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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ROMANCE
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.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2029 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
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TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 23
Two by two.
Many, many thanks to wedjateye for fabulous beta-ing, nit-picking and support.
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Author's note – For some reason this doesn't feel like the right place to post graphic slash. For that reason, I have abridged this chapter. But also I think the sex scene is actually fairly central to the characters' development. If you feel like reading the full story, it's here:
Otherwise – just read on.
And if you missed the beginning it's here
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TRAUMA MEDICINE. Chapter 23. (Conclusion)
Two by two.
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Her head has slumped forwards onto the edge of the bed an' there's a trace of drool glistenin' at one corner of her mouth. Her normally neat an' combed hair's all over the place.
Inara don't look nothin' like a perfect Companion this mornin' but to Mal she's never looked more beautiful than she does in this moment, nor more real.
He hates to have to wake her.
She doesn't stir. Not surprisin' seein' as she ain't been to bed – ain't hardly slept at all – for nigh on a week. Been keepin' watch at Tian Shi Di Li's bedside ever since the child fell sick.
Mal looks at the little girl's ashen face. Eyes as blue as her father's look back at him. Wo de tian, Mal loves this kid somethin' fierce. Makes his heart ache to see her suffer.
“Belly still sore, little one?”
She nods, her features tight with pain, too tired to cry any more.
Not for the first time in the past four years, Mal curses their lack of a medic.
The first time – that is, the first time he did so out loud – was about two months after Simon's departure.
They were on Hestia, workin' as casual labourers. Pay wa'n't bad. Enough to live on an' set a little aside. Which they all did. Even Jayne. An' if Mal had been surprised when the mercenary insisted on contributin' to the new boat fund, he'd been gorram stunned when Jayne went on to say he knew his coin wou'n't buy him a say in how she was run nor any right not to abide by Mal's rule. Stunned, but heartened. Made Mal think that maybe things di'n't always have to fall apart. An' that perhaps even if they did get broke, they could be put back together.
So they worked an' saved an' somehow all stayed together.
There were worse places in the 'verse to be than Hestia. Good air, temperate climate, even if it wa'n't exactly civilized. The locals were friendly enough. Leastways they were 'til, in the saloon one payday evenin', Jayne started objectin' to the way one of the young fellas was lookin' at Kaylee. What started out as a bar-room brawl ended up a gunfight in the street. Jayne mighta stood a better chance if'n he'd chosen to pick a fight when he was sober – but then, he never was much of a thinker. As it was, he was too drunk to defend himself an' got shot plum between the legs. Shoulda heard him holler!
Mal managed to smooth things over, get folks to put their pistols away an' not run him an' his out of town, then he an' Wash dragged Jayne backed to their rented cottage so Mal an' Zoe could patch him up. A job that involved Mal gettin' more acquainted with Jayne's man parts than he had any desire to be.
Mal's curse that day was pretty specific. Personal an' vicious. Even Zoe, who was removin' what was left of Jayne's right gaowan at the time, blanched when Mal started elaboratin' on exactly what he'd like to befall Simon ruttin' Tam.
But as the months an' years went on an' semi-permanent residence on Hestia gave way to a spell in the factories on Paquin and another in the mines on Beylix, Mal's curses became milder an' more generalized. Simon's name stopped comin' up an' everyone but Zoe assumed the Captain wa'n't thinkin' on him no more.
'Nara certainly did. Musta. Why else would she've taken him to her bed?
“'Nara.” Mal gives her shoulder a little shake. “Time to wake up.”
“Hmmm?” She snuffles into semi-consciousness, blinks, realizes with shame that she must have fallen asleep and quickly pulls herself upright in her chair. “Mal, I ...”
“Ain't no need for sorry,” he tells her firmly before she can get the word out. “Jus' came to let you know we'll be makin' planetfall on Horus within the hour.”
“Renci Fozu,” she sighs with relief. “Xie-xie, Mal.”
“Takin' the mule,” Mal informs her unnecessarily in an attempt conceal how awkward her bein' beholden to him still makes him feel. “Seems Tian-Shi ain't the only one needs doctorin'.”
Inara smiles up at him, placing her hand over his. “Well, it's been a long time ...”
“That it has.” Fourteen hundred and seventy-five days. Not that Mal's been countin'.
Inara's smile don't waver none nor dim, makin' Mal wonder which one of 'em's better at maskin' their feelin's these days.
He lifts her hand gently from his an' pulls away. “I'll go get the others.”
At the sound of a key turning in the lock, Simon looks up anxiously from his book, listening for the sound of River's voice. Even after all these years, he still frets when she leaves the house without him.
“Orange and tangerine are not the same,” he hears her declare passionately. “There are nuances. Differences of meaning.”
“If you say so,” Roger concedes in a weary tone, having long ago learnt the folly of debating with Simon's sister when she's in this mood.
They enter the sitting room together, Roger carrying several large bags full of fresh produce and River juggling three balls of orange wool.
“Have you been there all afternoon?” Roger teases Simon with a grin. “Must be a good book.”
“Poetry. From the twentieth century on Earth-that-was,” Simon tells his partner, getting guiltily to his feet. It's not like him to spend so much time doing nothing. “Tea?”
“Sit.” Roger presses him gently back into the worn but serviceable armchair. “You don't always have to be doing for other people, Simon. Relax. Go back to your reading. I'll make the tea.”
“Okay,” Simon agrees with what he hopes is a grateful smile. Because – honestly? - he'd prefer to be doing something. This book, and this poem in particular, have unsettled him.
