Time to Heal, A

by Shanna

Disclaimer: The usual stuff about these characters and situations being mine, this being a non-profit endeavor, etc., etc.

Author's note: This story is a sequel to "Recurring Nightmares" and is part of a story arc. To understand events and references in this story, you definitely need to read that one and probably should read the other stories in the series. This story takes place immediately after "Recurring Nightmares" and a couple of weeks after the events in the episode "Objects in Space." Events in the unaired episode "Heart of Gold" are taken into consideration, but without any real direct spoilers you wouldn't also have figured out from "Objects in Space." This series goes AU following "Objects in Space" and does not reference events from any other unaired episodes.

Mal knew it was a pretty good idea not to make any sudden moves when facing a crazy person with a gun. Mal wasn't going to make any guesses as to how sane the doctor might be at the moment, but there was a wild panic in his eyes that Mal didn't find too reassuring. The boy looked terrible -- worse than terrible. His left shirtsleeve was dark with dried blood, and there were smears of blood elsewhere on his shirt. His right eye was swollen almost shut, and his face was a mass of bruises. If the rest of him looked anything like his face did, he was in bad shape.

Forcing his voice to stay calm and even, Mal said, "Hey, Doc -- Simon."

The gun wobbled as the doctor blinked, then frowned, like he was trying to bring the world into focus. "Mal?" he asked hoarsely.

"Yeah, Doc, it's me, and Jayne and the Shepherd."

"What are you doing here?"

"We came to rescue you. But you seem to have taken care of the hard part, so why don't you just put down the gun and we'll get out of here?"

"Are you sure it's you, really? You were there earlier, only you weren't."

Now Mal was more convinced that the boy wasn't quite in his right mind. Not that Mal blamed him, considering the state he seemed to be in. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Book edging around to Simon's right side. Mal kept talking to draw the doctor's attention away from Book. "Yeah, it's really me. You didn't imagine me in this uniform when you saw me earlier, did you?"

The gun dropped a fraction. "No. So you really came to get me?"

Book managed to get the gun neatly out of Simon's hand. The doctor didn't even put up a fuss. He just blinked at his now-empty hand.

"We already established that. Now, let's get out of here."


"She's safe. She fared a lot better than you did."

"Kaylee? They didn't hurt her, did they?"

"She's fine. She's just worried sick about you. Now, let's go so you can see her for yourself."

The boy swayed slightly. He didn't look like he'd get very far under his own steam. Mal moved next to him, caught his right wrist and draped the doctor's arm around his shoulders, supporting most of his weight. He started to put an arm around Simon's waist to steady him, but the hiss of pain that caused made him change his mind. "Come on, kiddo," he said as he started to move forward. "It's okay, I've got you. You've made it this far, and we just have a little ways to go."

The four of them left the building and made their way out of the parking facility. Mal got the feeling he was supporting most of the doctor's weight. As weak as the boy seemed to be, Mal had no idea how he'd managed to make it all the way down those stairs. Book took point, and Jayne brought up the rear. "Make sure no one's after us," Mal instructed him.

There were neighborhoods in this city where half carrying a semi-conscious man wouldn't cause so much as a blink, but this wasn't one of them. He wasn't sure whether it was better or worse that it looked like a group of police officers was dragging around a badly beaten semi-conscious man. So far, though, they hadn't passed anyone. Their luck was going a lot better than usual.

The weight on his shoulders got heavier and heavier, until it became a dead weight. "Doc?" he hissed, but there was no response. "Hold up!" he called softly to Book, who came back to check on them. "Come on, Doc, wake up. Simon!" But the boy was out cold, and no amount of shaking him seemed to do any good. "Jayne, take him," Mal instructed.

Jayne didn't look happy, but he handed Book his gun and, with surprising gentleness, draped the doctor's limp body across his shoulders in a fireman's carry. They actually made better time this way, without having to base their pace on how fast Simon was able to walk. Mal was now even more worried about being noticed. If half carrying a semi-conscious man was conspicuous, carrying an unconscious man was downright suspicious. But their luck held, and they passed no one. As they neared the hangar where the shuttle was, Mal tapped the comm unit on his ear. "Wash, warm 'er up. We're almost there," he said.

