasperation.

Simon shrugs and sits on the console. “Well, my sister's a ship. We had a complicated childhood.”

It's all slipping away from him, Early realizes. Reason ain't helping none. Maybe the threat of violence will. “Doesn't anybody care that I have a finally crafted gun pointed at this boy's head?”

Still not sure what in the good gorram is happenin' Mal feels his stomach twist.

“I care,” someone says, an' Mal can't be altogether certain that someone wa'n't him.

River smiles to herself. At last, he's finally admitted it to himself.

“I need you to do me a favour, Captain,” she tells Mal.

“There was a guy,” Mal mumbles, draggin' himself to his feet. “He was very blurry. You gotta be careful ...”

He's afraid – for Simon, for her. That's good. For a while he was lost in the woods, but he's chosen the right path.

Then the oddness sinks into Mal's consciousness. “How come there's a guy? And how come you're all of a sudden the ship?”

It's complicated, Captain. We keep meeting ourselves. That's how it works. River knows he's not ready to follow that line of reasoning. Yet.

“I know you have questions ...”

“Yeah, that'd be why I just asked them,” Mal responds.

“But there isn't a lot of time,” River continues. “Captain, I need you to trust me.”

It's a big deal for him, River knows, to trust her – especially her – when he can't even trust his own self. She waits.

“Am I dreamin'?” Mal asks, cos it seems like the only plausible explanation.

“We all are,” River answers. In her mind she sees him roll his eyes. “Don't make faces.”

He's quiet then and listens to her plan. Agrees it's a good one but there's just one thing botherin' him. “How do you know what this guy's gonna do?”

“I'm very close to him. He doesn't even see it.”

* * * * *

One of the advantages of having empathy hard-wired into your system is the ability to put yourself completely inside another person's head. See the 'verse the way they see it. See the way they see themselves. Mal's head is full of gou shi, River realizes. Blame, guilt, anger – and too much of it turned inwards.

She knows he's listening when she starts talking to Early, knows he'll understand her words. She only hopes he will comprehend.

“It's okay, Early, I'm going with you. Don't belong. Dangerous. Like you. Can't be trusted. Everybody could go on without me, not have to worry. People could be who they wanted to be, be with the people they wanted ... live simple. No secrets.”

She hears Simon's pained 'No' and loves him for it. Wishes he could see what she sees. “I'll be fine. I'll be your bounty Jubal Early. And then I'll just fade away.”

“Well, finally,” Early sighs with relief, “Something goes according to -”

The rest of that sentence is knocked out of him by Simon. They fall to the floor together, wrestling. Simon is determined but Early is bigger, heavier, meaner. And he's armed. He pulls the trigger of his gun and white hot agony bursts into Simon's leg and swells, building and spreading until all there is of him is pain.

River screams.

The sound shatters inside Mal's space helmet and for a second he can't breathe. Can't think. Mustn't think. After, he's sure he'll ...

Early looks down disdainfully at the medic writhing on the floor. “See?” he says, somewhat gratified. “That's what it feels like.” He peers out into the hallway – just in case. No-one. “You just hang on darlin',” he tells River. “Early's on the move.”

He gets all of three yards before Simon hurls himself at him again. The medic even manages to land a few punches before Early beats him off. This time he regards the recumbent body with a something like respect. “Spirited boy.”

“River ...” Simon pleads and even speaking hurts, “Don't let him .. don't let him do this ...”

“Have to,” she says firmly and then, more gently, “Have to.” Have to show him, Simon. Have to let him go so far and no further. Have to make him see he's doesn't have to be this way.

* * * * *

“You made the right move, darlin',” Early assures River. “Best for you to go with old Early.”

The voice that answers him sounds surprised. “You think so? Some of us feel differently.” And Mal certainly does. He don't want to get rid of River. He wants to save her. He was crazy to ever think otherwise. But Early? Well Mal wants him to get the hell off his ship. A hard shove into his chest with both hands and the job is done. Early spins off an' away like so much space trash.

Mal takes a deep breath. “Zoe?” he begins. “The Doc ..?”

“In the infirmary, Sir,” she answers, her voice calm and steadying. “Just a leg wound.”