But he turns the page and pretends to read. Sometimes it's better not to rock the boat.
“There was a Firefly berthed down at the docks,” Roger calls in from the kitchen over the clatter of stoneware beakers and plates. “River tells me that's the sort you used to fly in.”
Simon freezes. It takes him a good five seconds to respond. “Uh – yes – yes, we did. It was a long time ago.”
“This one's a shaker,” River laughs, tossing one of the balls of wool high into the air and deliberately not catching it. “Not an aught-three. No extenders.”
“Oh,” Simon says, strangely disappointed by this piece of information. For a moment there ...
River winks at him. “Still flying though.”
“It didn't look much,” Roger remarks conversationally as he returns with a tray of tea and biscuits. “Can't imagine you on a boat like that, Simon. You like the comforts of home too much.”
“Home is where the heart is,” River points out, snatching up the whole plateful of biscuits and retiring to a seat in the corner of the room.
“Yes, it is,” Simon says crisply, taking a sip of tea. “And ours is here.”
Roger glances at him out of the corner of his eye.
Simon takes another small sip from his beaker.
“Got a look at the nameplate,” Roger continues. “Demeter.”
“Must have been four, not six,” River suggests indistinctly around a mouthful of biscuit crumbs.
Aware that the others are waiting for him to say something, although he can't think what, Simon murmurs “Hmm. Really?” before falling silent again.
Tick, tock. The second hand on the mantlepiece clock completes its orbit in one minute. The minute hand takes longer but eventually they both come to the same place.
River smiles sadly to herself.
“Busy night tonight,” Roger says eventually. “Every appointment taken. I hate long nights.”
“That's where we differ,” Simon replies with a warm smile. “I like being busy.”
And he does. Because work occupies the mind, stills the restless heart.
A ball of wool catches him on the cheekbone, making him jump and nearly spill his tea. “River!”
“Be careful what you wish for,” she warns with a grin.
Arms outstretched, Warren Washburn goes careening around the cargo bay, mimicking the sound of engines on take-off.
“Hope can't do this!” he declares giddily.
“She sure can't!” Kaylee laughs, givin' the baby in her arms a little squeeze and plantin' a big kiss on her fat dimpled cheek. “Gorgeous, ain't she, baobei?” she asks in an aside to Jayne when she realizes he's watchin' her. “Don't ya jus' wanna take a bite out of her?”
The mercenary grunts. Oughta be her own child Kaylee's cradlin', not one of Wash's. It ain't right that a little man like that's fathered two kids whereas Jayne ain't managed even one. Gotta be somethin' wrong down there - whatever Mal says about Monty havin' spawned a whole passel of bastards despite sufferin' the self same, uh, unbalanced condition as Jayne.
“Warren, honey ...” Zoe's calm tone is a mite frayed round the edges, her patience wearing thin. “Warren! Leave those buttons alone! You know what Captain Mal will do, he catches you touchin' those?”
Warren comes to a stumbling halt in front of his mother. He shakes his dark, curly head. “No, momma.”
“He'll box your ears.”
The three year old's eyes go as wide as saucers as a sudden vision of his ears, sliced off and stuffed into a packing crate fills his head.
“Be more'n a mite grateful if you wa'n't always paintin' me some kinda bogeyman to keep your wayward offspring in line,” Mal grumbles as Warren shrinks behind his mother's legs on seein' him approach. “When you ever know me to box anyone's ears anyhow?”
Zoe an' Kaylee exchange a look.
A look which Inara's arrival with Tian-Shi allows Mal to pretend he di'n't notice.
“Here – let me,” he offers, takin' the child in his arms an' liftin' her carefully up onto a doubled over quilt on the back of the mule. Inara climbs up next to her, whilst Zoe straps Warren into his seat. Kaylee reluctantly hands Hope back to her mother an' Mal gets behind the wheel.
Jayne is hoverin' in front of the mule, clearly with somethin' on his mind.
“Gonna get outa the way sometime soon?” Mal complains. “Or you got a yearnin' for flatness?”
“Was thinkin' of comin' with ya,” the mercenary mumbles.
Mal blinks at him. “It ain't shore leave, Jayne. It's medical. Straight to the clinic an' back again, dong ma?”
Jayne clambers up into the back beside Inara.
“I said -” Mal begins, but Jayne cuts him off.
“I'm comin' with ya, Mal. Kids ain't the only ones in need of a medic.”
Simon and Roger always walk to work. When the weather's fine, as it is this evening, they cut through the fields between the cottage and the health centre, following the hedgerows that separate one farmer's rice crop from his neighbour's. On rainy days, they take the long way round, through streets of modest housing and small shops. It rains a lot on Horus. Each new world has its terraforming quirks and frequent heavy rain is Horus'.
Simon doesn't mind the rain. It makes sunny days extra special.
Besides, Horus has many advantages. It's close enough to the civilizing influence of the Core to have a law-abiding and reasonably well-educated population. There are bookshops and schools and even small theatres and restaurants. Much to her delight, River has discovered other people who are interested in dance.
Meanwhile Horus is also far enough away from the Core to be of little interest to the Alliance. As long as the population remains industrious and obedient, it is unlikely to be overrun with feds.
And of course, there's Simon's work. Honest, decent work looking after honest, decent people. People whom he respects and who respect him. There are worse ways to live.
“You're very quiet,” Roger comments suddenly. “Are you okay?”