"That was fast. I wasn't expecting you for at least half an hour," Wash's voice said in his ear.

"He was waiting for us at the back door. That saved us some time." He cut off the transmission, then called back to Jayne, "Get a move on."

"I know he ain't big, but he's heavier than he looks," Jayne complained.

Then they were in the hangar. The shuttle's engine was already on as the three of them ran on board. Jayne lowered his burden onto the shuttle floor as Mal moved forward to the cockpit. "Make sure we're not followed," he instructed. "I don't care if it takes twice as long, so long as we eventually make it back. And when you make contact for docking, tell Zoe to meet us at the hatch with a stretcher."

"He's hurt?"

Mal nodded, then realized that Wash couldn't see him with his eyes on the controls and said, "Yeah. Jayne had to carry him most of the way, but he made it out of the building on his own. I'm not sure how bad it is yet."

Figuring that Wash had the flying under control, Mal made his way back to the shuttle's hold where the others were. Book knelt next to the unconscious doctor. He brushed the hair off the boy's battered face, then frowned and pressed his hand against his forehead. "He's burning up," he said, his face tense with concern. He took a knife off his belt, opened it, then slit Simon's left sleeve from shoulder to elbow. Then he grimaced. "Dear God," he breathed.

Mal leaned over to get a look for himself. The arm was red and swollen, the skin around the wound stretched and shiny. The wound itself oozed greenish pus. "They didn't treat the wound," he said in disbelief. "Even the Alliance treated wounded prisoners."

"At least it's not gangrene," Book commented. He reached to probe the wound, but stopped when that made the doctor moan softly in his sleep. "I think the bullet's still in there."

"Zoe is gonna hate this," Mal said. He raised Simon's shirt, then had to pry his undershirt away from a few bloody patches. His whole torso was black and blue. A few of the bruises looked suspiciously like boot prints. They'd worked the kid over but good, from the looks of things.

Even Jayne looked concerned. "How'd he get down all those stairs if he was hurt that bad?" he asked.

"This is one very determined young man," Book remarked.

He was also a very sick young man, Mal thought as he checked the doctor's pulse. It was weak and rapid. If only they'd been able to get to him sooner, before he got this sick. But then the badges and other things they'd needed to get to him wouldn't have been ready, and it was very likely Book's friend's efforts to distract Morris that had given Simon the opportunity to make his own escape. No, too many things had come together just right for this to work out. If Mal didn't know better, he'd say it was one of the preacher's miracles.

Simon shivered, and Mal took a blanket from a locker and draped it across the doctor's body. Book took a water bottle, dampened a cloth and began dabbing at the dried blood on the boy's face. He then soaked the cloth and laid it across his forehead. Simon stirred, waking slightly, and the Shepherd lifted his head and put the bottle to his cracked lips. "Just a sip," he instructed. The boy drank, then his eyes closed once more. Book lowered his head to the floor, then took his hand and bowed his own head. Mal looked away. It was going to take a hell of a lot more than prayer to save that kid.

It felt like forever, but really was only a little more than an hour, before they docked with Serenity. As soon as the hatch opened, Zoe stepped into the shuttle with the stretcher, then closed the hatch behind her. "Is Kaylee waiting out there?" Mal asked.

Zoe nodded. "How bad is it?"

"Pretty damn bad." Mal, Zoe and Book gently moved Simon onto the stretcher, then Mal covered him with the blanket, pulling the blanket up to his chin and making sure none of the blood showed. He adjusted Book's damp cloth to cover as much of the boy's bruised face as possible. "Get him down to the infirmary. I'll be there in a moment."

He stepped off the shuttle first to distract Kaylee. Book and Jayne came next with the stretcher, with Zoe walking alongside. "You rescued him!" Kaylee cried out, her eyes shining with joy.

"He rescued himself. We just gave him a ride home." Wash came out of the shuttle, and Mal turned to him. "Get us out of here. Head someplace far and remote where they aren't likely to find us. Kaylee, you go with him and help keep an eye on the scope, make sure we aren't being followed." She looked like she was about to protest, her eyes locked on the stretcher being carried down the stairs, but he said more sternly, "Go!" The last thing she needed to see was what they were going to have to do in the infirmary.