Mal is almost shakin' with relief. He hopes the crackle of the comm system will stop Zoe from hearing it in his voice.

“No new orifices for keeping his clean hanky in then?” he asks.

“Just the usual places, Sir,” Zoe reassures him.

Mal thinks he heard her smile.

He looks up an' River is drifting back down onto Serenity's hull, fallin' towards him like an Autumn leaf in the wind. Soft as gossamer and just as strong. Biosteel, like her brother. “Permission to come aboard?” she asks formally.

Behind his mylar visor, Mal smiles. “You know, you ain't quite right.”

River smiles back. After all, she's seen inside his head. “It's the popular theory.”

“Get on in there. And give your brother a thrashin' for messin' up your plan,” Mal only half-jokes. He's feelin' strangely angry at Simon for havin' got himself shot. The boy could've been killed. Needs someone to explain the seriousness of that to him.

River shakes her head indulgently. “He takes so much looking after.”

* * * * *

Mal stands in the infirmary doorway with Inara. He wants to be sure Zoe can remove the bullet lodged in Simon's thigh, but he don't feel calm enough to get that close to the boy yet. Gotta cool down some first.

“You got the bullet,” he hears Simon tell Zoe. “Okay, I'm gonna pass out for a minute, but you're doing great.”

Mal can't help but smile. Simon Tam's got a real nice way of leadin' and gettin' shot in the leg don't seem to have affected that smart mouth too badly.

Mal turns to Inara. “So, we live to fight another day.”

“Any chance that xiong meng de kuangren might survive?” she asks.

Mal shrugs. “Air he had left, chance'd be one in about ... a very big number. Ain't odds I'd play.” She smiles grimly and the light on her face shifts, makin' the cut on her lip stand out. It's ironic, when Mal's tried so hard to avoid her ever gettin' hurt like that. “How's your lip?” he asks, reachin' out a hand so he can steady her face whilst he examines the injury.

Inara pulls back and a look passes between them.

She knows. An' now Mal knows she knows.

She turns an' he lets her go, knowin' in his heart that before long she'll be gone for good.

He hopes at least they can part as friends.

* * * * *

It's late now, but Simon can't sleep. The analgesic he self-administered an hour ago has made him light-headed but hasn't alleviated the throbbing pain in his thigh at all. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the medcot is unbelievably hard.

Mal can't sleep either. It don't matter none that Jubal Early's gone now. He managed to board Serenity without Mal knowin' about it an' tha's shaken Mal's confidence in his belief that at least on Serenity everythin's under his control. An' it's makin' him real twitchy.

So he decides to do another round of the ship jus' to be sure there ain't no other stowaways.

Mal's boots ring out on the metal staircase and he pops his head around the infirmary door. “You still awake?” he asks Simon.

The medic pulls a face. “It would seem so. Although it's been a strange day. Maybe it was all a dream. In fact, perhaps I'm dreaming now.”

Mal grins. “Don't you go getting' all philosophical on me, Doc. Bad enough havin' to listen to your sister. You hang on there. I'll go get somethin' for what ails you.” And he disappears again.

Simon waits. And waits. Minutes pass. He's not sure how many. It feels like a lot. Eventually he decides Mal isn't coming back. He also decides he's not spending another second on this medcot. Wipe-clean plastic surfaces only seem like a good idea when you're the doctor. When you're the patient, you realize they've been designed for the sole purpose of making you sweat to death.

Wincing at the pain shooting up and down his leg, Simon slithers out of bed, determined to get dressed and into his own bunk.

Mal returns, bearin' a bottle of engine-room wine he was hopin' might take the edge off their insomnia, to the surprisin' sound of Doctor Tam cursin' like a welder. “Hey - what ...?”

“Shit and damn and rutting hell,” Simon hisses, stumbling back into the medcot yet again. Whoever would have thought getting sleep pants on could be so difficult? His injured leg just won't do what he wants. Whether that's because of the pain or those damnably ineffective drugs he can't tell. “Tamade!”

Mal strides into the room, heart hammerin' an' ready to use the bottle in his hand as a weapon if he has to. Why's the boy out of bed? Is he tryin' to run from someone? Mal looks about the room quickly. Nothin' untoward. He moves round to Simon's side of the bed, forcing himself to sound calm. “You got a problem, Doc?”