Simon smiles at the concern in the other's man hazel eyes. Yes – there are worse ways to live than this and worse men to work for. Simon's lucky to have found Roger. He's intelligent, caring, open and inclusive. He values Simon's opinion. Treats him as an equal, not a hired hand. And there's an easy warmth between them that Simon hadn't even realized was missing from his life before.
“I'm fine,” he assures his partner, clapping him on the back. “Fine.”
“How long has she been like this?” the triage nurse frowns as she notes Tian-Shi's temperature.
“About a week,” Inara tells her. “I thought it was a cold at first, then she developed a fever-”
“This child don't see a doc soon, I'm gonna get a mite tetchy,” Mal interjects, letting the edge of his coat fall back so that the nurse catches a glimpse of his pistol.
“Mal!” Inara hisses.
“What?” He recoils, offended an' points out in a loud undertone “I was tryin' to help!”
Completely unintimidated or even noticeably surprised, the nurse goes to fetch a wheelchair. She helps Inara into it and settles Tian-Shi on her lap, asking, with a mildly disapproving look at Mal, “Would you like your husband to come with you?”
“Partners are welcome too,” the nurse says soothingly. No point in antagonizing this man if she doesn't have to.
“He's not ...” Inara says again, but softer and sadder this time.
Because she and Mal have never been partners. They have despised each other, tormented and loved each other, but they have never been partners. Not in the sense of sharing their deepest feelings or turning to each other for advice and support. Mal has always been the leader and Inara has always refused to follow.
Mal clears his throat an' takes a step back. “Uh - might be best I wait here.”
Inara nods an' Mal watches as she an' Tian-Shi are wheeled away. There's always been a distance between him an' Inara. Even durin' those few short months they were lovers. Even in bed. Even when Mal was in her.
Cos Inara makes love like she does everythin' else – perfectly. All smoothness an' no rough edges. Nothin' for a man to hold onto. Afterwards, when Mal was spent an' his blood went back to runnin' slow an' unfevered again, he cou'n't remember a single moment when she'd been been abandoned or out of control. Nor a single second when it felt like she was his an' his alone.
He smiles regretfully to himself. 'Nara ain't no better at surrender than he is.
“Here he comes now!” he hears Zoe warn Warren as he walks over to join her in the seating area. The little boy immediately scrabbles back up onto the red plastic chair to his mother's left and assumes an expression of cherubic innocence.
Mal takes the seat on Zoe's right an' surveys the busy waitin' room. “Gorramit,” he grumbles. “Could be a long borin' wait.” He picks up a week-old news bulletin from the low table in front of him an' scans it half-heartedly.
A door in need of oilin' opens an' a precise, polite voice calls “Mr Johnson? Mr Thomas Johnson?”
Mal's head snaps up at the sound of that voice an' everythin' starts playin' in slow motion. A corpulent, middle-aged fella in a striped suit an' garish tie rises slowly from his seat. The doctor opens his door further to let his patient into the consultin' room ...
...an' suddenly everythin's runnin' fast – way too fast. Mal is out of his seat, across the room an' shovin' the businessman out of the way. He's got ahold of the doctor an' is pushin' him into his room, slammin' the door shut behind them. In the distance, Mal's vaguely aware of Zoe's voice insistin' there's been an emergency an' of the way the disgruntled murmurs of the other patients subside.
But most of his attention's on the doctor.
Oh God! He's alive! Mal's alive and well and he's here and Simon can hardly believe it!
However, his initial reaction of surprise and delight is quickly being replaced by confusion and then anger as he finds himself being propelled roughly backwards. When the hard edge of his desk catches him just above the back of his knees a curse escapes him and he snatches at Mal's shirt in an attempt to stay on his feet.
It doesn't work because Mal immediately releases his grip on Simon's upper arms and brings both of his hands up between Simon's, breaking their lock on his shirt front and forcing them out to the side. Simon falls back awkwardly onto the desk, dislodging a pile of patient notes onto the floor as Mal grabs him by the throat and pins him down.
For a second or two they glare at each other - eyes blazing, breathing heavily. At length Simon recovers himself enough to sneer “I take it the anger management classes are going well? For God's sake, Mal! This is ridiculous. Let me go.”
The hand on his throat presses down harder.
Mal's thought about what it'd be like to run into Simon again more times than he cares to admit, but never once did he imagine it like this. Never dreamt that seein' Simon again would unleash this torrent of rage an' hurt. All the excuses he made for Simon – the way he told himself he was right to put his sis first, that he'da done the same thing his own self, that Simon probably believed that goushi about his leavin' bein' of benefit to Mal - are swept away now he sees that Simon's rebuilt a life without him. Doin' pretty well too, if this fancy table an' the rest of his furniture are anythin' to go by. It's abundantly clear now that Simon never needed him.
Mal's hands tremble with the urge to hurt Simon back.
“Let me go right now,” Simon manages to choke out, wondering what the hell this is all about. Seconds ago he wanted to embrace this man, tell him how much he's missed him, kiss him over and over again. Now he's experiencing a strong desire to punch him. “If you don't let me up, I'll start screaming and yelling and-”
“Point of interest-” Mal interrupts, leanin' in closer, his breath hot against Simon's face, “offerin' to scream might not work so well as an incentive as you think.”
He pulls back enough to let his eyes travel slowly down the front of Simon's body, addin' darkly, “I ain't forgotten what a scream from you sounds like. Nor how to get one out of you.”