He caught up with the others on the stairs and helped get the stretcher down the stairs to the infirmary. They got Simon onto the exam table, and Zoe set about connecting the various monitors. Book tried to wake Simon, shaking him by his good shoulder and wiping his face with a damp cloth. Mal pushed Book aside, leaned close to Simon and snapped, "Dr. Tam, you're needed in the ER."

That did the trick. Simon's eyes flew open. "What happened?" he asked. "Am I on call?"

Mal caught his chin, careful to touch between bruises, and tried to make eye contact with the doctor, which was a challenge because his eyes weren't really focusing. "Doctor, listen to me. You're hurt and you're sick and we've gotta get you fixed up, but you're the only doctor around here, so you've got to pull it together and tell us what to do, dong ma?"

Simon's eyes cleared, then he looked around the infirmary in alarm. "How'd I get here?" he whispered.

Mal put a hand on his shoulder to keep him lying still. "It's okay, son. You're safe. They aren't gonna hurt you no more. But we've got to get you fixed up, and we need your help. Now, if I know you, you've already figured out what you need, so just tell us, okay?"

"Okay." He licked his lips, then turned to Zoe. "Vitals?" he asked. She read a string of numbers off the monitor -- blood pressure, body temperature and stuff like that. Mal kept his focus on the doctor rather than listening to a bunch of numbers that meant nothing to him. Apparently, it wasn't good news. Simon frowned. "Oh, that's not good," he said. "But pretty much what I expected. Okay, Zoe, you'll need to get an IV started, just like you did at New Lafayette."

She got the supplies, but she didn't look happy about it. She took his right hand and started looking for a vein, but he shook his head. "Just do it in the elbow. The vein's easier to find."

With great concentration, Zoe got the needle into the vein, then attached the IV to the tube. "Good work," Simon told her. His voice sounded stronger, and he looked a little less out of it, but Mal could see the pain in his eyes. "Now, get that drug case over there." She brought it to him and held it open. He studied the array of vials inside, then pointed to one. "That one. A good, powerful antibiotic that should kill off just about anything. Fill up the syringe about halfway." She followed his instructions, and he then directed, "Now inject it into the port on the IV."

"What about painkillers?" Mal asked.

"Oh, that'd be nice, but not if you want me awake. Now, let's get a look at the wound. Just cut the sleeve off. This shirt's ruined, anyway."

Book took a pair of shears and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. "Camera!" Simon snapped, sounding more and more like he must have back in the days when he worked in the emergency room with a staff of nurses and residents following his orders. Book got the camera probe lined up so that the wound showed up on the monitor on the wall above the exam table. "So that's what it looks like," Simon mused. "Ugly, huh? Well, better take care of it. Let's go with a local anesthetic. Zoe, you remember how we did that with my leg?"

"How could I forget?" she asked dryly as she filled a syringe, then made a series of injections around the wound.

He winced. "Someday, they're going to come up with one of those that doesn't sting so much going in. Now, lets get some surgical antiseptic over the area. It's already infected, but we don't want to make things worse." Zoe squirted the yellow antiseptic around the wound, then picked up a scalpel and looked expectantly at Simon, who said, "Okay, this could get nasty. Just make an incision across the top of the wound."

Mal moved around to stand beside Zoe and hold the doctor's left wrist steady, while Book braced his shoulders. Zoe took a deep breath, then made the incision. Pus oozed from the wound, and Zoe, Book and Mal all had to look away for a second. Mal noticed then that Jayne was still hovering in the doorway. He'd turned a slight shade of green, but was watching in fascination. Mal turned back to Simon, who had gone paler. His voice shook a little as he said, "That's good. Just let it drain for a little while. You're doing fine." Mal found it interesting that the calmest person in the room was the one being operated on, but he had the benefit of being kind of delirious.

After they'd all had a chance to recover, Simon said, "Now let's irrigate the wound, clean it out a bit. See if you can see the bullet."

Zoe looked a little pale herself as she followed his instructions. "I see it," she said.

"Good. You know how to do the rest, don't you?"

"I've got it." She pulled out a bullet and dropped it in a metal tray.