It must be the pain that makes Simon snap, “A problem? Let me see – oh yes! - I've been shot in the leg. And now I can't get these -” he shakes the pants angrily -”on.”

Mal gaze shifts from Simon's irritated expression to the garment in his fist. His eyes travel down to the tight grey t-shirt he's wearin' and down further to ... Whoa – flesh! He turns away quickly. “Best you get back under the covers then,” he suggests, aimin' for nonchalance but soundin' spooked. He puts the bottle down on the counter. Best not start drinkin' with a half-naked man. Best not start drinkin' with Simon Tam at all.

“I am not getting back in that bed,” Simon tells him firmly, “and the next time we visit a half-way civilized planet we're going to be upgrading this infirmary.”

We? Mal wonders. “Okay,” he says, still not turnin' round cos a man can only stand so much temptation. “How about you get yourself dressed an' when you're decent, I'll see you to your bunk?”

Simon's battle with his pants is a lengthy one and more than once he lets out a little groan of pain, but Mal keeps his eyes fixed resolutely on the doorframe. When at last Simon is no longer half-naked, he takes a tentative step towards the door, lets out a howl of pain and nearly collapses.

Mal catches him. “I said I'd help. That bullet affect your hearin'?”

“I can manage,” Simon retorts, not liking this feeling of helplessness one little bit. Especially not this close to Mal. He shoves the Captain away and tries to walk again, with the same result.

He can't walk an' somehow Mal can't picture Simon Tam crawlin'. An' when you can't do that, you find someone to carry you. Looks like Simon found Mal.

“Here – though why you gotta be so ruttin' obstinate...” Mal says an' before Simon can object, he scoops him up in his arms. “Whoa!” Boy's heftier than he looks, Mal realizes as his biceps protest against the sudden burden. He's also warm an' muscled an' ... tian a – this was a stupid idea, Reynolds.

Simon is caught by surprise. His arms are clinging onto Mal's neck for support without him knowing how they got there and his cheek is resting against Mal's collar bone. He looks up into Mal's face and something passes between them. Something intoxicating. Simon's breathing speeds up a touch. “I think you should put me down ...” he says quietly. “I'm too heavy.”

“No you ain't,” Mal declares, tryin' his hardest to keep his entire blood supply from headin' south. It's only a few steps from the infirmary to the medic's bunk. Carryin' him that far ain't like to break Mal. Leastways, not physically.

He sits Simon down on the bed. Suddenly the silence of the ship feels oppressive an' – gorramit- Mal can't think of a single safe thing to say.

“Thank you.” Simon offers.

Mal shuffles his feet. “You're welcome.” He stands up straighter, tryin' for Captain-y. “Now, you get some sleep or you'll be no good to ...”

There's something almost tangible in the air between them, a solid connection that encourages Simon to be bold.

“You could stay,” he suggests. Permission to come aboard.

Mal blinks. “No. I cou'n't. I ...” Ain't quite right

“Please.” Some of us feel differently.

“Can't.” I'll just melt away.

Simon reaches out and grabs a handful of Mal's shirt. It's the blue one. The soft, worn blue one he's been wanting to touch for months. All it takes is a sharp tug on it and Mal is leaning forward, his face inches from Simon's.

“Mal ...” Some of us have grown attached ...

Simon's fingertips alight on Mal's cheek and send his nerve endin's into overdrive. The tinglin' radiates into his mouth, fizzin' over his tongue and ticklin' down his throat. His heart's gotta be pumpin' loud enough for Simon to hear an' every bit of him is screamin' with the need to do somethin'. Anythin'. Fight, run, take, have ... only don't jus' stand there.

Then there's a hand grippin' his shoulder an' another cuppin' the back of his head an' he's droppin' to his knees an' fallin' into that mouth again where everythin's as hot an' wet an' sweet as he remembers. Tongue meets tongue, teeth clash an' lips bruise against each other. And it's wonderful.

Mal pulls away, breathin' heavily. Simon's breaths are comin' in short, laboured pants too an' when Mal looks deep into his eyes, only thing he sees there is “Yes”. Desire ripples through him along with somethin' he ain't felt in a damn long time: happiness.