Runnin' his free hand up the length of Simon's thigh an' over the front of his pants, he's gratified to feel heat an' hardness beneath his palm.
Simon catches his breath.
“Looks like you ain't forgotten neither,” Mal observes, easin' the pressure on Simon' windpipe a touch. He's still buzzin' with anger but knowin' Simon ain't entirely indifferent to his presence takes the edge off some. Makes him feel more in control, less vulnerable.
Simon flushes. Mostly with annoyance at the suggestion of a smirk playing at the corners of Mal's mouth. “That is an autonomic response to adrenalin,” he blusters, trying not to look at that mouth, nor remember the feel of it, “which, as I'm sure even you know, is the chemical which prepares the body for flight or fight. It is released in response to a threatening situation.”
“Really?” Mal stares into Simon's eyes for a while, assessin'. “You don't look to be much threatened from where I'm standin'. A mite desperate, mayhap ...”
He's smirking openly now and Simon can't let him get away with it.
“I'm not the one throwing people onto tables,” he points out acidly. “ If anyone's desperate” - he insinuates a hand between Mal's legs and gives a triumphant little laugh.- “it would appear to be you.”
Wo de ma – Mal's missed this. Missed Simon's refusal to be cowed an' the way he's always got some smart-ass come-back. Missed the feel of him too, the smell of him ... Gorramit! Mal's supposed to be mad at the boy. Furious with him for runnin' out on him like that. Not achin' to drag him out of here an' back to his bunk.
Mal's dangerously close to givin' in to that ache when a side door into the room opens an' a tall, sandy-haired fellow enters.
“Simon, I've got an appendicectomy for you ...” he begins but is brought up short by the sight that greets him – that of Simon, pinned to his table by a man almost twice his size. “What the hell?”
Simon turns his head to the side to see Roger gaping at him in horror. Poor, gentle Roger. He looks terrified.
“It's all right,” Simon assures him. “I can handle this.”
“You can?” Roger sounds unconvinced. He's clearly wondering if he ought to be calling the sheriff.
“Yes. I know this man. He's an old ...” Simon looks back up at Mal and half smiles “An old friend.”
“He is?” Roger asks doubtfully.
“Yep,” Mal tells him firmly with a so-there kinda smile, finally lettin' go of Simon, who gets back to his feet and quickly straightens his clothing.
Mal strides over to invade Roger's personal space. “An' you are?”
Roger swallows. “I'm .. I'm Simon's partner.”
Mal blinks. He stares disbelievingly at the pale freckled face in front of him, then shakes his head as if to clear a deeply unpleasant image from him mind.
“Partner,” he echoes, rollin' the word over his tongue an' not likin' the taste of it one bit.
“Yes,” Simon confirms and starts making the introductions. “Mal – this is Roger, my partner. Roger, I'd like you to meet Mal – Malcolm Reynolds.”
Roger extends a nervous hand. “Pleased to-”
He doesn't get to the end of his sentence because all of a sudden, Mal turns on his heel and stalks out of the room, slammin' the consultin' room shut with a loud bang.
Outside, Zoe is waiting nearby.
Mal scowls at her. “What?”
“Did you tell him, Sir?”
“Tell him what exactly?”
“That you want him to come back.”
Mal folds his arms defiantly across his chest. “No, I most definitely did not.”
Zoe rolls her eyes. “Don't take this the wrong way, Sir but” a beat “you're an idiot.”
Leaving Zoe to catch up on some sleep after a restless night worrying about the kids having a bad reaction to their inoculations, Wash creeps as quietly out of their bunk as he can and heads straight for the kitchen and the coffee pot.
Mal's already there, glaring at the contents of his mug as if they've just disobeyed a direct order.
Wash decides to ignore his obvious ill humour.
“What a coincidence, eh?” he remarks cheerfully, filling a mug of his own and stirring in a spoonful of sugar. “Of all the doctors' surgeries in all of the 'verse, you walk into Simon's! Some folk might think a higher power was at work.”
“Then they'd be dumbasses,” Mal scowls, wishin' he'd taken his drink back to his bunk. He ain't in the mood for this. “Ain't no higher power. Leastways, not one that's interested in the likes of us.”
Looks like Zoe was right. Mal's chance encounter with Simon's had the exact opposite effect from the one Wash would've predicted. Hunting through the food lockers for a style of protein pack that might serve as breakfast, Wash wonders why – because, according to his wife, the good doctor looked like all his Christmases had come at once when he set eyes on Mal.
“How're we off for fuel?” Mal asks as the bubbles on the surface of his coffee burst one by one. “Cos I reckon we might take that job of Monty's on Greenleaf. 'Nara said it shou'n't be more than a couple of days before Tian-Shi'll be able to travel.”
Ah. Now Wash understands.
“You could always ask him to come with us - offer him his old job back,” he suggests. “It's not like we couldn't use a medic. When Jayne loses a body part it's all good wacky fun, but next time it could be you.” He pauses and a horrible possibility occurs to him. “Or me.”
“He's got a nice little life where he is, thank you very much,” Mal replies, wincin' at the bitterness he can't keep out of his voice. “All respectable an' appropriate. He wou'n't come back to this.”
Wash plonks a bowlful of pinky-grey mush down on the table. “I think he might, Mal. For you. If you asked him nicely enough.”
Mal's eyes narrow. “I ain't beggin'.”
“Ask – I said ask, not beg. Who said anything about begging?”
Afraid he's given away too much already, Mal just grunts an' hopes Wash'll take the hint an' leave him in peace.