"Great. I think you've missed your calling. You have the hands of a surgeon."

"Doctor, if I didn't know better, I'd suspect you were setting up situations to force me to learn more medicine."

"You're on to me, Zoe." Although he was managing to joke with Zoe, Mal noticed that Simon's voice was growing weaker. The boy was fading fast. "You can handle sutures, right?"

"Don't worry, Doctor, I've got it. You just take it easy." Before she set to work, she shot Mal a worried look.

"Simon, stay with us, okay," Mal ordered. "No passing out until I tell you."

"Yes, sir. Oh, and Zoe, we'll need to put a drain in that wound. Check it every few hours. I want to make sure we get all the infection cleared out."

"Got it. Is there anything else we'll need to take care of? Where else are you hurt?"

"Oh, I'm hurt pretty much everywhere, but I don't think there's anything else that needs doing. There could be some internal injuries, but if there are, that's not something I can talk you through right now. If they haven't killed me yet, they can't be too bad. I guess the real test will be if I ever wake up. Otherwise, just a bunch of bruises and broken ribs."

"What do we need to do about the ribs?" Mal asked as Zoe bandaged the doctor's arm.

"Nothing, really. I don't plan to move around enough for us to need to wrap them. It's just gonna take some rest. Speaking of rest, some drugs would be really nice right now."

Mal picked up the injection gun. "How much?"

"Lots. Please. Now." Mal injected the painkiller into the side of the doctor's neck. Soon the lines of pain in his face smoothed out and his eyes closed.

Zoe peeled off her bloody gloves and backed away from the exam table. "If you'll excuse me, sir," she said, her face paler than Mal had ever seen it. He nodded and she hurried out of the room.

"So, is he gonna be okay?" Jayne asked from his spot in the doorway.

"Too soon to tell," Mal said. "I don't know if we got to him in time."

The preacher filled a shallow basin with water, wrung a cloth out in it and began bathing the doctor's face. "We'll need to work on bringing that fever down," he explained.

"Good idea. I'd better head up to the bridge and check on how things are going." Mal had thought that the hardest part of the rescue operation would be getting Simon out of prison. Now, though, it looked like the rescue had only just begun.

Kaylee knew she was supposed to be watching the scope, but her mind was down in the infirmary with Simon. He must have been hurt really bad for the captain to have sent her away like that.

"I'm sure he'll be fine." Wash's voice startled her.


"He'll be okay. Mal said he got himself out of that place, and I'm thinking if he could do that, he'll be okay."

She smiled, trying to convince herself that Wash was right. "Of course he'll be fine. Cap and Zoe know what to do. They'll take care of him."

There were footsteps on the stairs outside, and both Wash and Kaylee turned to see the captain come in. "Anyone on us?" he asked.

"Scope's empty," Wash reported. "Looks like we made a clean getaway."

"Good. Give it a couple of hours, and if we're still in the clear and if no chatter is showing up on the Cortex, get in touch with Inara and arrange a meeting."

Kaylee waited for him to finish his business, then turned to the captain. "How is he?" she asked, a worried little flutter in her stomach.

He put his hand on her shoulder and said, "He's hurt pretty bad, but none of the wounds look to be life-threatening. But they didn't take good care of him, so he's really sick right now. He's got a very high fever, and that's what we're worried about at the moment. Think you're up to helping the preacher look after him?"

She bit her lip and nodded. She was nervous about trying to help out, but she needed to see Simon.

"Good girl." He kept his hand on her shoulder as they went aft and then downstairs to the infirmary. He paused just before they rounded the corner to enter the infirmary. "Now, I should warn you that he don't look so good right now. You sure you're up to this?"

"I'm fine." But she had to blink away tears when she entered the infirmary and saw him. Her beautiful, beautiful Simon was almost unrecognizable, with one eyelid all red and swollen and the other bruised, knots and bruises all over his face and a dark shadow of beard on his jaw. She swallowed hard, then steeled herself and looked up at the captain. "I'll be okay." He nodded and left her alone with the Shepherd and Simon.

She stepped forward tentatively and asked, "What do I need to do?"