“Gorramit, Simon Tam ...” he breathes, “What in the name of suoyou de dou shidang are you tryin' to do to me?”

Simon makes room for him on the bed. His eyes twinkle. “I'd've thought that was pretty obvious, Captain. I'm trying to seduce you.”

Still kneeling beside the bed, Mal shakes his head. “Don't think I ain't flattered, but you ain't up to seduction tonight. You've been shot, remember?”

Simon's face falls, makin' Mal feel all manner of mean, until one corner of the Doc's mouth lifts into a wicked grin. “Actually I was planning on you doing most of the work,” Simon admits with a little laugh.

“Oh, you were, were you? An' I'd be doin' that because ..?”

“Well, you are the Captain.”

An' suddenly Mal can't think of any good reason why he shou'n't do this. Jus' gotta stay in control, is all. It ain't like he'd be takin' advantage because he does care for the boy.

He sits on the bed, removes his boots and then stretches out, drawin' Simon gently against him so as not to hurt his injured leg.

Simon notices the care Mal's taking and impossibly, falls just a little bit more in love with him as a result. He wraps both arms around him and kisses him again – harder, deeper, longer – making Mal moan softly into his mouth.

“Clothes,” Simon gasps, pulling away and dragging Mal's suspenders down his arms. “Too many of them.”

“You ain't wrong,” Mal agrees hoarsely. He pushes Simon's t-shirt up under his chin and bends his head, flickin' his tongue over Simon's nipples.

Simon closes his eyes, almost swooning with pleasure. And then Mal's hand is slipping under the waistband of his sleep-pants and all Simon can think of is how badly he wants that hand to close around him. His breath hitches in his throat as he resists the urge to beg.

Mal's fingers curl into a firm grip around him and Simon loses himself to Mal's exquisitely slow rhythm. His head arches back into the pillow, his hips jerk up from the bed and his hands claw at the sheets.

“'m'I doin' it right?” Mal whispers into his ear, already knowin' the answer, but when Simon presses his lips together and nods vigorously it makes Mal all manner of happy. He quickens his pace - addin' an occasional twist an' sometimes lettin' Simon feel his nails - and Simon begins makin' incoherent little noises. His eyes are glazed an' unfocused. He's gettin' close, Mal can see it on his face, hear it in the way the little noises turn into whimperin'.


Where in the diyu is he? There's blood an' screamin' an' fear an' Mal's powerless to stop it. All of a sudden everythin's spinnin' and he's spinnin' with it. An' the only thing he can hear is that gorram pitiful whimperin'. He has to make it stop, get it over with – shut the stupid bitch's mouth.

Simon's eyes fly open as Mal yanks his hand away so sharply it hurts. Looming above him, Mal is staring down at him with a mixture of anger, hate and despair. The hand that seconds ago was speeding him towards ecstasy, is now raised ready to strike him.

“Mal?” Simon asks fearfully.

Mal's only response is to grab his shoulder tightly and bring the back of his hand down hard across Simon's stunned face. He barely has time to register the pain before Mal is draggin' his pants off, heedless of Simon's injury and unbuttoning his own, his face contorted into a mask of grim determination. Simon tries to struggle, but Mal is too strong for him. He has Simon pinned and vulnerable. “Shoulda fought, gorramit!” he growls, biting down hard on Simon's neck.

Across the hallway, River shrieks.

And Serenity echoes her alarm. No – wait, that's a real alarm. The proximity alarm.

Mal blinks and shakes his head, glancing rapidly about as if trying to get his bearings.

What in the good gorram is he doin' in Simon's room? An' why is the boy's bottom lip bleedin'? Oh. No. He can't've ...Aiya huaile.

“Mal!” Wash's voice over the comm is frantic. “Mal – where are you? We need you up on the bridge – ma shang. Looks like we got more company.”

Mal darts a look at Simon. Wants to tell him he doesn't know why ... that he can't remember ... that this shouldn't have happened ... it didn't with Nandi ... but the medic shakes his head. “Go,” he says and, after a brief regretful hesitation, Mal races out of the room.

River is standing in the hallway. “Software can be over-written,” she tells him cryptically, and though he understands the words, he doesn't comprehend. He hurries on, taking the stairs two at a time.