It doesn't work. Wash is given to musing, and musing out loud at that.
“It's amazing how far a few sweet words can get you, Mal. How d'you think me an' Zoe've lasted this long? Sometimes all it takes is saying the right thing, the thing they want to hear-”
“That's the difference between you an' me, Wash. I say a thing – I mean it.”
The sky is so dark a storm must be imminent, Simon thinks as he makes his way back home after ward rounds and morning surgery. His hands are stuffed deep into his pockets and head is bowed down against the driving rain. It's cold and there's water trickling down the back of his neck, seeping into his shirt, but Simon finds the inclement weather oddly comforting. It's as if the whole 'verse is in tune with the way he's feeling.
The uneven pavement beneath his feet is glossy with puddles, some unexpectedly deep. Simon sighs as one of his shoes fills with water, consoling himself with the thought that at least these shoes are old ones. Once upon a time, they were fancy – at least they were according to Jayne. Now they've been well and truly broken in. The scuffs show through even after polishing. Simon's not entirely sure why he keeps them.
It's not as if he can't afford a new pair. He's by no means rich but he and Roger make a comfortable living. He doesn't have to worry about making ends meet any more. His life is comfortable. And one day is much like the one before and the one after. Simple. Smooth. Uncomplicated.
It bores him.
He craves complicated. Not smooth. Difficult, even.
Be careful what you wish for.
There's someone behind him.
The fear of being followed – of being noticed – has never left Simon. River doesn't attract attention like she used to, but Simon's still afraid of discovery. So he never relaxes his guard; especially now there's no-one else to share the burden of keeping her hidden. He's not sure Roger understands how badly the Alliance wants her back.
The footsteps behind him are drawing nearer. His pursuer has a longer stride. Simon could run ... but he doesn't. Better to brazen this out.
He doesn't even look round.
A left boot strikes the ground less than an inch from his right foot. Simon sucks in a breath and keeps walking. The matching right boot hits the pavement at the exact same moment as his left. Simon's pace doesn't alter, even if his heartbeat does. Two more steps and it's clear the other man is deliberately keeping in step with him. Another two steps and Simon realizes the boots are familiar. His terror recedes, but his pulse quickens – and not just because he's annoyed with Mal.
“How's she doin'?” Mal asks without preamble.
What was Simon expecting? Mal's not interested in him - other than as his daughter's doctor. That display of anger in the surgery was about Simon not having been on hand to treat her the moment she fell sick. Nothing more. In his heart of hearts Mal always wanted Inara - and now he has her.
“She's making a good recovery,” Simon tells him. “The surgery went exactly as expected. No complications. I'd like to keep her in for a few more days, but she should be ready to go home by the end of the week.”
“Yeah, 'Nara said,” Mal grunts. “I meant River.”
Surprised, Simon comes to a halt and turns to look up at Mal. His hair is soaking wet and there are raindrops clinging to his eyelashes like freshwater tears. Simon can almost taste them.
“Uh, she's well - thank you,” he replies, pulling himself together. “Roger's been good for her.”
Mal snorts derisively. “Good for you, more like!”
“Shen me?” Simon is baffled by Mal's suddenly scathing tone and the flash of contempt in his eyes.
“Oh, come off it! Got yourself a cosy little arrangement here, ain't ya?” Mal taunts. “Good job, nice respectable partner.”
Simon stares at him, uncomprehending, speechless.
This ain't what Mal wants. He wants a reaction. Wants to goad Simon into doin' somethin' that'll give Mal an excuse to get physical. Let loose some of his pent-up frustration. He steps in closer, sticks out his chin an' declares, “I don't like him.”
“Roger?” Simon feels a prickle of irritation. He shrugs. “He wasn't that impressed with you either.”
Mal glowers at him. Sometimes Simon's better-than attitude gets real wearin'.
“Like I was sayin' – seems you stopped puttin' li'l sis first as soon as it suited you. Soon as you got what you wanted.”
Simon feels fingernails digging into the palm of his hand and is surprised to find he's making a fist. “What in the good gorram are you talking about, Mal?”
“Never figured you for selfish, Simon.” Mal shakes his head, exudin' disappointment. “An' yet here you are – puttin' River in danger of bein' taken back to that place jus' so you can have a fancy office an' get laid by someone appropriate.”
Simon's jaw drops. “Get laid? “ He blinks a couple of times and then bursts out laughing. “You think Roger's my lover? Oh, that's priceless! God, Mal – you're such an idiot.”
Baffled in his turn, Mal huffs, “So people keep tellin' me.”
He was so sure Simon an' Roger were ... together. Gorramit, now he feels more'n a mite stupid. It wa'n't supposed to go like this. The plan was to make Simon feel so guilty about riskin' River's safety he'd be beggin' to rejoin Mal's crew. What it most definitely was not about was makin' Mal look jealous an' needy. Might as well wave the ruttin' white flag - an' Mal sure as hell don't plan on doin' that.
Simon's smile is kind, if a little patronizing. “Roger is not my lover,” he explains, speaking slowly as if he thinks Mal, in addition to being an idiot, might have difficulty in following plain English, “He's River's. Actually he's her husband.”
Mal's eyes fly wide open in horror. “He's what?! Well, that just ain't right! What with her bein' ... diff'rent. What the hell were you thinkin'? Gorramit, Simon – that how you buy this fancy life? Sold your own ruttin' sister?”
The smile freezes on Simon's face. “I think you'd better go back to your ship, Captain,” he says quietly.