Shepherd Book wrung out a cloth in a bowl of water and draped it across Simon's forehead. "Right now I'm just trying to get the fever down a bit. You can help with that. Otherwise, if he wakes up, you'll need to try to keep him calm. He was rather delirious at times. I got the impression he wasn't entirely sure where he was, and you can help make sure he knows he's safe."

She nodded and took a seat on the stool at Simon's side, then took his hand in hers. "It's okay, sweetie," she whispered. "Everything's gonna be okay now." She looked up at Book. "Isn't it? He is gonna be okay, right?"

"I believe he will be."


"It was a true miracle that he was able to get away, and just at the time that we were there to get him out. Although the Lord does move in mysterious ways, I don't think you get half a miracle. There was a reason he was able to get away, even as sick as he was. I believe that big things are in store for this young man."

"What kind of things?" she asked, as she looked at Simon and tried to think of what his destiny might be.

"That, I don't know. But I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and that things tend to all come together to serve some greater purpose. The pattern may not be obvious to us as we go through our day-to-day lives, but when we look back, we can sometimes see all the little things that went together to put us where we needed to be. Given his training and his background, and then what happened to his sister and where he is now -- well, there's a lot he could end up being able to do, and it could be important."

She'd always known Simon was special, from the moment she first set eyes on him, but she hadn't ever considered that he might be truly special in a bigger, more important sense. "So, what you're saying is, maybe he was meant to be here, all along?" She kind of liked the idea of that. If he was meant to be on Serenity, then maybe it wasn't so farfetched to think that maybe he really was meant for her.

"I'm just saying that it's possible, and that I think he has too much to accomplish in life for him to die now. I also think he's remarkably stubborn and determined, and that will probably see him through. He's not going to willingly leave his sister alone."

Wash didn't need to turn around to know it was his wife climbing the steps into the bridge. He recognized the sound of her footsteps. He also knew that she was weary, and possibly a little shaky. "Did you know that I have the hands of a surgeon?" she asked as she came up behind him.

"As a matter of fact, I did. But who told you?"

She slid into his lap and rested her head against his. Yeah, she was definitely tired. "Simon."

"Well, he should know. Should I be jealous?"

"Of Simon?"

"Oh, right. Kaylee would kick your ass if you tried anything."

She chuckled. "Probably. But considering that I was pulling a bullet out of him at the time, I suspect he meant it in a purely medical sense. And I think he was pretty delirious."

"How is he? I only heard the edited-for-Kaylee version from Mal."

"I don't know." She sighed. "He doesn't look good. That fever is way too high, and he's so weak. I don't know if he can fight it off. We've done about all we can for him." There was a long pause, during which Wash stroked her hair. At last, she said, "He'd better live, because I have no desire to spend much more time as ship's medic. And this better be the last time he gets himself shot. There's no point in having a doctor around if he's always the one needing doctoring."

"I have a feeling he'd agree with you wholeheartedly."

She laughed again, then tilted her head to kiss him. "He probably would. I imagine he was having even less fun than I was. I should make a deal with him. I'll do the killing and he'll do the healing from now on."

Kaylee dabbed the damp cloth on Simon's face, down his throat and to the part of his chest showing above his shirt. She'd had dreams about touching him like that, but not under these circumstances. With her other hand, she clutched his hand, and his skin was so hot to the touch it almost felt like it would scorch her.

His fingers tightened around hers and she jumped, startled. His head moved slightly, back and forth, and his cracked, scabbed lips opened, like he was speaking soundlessly. She dropped her cloth in the bowl and stroked his damp hair. "Shh, shh, it's okay," she said gently, trying to keep her voice calm. "Shepherd, I think he's wakin' up." Book got up from where he'd been sitting and came over to the exam table.

Now Simon's eyelids fluttered, and he stirred restlessly. Book got a hand on his shoulder to keep him still, while Kaylee laid her hand against his face. "Simon, it's okay," she said. "You're home, and you're safe."

"Can't go home," he muttered. "Never, ever."

She had to blink away tears at the despair in his voice, but she tried to keep her own voice firm and strong. "You're home on Serenity. Everything's going to be okay."