River goes to sit beside her bewildered brother. Her fingers flutter around his latest injury without making contact. “Been going round the prickly pear,” she says, like it's some sort of explanation.

“What?” Simon asks. “What are you talking about, mei-mei?”

“The way the world ends.”

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen


Friday, April 22, 2005 6:31 AM


So much to admire and enjoy in this story though I was mightily disturbed towards the end when Mal started to get violent with Simon even going so far as hitting him. The suggestion that had the alarm not sounded he would have raped him is all kinds of disturbing and I can only hope River will find a way to put his broken mind together enough for the context to straighten him out. Like a normal man. Absolutely loved the way you intercut 'Objects in Space' with River's thoughts and so many tantalising asides. River is glorious and most definitely the key. I hope you don't send the Captain so far off into the bitter dark that there can be no redeeming him. Can't wait to find out what happens next. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, April 22, 2005 8:33 AM


...not with a bang but a whimper. Huh. I'll spend a moment getting all redundant with the 'amazings', 'brilliants', and 'remarkables'. It's gonna take me another read through to digest all the complexity and insights in this (amazing, brilliant, remarkable) chapter, but one initial comment: Nice job doing a sex scene while avoiding the naming of parts!!

Friday, April 22, 2005 1:08 PM


GAH!!!! Always leaving us hanging! And I agree with Guildsister, nice sex scene! Excellanté thing to read on a friday!

Rock on you shexney writer you!

Sunday, April 24, 2005 3:31 AM


Loved the way you turned the whole episode around from how I've been seeing it to how you've been re-interpreting the series. Utterly brilliant and insightful. Sure hope you keep this going.

Monday, April 25, 2005 9:04 AM


Your reworking of this ep is outstanding. I'm impressed with your ability to put River's perspective into words and still make it meaningful. And I love the Mal-Simon relationship throughout the piece - up to the point where Mal hits him. I'm just not sure why he'd do that if he was really in love with Simon. It's disturbing to me. Other than that, it's outstanding work.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 7:22 PM


WHOA....I just read the rest of the series. NOW I understand. Very scary, and very moving. Good stuff! I'm sure you know that already, though!


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HOLDING ON: Ch 2 - Tangential
Much to his annoyance, Sanzo's urgent quest to find Goku gets diverted. Meanwhile Mal meets someone from Inara's past. WARNING - slashy but not graphic

The Wheel Never Stops Turning
Mal meets a blonde in a bar. Violence ensues. And Mal discovers religion has its uses.

This is primariy a <i>Firefly</i> fic, but the character Mal ends up doing a job for is from the manga/anime <i>Saiyuki</i>. It's also <b>PG-13 nothing-explicit SLASH</b>. Because that's who I am!

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 7: 'til the day you die.
Inara leaves Serenity for a new life. Mal gets a job with a couple of new employers, but sinks further into despair.
Slash so lite you'll probably scarcely notice it.

MAKE ME A STONE: Chapter 6: You just learn to live there.
Another job goes less than smoothly. Meanwhile River takes matters into her own hands and Mal has a brainwave.

SLASHFIC. SPOILERS for the comics, novelization and movie.

Make Me A Stone: Chapter 5: Chickens come home to roost.
Mal has to accept Badger's offer of a job. Meanwhile old enemies seek to take advantge.
Spoilers for the comics. Very light slash.

Make Me A Stone: Chapter 4. Some residual heat.
SPOILERS for the comics/BDM. Mal has to accept Badger's job offer. Not much else in his life is going right either.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 3: It's complicated.
Mal decides to pull a job of his own. Simon offers to help. It doesn't go smooth - but that's not entirely Simon's fault.

Non-graphic SLASH.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 2: And who exactly could fix you?
Simon'a altruism leads to a job going wrong. Mal's not happy.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 1: Pray there ain't any more surprises.
Warning: SLASH, but not graphic. Mal and Simon both find that the other has hidden talents. It kinda piques their interest ... *g*

TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 23. Two by two.
Four years have past since Mal was forced to blow up Serenity and Simon disappeared with River and Book. A lot has changed since then. But a lot has stayed the same. The CONCLUSION to this series.