“Do ya now? An' why's that? I hit on somethin'?”
“No,” Simon grinds out through clenched teeth. “But I'm likely to. Hit something. You. If you don't leave me alone.”
Mal grins an' puffs out his chest. Nothin' like gettin' a man's dander up to know your words have hit home. Mal feels almost triumphant.
“Okay, Doc. I'm goin'. You jus' think on what I said. You know the best place for River is on the move. On my boat. You ask nice enough ...” - he brushes the raindrops briskly from Simon's shoulders and straightens his collar - “I might even take you along too.”
And before Simon can respond, he strides away, whistling.
“Kewu de lao baojun,” Simon mutters at his retreating back, before deciding something stronger would be more appropriate. “Chi shi – da shabi.”
“River out?” Simon asks Roger, trying not to feel anxious about her absence. Mal's words have unsettled him, roused all the sleeping nightmares of the past.
“No. She's upstairs. Your room. Says she's busy.”
Simon lets out a sigh of relief but decides he needs to see her anyway. Just to make sure.
River is indeed in his room. Taking clothes out of his drawers and folding them into neat piles on his bed.
“River,” Simon asks carefully, “What are you doing?”
“Packing. White lace and promises.” She opens his closet and removes a grey vest from its hanger. “He liked this one.”
“What?” Simon frowns, beginning to feel panicky. Is she slipping back? After all they've been through? After all Simon's given up? River made such rapid progress during their stay with Book on Nemding and has been improving almost daily every since. And now this.
River lifts the vest to her nose and sniffs. “He really liked this one,” she giggles. “She never stopped looking, remember?”
“Shen me?” Okay – this is weird. His sister's elliptical speech patterns are one thing, but this emptying his wardrobe and sniffing his clothing is new. And disturbing.
River sighs. “You are such a boob. Demeter. Mal named his ship after her. You have heard of Demeter?”
“Of course I have!” Simon snaps. “But what's Mal got to do with it?”
“He never stopped looking. Two by two, Simon,” River smiles, adding a red silk vest to the pile. “Two. Not three. Not four. If you love someone, let them go.” Her smile turns sad. “And I do love you Simon.”
“I love you too mei-mei,” he insists, putting the vest back on a hanger. “I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here.”
“If they come back to you, they're yours. He came back, Simon. You can come back too. Come back Peter, come back Paul. For holidays. For Christmas.” The vest finds its way back onto the pile. “Bring the shiny presents.”
Simon shouldn't have stopped her medication. He sees that now. He's let his need to believe she's better cloud his judgement. She's still ill. Still very sick.
River laughs out loud and prods him in the chest. “If anyone's sick, it's you. Lovesick. Now get out of my way and let me finish.”
Simon hesitates, wondering if he ought to challenge this behaviour, then thinks better of it. Now – whilst River's mind is occupied – might be the perfect time to discuss her worsening condition with Roger.
Simon can always unpack his clothes again later on.
“Are you saying I would have married her if I had thought her incapable of informed consent?” Roger demands.
River slams the suitcase lid down, fastens the catches and drags it off to her own room where she sits down at the dressing table. She tilts her head, not listening but feeling.
“It's only natural you should worry about her,” she mouths silently into the mirror as she brushes the tangles out of her hair. “But I think you're over-reacting. She might be right! River knows things. I've never managed to work out whether that's because she really is psychic or just that she can see into people's hearts, see what they want-”
“I don't want to go anywhere,” she continues in similar fashion, leaning in towards her reflection to emphasize the point. “I want to stay here and make sure she gets better!”
Downstairs in the living room, Roger sighs. River does likewise. “She IS better, Simon. All the tests confirm it. She still has extraordinary abilities and a tendency to leave even smart men like you and I behind, but she's stable now. Sane. Probably more so than ...”
River smiles at Roger's hesitation.
“More so than who exactly? Me?” Simon is hurt, angry.
“Well you have been a little tense this past couple of days,” Roger explains hastily. “Your anxiety about River may be a case of projection.”
“And since when have you been a psychologist?” River's lip curls in disdain.
“Alternatively, it may be simple displacement.”
Simon hurls his book across the room, River her hairbrush. “Tamade psychobabble goushi!”
And that's denial, River thinks to herself, as a seed of recognition implants itself in Simon's brain. A little water, a little sunshine – that's all it needs.
* * * * * *
Tian-Shi is sleeping soundly. Her cheeks are pink again and her body is relaxed, not screwed up with pain.
“She's lovely,” Simon tells Inara. “And very advanced for a child of her age. I had quite a conversation with her earlier. You and Mal must be very proud of her.”
Inara strokes her daughter's dark curls tenderly. “We are,” she murmurs. “But she's not Mal's. I thought you realized ...”
Not Mal's? Simon's confused. Tian-Shi has her mother's beautiful hair and flawless skin. Simon assumed she got her blue, blue eyes from her father ... Oh. “Oh, I see ... I'm sorry ...”
Inara smiles. “Don't be. She's the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She leans down to kiss Tian-Shi's forehead. “The love of my life, in fact. I am so grateful to you, Simon. I don't know how to thank you ...”
As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Inara realizes that actually, she does. She can tell him, put his mind at rest about one thing at least.
“It didn't work out,” she begins. “Between Mal and I, I mean. We tried ... but somehow we never ... connected, you know?”
One look at Simon's face tells her he doesn't. Because the connection between Mal and Simon is still strong and vibrant and alive – even now, even after all this time.