His eyes opened fully and he looked up at her face. Then he looked alarmed. "Kaylee! It's not safe here. Go, don't let them hurt you." He tried to sit up, but Book pressed him back down.

"No, Simon, I'm okay. You're safe. I'm safe. Everything's fine."

He seemed to fall asleep again, then his eyes opened halfway. He blinked and frowned up at her. "Kaylee?"

"Yeah, Simon, I'm here."

"I don't feel so good."

"That's 'cause you're really, really sick."

"Oh. That makes sense." Then he seemed to be alert again as he turned to Book and asked, "Temp?"

"Hovering right around 39."

Simon frowned, and Kaylee looked to Book, then back to Simon. "Is that bad?" she asked.

"It's not good, but it's better than if it had dropped too low. At least the fever means I'm fighting it. If I went into shock, then I'd have real problems. So, let's see, broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotic in the drip?"

"That's what you told us to do," Book said.

"Then I was right."

"Is there something else we should be doing?" Kaylee asked.

"Some water would be nice." Book brought a cup over and held his head up to help him drink. That seemed to tire him, and he closed his eyes for a second or two. "Thanks. Now I guess we just wait it out." His eyes closed again. After a while, he asked softly, "River?"

Kaylee squeezed his hand. "She's safe. She's with Inara, and they're on their way back."

"Good," he whispered. "I didn't know where she was, but they kept asking."

"Well, that's all over now. You're safe, and they won't hurt you any more."

He seemed to drift off to sleep again, but then he shivered and muttered, "It's cold."

"No, it's not, Simon. You're burning up." She looked up at Book, who was staring at the monitor. "What is it?" she whispered.

"His temperature's going up again."

"That's bad?"

"Maybe." He rewet the cloth and dabbed it on Simon's forehead. Simon shivered again in his sleep.

Kaylee stroked Simon's cheek. "Just hang on, honey," she urged. "You can fight this." He moaned softly, and she bit her lip to keep herself from crying. It hurt so much to see him like this. Maybe he was dying. He couldn't die, not so soon after she figured out how she felt about him. She leaned closer to him and whispered, "I love you."

She'd thought he was asleep, but his eyes opened and he said, "Don't. It's too dangerous." Then his eyes closed again.

She had to take her hand away from his face to wipe away her own tears. Then she noticed the Shepherd looking at her with concern. "It's probably not the best time for that sort of confession," he said gently.

"But I just wanted him to know, in case ..." She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. "Do you think I shouldn't have said anything?"

He came around the table to put an arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry, that's not what I meant. I just meant that you really can't take anything he says in this state too seriously. He may have been responding to something he was imagining rather than to what you said. He probably won't even remember when he comes out of the fever."

"Oh, then that's okay, I guess. If he makes it, I probably want him to forget, so I can tell him again when the time is right. But if he doesn't, well, I wanted him to know."

He gave her shoulders a squeeze. "He's going to make it. Now, let's see if we can bring that fever down."

Mal had tried to get some rest, given that he hadn't slept much since the doctor had been taken, but he still couldn't sleep. He imagined he wouldn't have a restful night until the boy was out of the woods and his whole crew was back on board, with a paying job to go to.

A job. In all the excitement, he'd nearly forgotten about their dire financial straits. They'd gone to Persephone because they needed the work. Now they had no job, no leads, next to no cash and they were running hot, even if the Alliance hadn't been involved in their latest escapade. He wondered how far Morris' reach extended.

He flipped through the ledger book where he kept track of their usual contacts, but no name jumped out at him as someone who would be safe to go to for a sure job right now. He threw the ledger across his bunk with a sigh. They couldn't even start to think about work until they got Inara and River back on board. Then they could settle on a destination based on safety, and then find work once they got there.

Sure that he wouldn't be sleeping anytime soon, he climbed the ladder out of his cabin and headed up to the bridge. Wash was still there, looking alert rather than playing with his dinosaurs. "How do we stand?" he asked the pilot.

"We should be meeting up with Inara in a couple of hours. Still nothing on the scope, not a word on the Cortex or on any of the other channels I've been monitoring."

"Where's Zoe?"

"She went to bed a while ago. I think doing that surgery really took a lot out of her."

"It was pretty nasty. Give me a few minutes to check on the doc, and I'll come up and relieve you."

Mal wandered back through the empty dining room, then down the stairs. In the infirmary, Kaylee still sat by the doctor's side, holding his hand. She looked exhausted, but determined, and she greeted Mal with a smile. "How's he doing?" he asked.

"Looks like the fever broke," Book reported. "His temperature's going down. The real test will be if it settles at a normal level instead of continuing to drop. But his blood pressure is staying about the same, so I don't think he's going into shock."

Mal couldn't tell much difference from looking at the boy. He still looked like death with a hangover. "You might better get a blanket on him if he's cooling down," he said. Book nodded and took a blanket out of a cabinet, then tucked it gently around his patient. "Kaylee, why don't you get some rest?"

She shook her head. "No thanks, Cap'n. I'd rather stay here until we're sure, and in case he wakes up."

"He was rather agitated last time he woke up," Book explained. "Kaylee was able to settle him down."

"Okay, then, but as soon as Inara and River get back, I want you taking a break. We don't want to give him patients to deal with while he's still so sick, so you need your rest." He frowned and looked around as he remembered something. "Who's taking care of your cat?"

"Cat's don't need that much lookin' after," she said, "But Jayne said he'd see to him."

Mal left the infirmary, shaking his head. His entire crew had gone stark raving nuts over that gorram animal.

"Hang on, River, we're almost there," Inara said. Her passenger didn't answer. A few hours ago she'd gone into something like a fugue state, staring into space and rocking back and forth as she said her brother's name over and over again. Inara didn't know how Simon managed to deal with her on an ongoing basis. Just a couple of days alone with the girl, and she was drained.

"Simon, Simon, Simon, Simon," River muttered.

"You'll see him soon," Inara assured her. "Wash said they got him back."

River had been doing fairly well, ever since she'd outwitted that bounty hunter. She'd still had her moments, but in general she'd been relatively sane, if a bit odd. The stress of the past few days seemed to have overcome her, though. She'd slipped back to a state not all that different from when she'd first been revived from cryosleep. Inara wished she'd had the foresight to bring some sedatives with her.

"See, there's Serenity, that bright spot up ahead," she pointed out. River still didn't respond.

The bright spot grew larger, and her comm signaled. "Welcome back, Shuttle One," Mal's voice said. Damn, why did it have to be Mal?

She took down the mic. "We're making our approach." Now she was right upon Serenity.

"You're cleared for docking."

"Docking in five, four, three, two." There was a satisfying thunk as her shuttle mated with the larger ship. She shut down the shuttle's systems, then swiveled her seat toward River. "Okay, let's go see your brother," she said. She had to unbuckle River's seat belt and pull the girl upright, then lead her to the hatch, but as soon as the hatch opened, River took off running, still chanting her brother's name.

Mal was waiting on the catwalk. He watched River go, then turned back to Inara. "How's she been?"

She shook her head. "I have no idea. She was kind of hysterical at first, then she settled down and became totally unresponsive."

"As long as she didn't give you too much trouble."

"Not really, especially not considering the circumstances." They walked more sedately along the path River had taken. "How is he?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure. He was in pretty bad shape. He had a gunshot wound they didn't treat, and that got infected. It was a real mess. But the fever's broken, and he seems to have stabilized. It's gonna be a while before he's back on his feet, I imagine."

When they got to the infirmary, she saw that he had somewhat understated the doctor's condition. He looked worse than in "pretty bad shape." River leaned over him, gently tracing the edges of all the bruises on his face with a look of intense concentration. Then she looked up at them. "This is because of me," she said, looking stricken.

Inara hurried to her. "No, it's not your fault, sweetie."

"Not my fault, but because of me. They hurt him to find me." Inara looked up to Mal, who just shrugged. There wasn't really anything anyone could say to that.

Kaylee sat at Simon's side. Inara put a hand on her shoulder. "And how are you doing?"

"I'm okay. Better now that it looks like he's gonna be okay."

"Then remember our deal?" Mal asked.

"Yes, sir," Kaylee said glumly. She bent to give Simon a quick kiss on the forehead, hugged River and Inara, then left the infirmary.