“He wants you back,” Inara continues, touching Simon's arm. “He may be too stupid and pig-headed to tell you so himself, but it's the truth.”
Simon's heart lurches against his ribcage and for a second, just a second, he lets himself believe her. Mal wants him back. Possibly even as much as Simon wants to go back ... Then sanity kicks in, and Simon remembers Mal assaulting him in his own surgery and insulting him in the street.
Mal may want him - may even care for him in his own twisted, angry way – but he doesn't respect him. Simon has a new life now. One that's close to the one he imagined for himself that first day when he walked into MedAcad. He may not be part of the medical elect, but he's well thought of in his community. Looked up to. Not growled at nor ridiculed.
He can't go back.
“Simon?” Inara is asking with a little frown. “Did you hear what I said?”
He smiles at her bleakly. “Yes. But I'd need to hear Mal say it before I believe it,” he explains.
She knows as well as Simon does that Mal will never say it.
Jayne waits uneasily for Mal to come back from the bar with yet another round of drinks. It ain't that he objects to pourin' more beer down his throat than is supposedly good for him. No, what's chillin' his blood this evenin' is Mal's grim determination to get fallin' down drunk. They don't know this rock nor these people. For all Jayne knows they might be the sort to start a fight. Maybe even shoot a fella in the tender parts.
Beer slops out of the glasses as Mal sets two more pints down onto the table an' Jayne decides enough is enough. Mal needs a distraction. Somethin' else to think about.
“Some fine lookin' women in here tonight,” he comments idly. “See them two in the corner? Been givin' us the glad eye ever since we walked in.”
Mal gives them a cursory glance, nothin' more. “Can't say I'd noticed.” He takes a long swallow of beer an' wipes the foam from his lip with the back of his hand, addin' “An' you better stop noticin' too - 'less you want Kaylee to cut off your other-”
“I wa'n't noticin' for me!” Jayne objects. “Though you might fancy a bit o'-”
“Not noticin' for you!” Mal drains his glass. “Well ain't that somethin'? Never thought I'd see the day when a great big fella such as you would be under the thumb of a li'l girl like Kaylee. She got some kinda superpowers I don't know about?”
Jayne grins. “You could put it like that,” he replies, wagglin' his eyebrows suggestively. “Anyhow – maybe I like bein' under her thumb. You ever think of that?”
“Wou'n't suit me,” Mal mutters, rootin' around in his pocket for more coin an' findin' none.
“Yeah, well,” Jayne shrugs. “Reckon I must like a warm body next to me of a night more'n you. Time I was getting' home to it too. You comin'?”
Mal tries another pocket. It too is empty.
Mal wonders if lunchtime was such a good time to fetch 'Nara and Tian-Shi back to Demeter. The smell of cookin' turns his stomach and the squeal of the dining trolley's wheels scrapes bright lines of pain through his throbbin' head.
At least it's cool an' peaceful in Tian-Shi's room.
“You've come for him.”
River's unexpected presence makes Mal jump and his brain thuds painfully against the inside of his skull. Never again, he promises himself. Never again.
“Come for her,” he clarifies, leaning down to kiss Tian-Shi's cheek. “Hi, baobei.”
The little girl giggles as he lifts her up and wraps slender arms around his neck.
“That's what you want you to think,” River says, tapping the side of her nose. “We know different.”
Mal looks at her blankly. “I really have no idea-”
The door opens again. This time it's Inara and Roger. Mal's heart sinks.
“Told you,” River laughs.
Roger is giving Inara a list of instructions about Tian-Shi's post-operative care and Mal tries to listen, but he finds his attention wanderin'. He don't like hospitals – never has. Can't wait to get out of here. 'Course the hangover don't help. Could maybe do with gettin' some air. Once he's driven Inara and Tian-Shi back to the ship, Mal might take a walk somewhere. Anywhere. Nowhere in particular.
“Little stone cottage. Big weeping willow in the front garden. Gold fish in the pond,” River whispers, slipping past him. “For luck.”
River links an arm through her husband's, but before leading him out into the sunlight she turns and gives Mal a sharp look. “Don't play games, Captain.”
Returnin' the mule to its parkin' spot in the cargo bay, Mal could do without Zoe watchin' his every move. It's like she don't trust him to do it right.
“Something on your mind, Sir?” Zoe asks in response to his glum expression as he jumps down from the mule.
“Jus' wanna be off this rock is all,” he tells her. “We all set?”
“Port authority's given us the 10 am take-off slot. By which time Monty should've waved us a meet point.”
“This'll be our last night on Horus,” Zoe points out, watching Mal's face carefully. “That bein' the case I plan to take my husband out for a romantic candlelit dinner. Kaylee's offered to babysit.” She pauses and adds innocently, “You got any plans, Sir?”
He glares at her. “No.”
“Not goin' to say good-bye to Simon?”
She nods sagely. “Probably just as well. He looked awful pleased to see you again when we turned up at his clinic. Don't wanna hurt him any more than you have to.”
Mal opens his mouth and closes it again.
Zoe pats his arm and walks off but pauses on the bottom step of the staircase to ask “You ever think you've got so used to losing, Sir, that you don't recognize winning?”
Zoe doesn't answer. The Captain needs time to reflect.
What in diyu is Mal doin' here? Zoe might reckon he's won this particular battle but walkin' up the path to Simon's front door feels a lot like admittin' defeat. He's got half a mind to turn round right now an' go back to the ship. Trouble is, other parts of him don't think much of that plan.
Mal knows River an' Roger ain't home. Saw 'em go off somewhere earlier. That oughta make this a hell of a lot easier.
Heart thumpin', he knocks on the door.
No answer. Well, tha's fine. He'll go.
Only he don't. He tries the handle an' the door opens. Before he knows what he's doin', Mal's inside the hallway an' closin' the door behind him.
Tianna. Simon's upstairs. Mal's so nervous he can't speak.
“River?” Simon asks again an' Mal glimpses a bare foot at the top of the staircase. “I thought ...”
Another bare foot, then a leg, a knee ... followed – merciful Buddha! - by a towel, wrapped around slim hips. Above it - skin. Pale, perfect skin. Zao cao.
Simon runs lightly down the stairs, reaches the bottom and turns. His mouth falls open. “Mal ...”
Wo de tian. Bad enough he's half-naked – he don't need to be lookin' at Mal like that – all wide eyes an' parted lips. Mal looks hastily away, takes a step backwards.
“What are you doing here?” Simon asks, wary now. “And more to the point - how did you get in?”
The doors are always locked. Even when he and Roger are in. Because you never know ...
Simon's brows knit together. “What the hell is this, Mal?” he demands, mind racing with all sorts of terrifying possibilities.
Excuse after excuse springs to Mal's mind. He needs to ask about Tian-Shi ... thinks he mighta left somethin' at the hospital ... oughta pay Simon his share from the last job they did when he was still crew ... but for some reason he don't use any of them.
Instead, he takes a deep breath an' admits in a low voice “Surrender. It's ruttin' well surrender, Simon. A thing I've only done once in my life before now an' then not willingly.”
Simon isn't sure he's following. “Surrender?”
Mal moves closer again an' puts tentative arms around Simon's waist. “You win, Doctor Tam. I don't wanna leave this rock without you, dong ma? Now are you gonna gloat about it or kiss me?”
A slow smile spreads over Simon's astonished face. “I might do a bit of both.”
Mal grins. “Okay. But start with the kissin'.”
And Simon does. Soft, getting reacquainted touches of lip on lip to start with, little tastes of tongue against tongue, until long denied desire gets the better of him and he pulls Mal into a kiss so bruising it hurts.
It's all the justification Mal needs to run urgent hands over as much of Simon's exposed body as he can reach. He can't get enough of the feel of Simon's skin, the tightness of his muscles, the hardness of underlyin' bone. So new an' yet so familiar. So right.
“Want you,” he groans around Simon's tongue. “Want you now.”
Simon doesn't speak, just laces his fingers through Mal's and tugs him towards the stairs.
Demeter's ramp lowers to reveal her crew, peering out expectantly into the morning light.
Mal's arm around Simon's shoulders tightens. He ain't used to demonstratin' his affections in public, nor even amongst friends, but he's got somethin' to prove here. Even if it does make him feel gorram foolish. He pulls himself taller an' lifts his chin.
“It's all right, Mal,” Simon says, sensing his tension. “You can let me go.”
“I could,” Mal agrees, still holdin' on tight. “But I ain't gonna.”
Wash shields his eyes against the low slants of pink sunlight as he watches the pair approach – Simon carrying his red medical bag and Mal a large suitcase. “You think Mal's walking funny?” he asks his wife.
She considers for a while. The Captain does look a mite uncomfortable. But happy. Somewhere deep inside Zoe relaxes and she lets out a breath she didn't even know she'd been holding.
Inara approaches Zoe, eyes twinkling. “I'd say that-” she indicates Mal and Simon with a tilt of her head, “brings our arrangement to a happy conclusion, wouldn't you?”
“Well, it ain't exactly what I had in mind when I hired you,” Zoe replies a smile. “But I reckon so.”
Simon's moved to see his old friends waiting to welcome him aboard. Even Jayne's there. Simon and the mercenary shake hands warmly. There's only one thing Simon feels anxious about ...
He turns to where she's standing, half-hidden in shadow and is just about to speak when her cheeks puff out, her eyes go wide and she shakes her head frantically.
“Kaylee? Are you ..?”
Clearly not, Simon tells himself, as she charges down the ramp just in time to throw up into a large clump of weeds.
“Was that my fault?” Simon wonders out loud.
“Nah, Doc,” Jayne chortles, grinnin' from ear to ear. “Reckon it might well be mine.”
“Turns out I ain't firin' blanks after all,” Jayne confides proudly. “That partner o' your'n checked me out. Put my mind at rest. Gotta say – he sure knows how to make a fella feel better about himself.”
Simon darts a little smile at Mal. “I'll say he does at that,” he agrees, surreptitiously patting Mal on the butt.
Mal winces an' draws Simon to one side, mutterin' under his breath, “We are not doin' that again till it's some day I don't need to be sittin' down.”
Simon gives him a very stern look. “I thought you were going to stop ordering me about.”
Mal suppresses a smile. “Wa'n't an order. More like a suggestion. If you ever wanna do it again, that is ...”
Kaylee makes her way back up the ramp, grinnin' apologetically. “All aboard, Cap'n.”
“Good girl.” Mal turns to his pilot. “Wash – take us out of the world.”
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 7:15 AM
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 7:30 AM
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 8:00 AM
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 12:01 PM
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 3:07 PM
Wednesday, September 21, 2005 7:21 AM
Sunday, October 16, 2005 11:08 PM
Monday, November 21, 2005 7:12 AM
Monday, November 21, 2005 7:23 AM
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