River settled onto the stool Kaylee had vacated and wrapped both of her hands around her brother's hand. "He has to rest now," she informed the rest of them. "He's very far away, and he has to rest before he can come back. The engine's out of fuel, and there are too many stars in the way."

"Oookay," Mal said. "Shepherd, you should get some rest, too. Inara, can you sit here for a while? I'm supposed to be on the bridge, looking out to see if someone's chasing us."

"You go. We'll be okay here, won't we, River?"

River rolled her eyes. "I'm not a child, you know. I'm smarter than all of you."

"He did say she could be a brat," Mal commented before leaving. The Shepherd headed to his own quarters, looking weary.

Once they were gone, Inara smoothed the blanket that covered Simon, then lay a hand on his forehead. His skin felt cool and clammy. She took a cloth and blotted away the sweat that still lingered from his fever. Mal was probably right that he wouldn't be back on his feet for a while. It looked like she wouldn't be leaving Serenity as soon as she'd hoped, and she was surprised at how glad that made her feel.

Book felt refreshed after a couple of hours of sleep, and he returned to the infirmary to check on the young doctor. Inara and River were still in there. "How's he doing?" he asked Inara.

"He seems to have stabilized," she said. He noticed that she had dark circles under her eyes. Chances were, she didn't get much rest while looking after River. "His temperature settled in at just a bit below normal."

"I suppose that means he'll pull through."

"He'll be back soon," River put in.

Sure enough, Simon's eyelids soon fluttered, and he moaned softly. A minute or so later, his eyes opened, and he smiled as he saw his sister. "River! How long have you been here?"

"Not long. You're back."

"Yeah, I'm back. You okay?"

"I'm better than you are."

As if reminded about his condition, he turned his head to check the monitors. "Okay, that looks good. Can we get the bandage off so I can get a look at the wound?"

Book hurried to unwrap the bandage and was relieved to notice that the swelling had gone down considerably, along with much of the redness. He held the camera probe so Simon could see. "Looking good," the doctor said. "Zoe does good work."

"I'm sure she had good coaching," Inara said with a smile.

Book rebandaged the wound while Simon spoke. "So, I think a full course of oral antibiotics just to be sure, and plenty of painkillers, and I should be okay in time. I'm going to need a sling for this arm." Inara opened a drawer, found a sling and brought it to him, then helped him arrange his left arm into it. He then pushed himself upright and swung his legs around so he was sitting on the edge of the table. He disconnected all the monitors, then said, "River, help me get this IV out." She gave the tube a tug to free it, then stuck a small bandage on the inside of his elbow. Just as he seemed about to slide off the edge of the table and try to stand up, the captain came into the infirmary.

"Whoa, wait a second, where do you think you're going?" Mal asked. Jayne came in behind him and leaned against the door frame.

"I'm okay. Stabilized and everything. I'm releasing myself. I just want to get back to my room and get some rest."

"You can rest here."

"I'll rest better in my room. Here, I feel like I should be working. And it's bright and noisy."

"Are you sure that's such a good idea?"

"I'm the doctor here. Look, I'm tired and I hurt and I've been wearing the same clothes for I don't know how many days. I just want to get cleaned up, get on some clean clothes and then sleep for about a week."

Book took him by the elbow. "You'll need help with that, with just one good arm." He shot Mal a look that said he'd take care of this, and the captain nodded.

"I can probably give you a hand with that," Inara said. "I've got some experience with these matters."

As pale as he was, Simon still managed to blush furiously. "No thanks, I think I can manage," he stammered.

"Don't be silly. You don't have anything I haven't seen at least a thousand times." Book wasn't sure who looked most uncomfortable at that statement, the captain or the doctor.

"A thousand, huh?" Mal asked, raising an eyebrow. "So, you keep records?"

She whirled on him, but before she could retort, Jayne said with a leer, "If the doc don't want your help, you can bathe me."

"Now, would that count as servicing crew?" Mal mused with a wicked glint in his eyes.

"You are disgusting, both of you. I'm trying to help here, and you have to go and twist it," Inara fumed.

Mal protested, and Jayne said something at the same time, to which Inara had a sharp comeback, which made River giggle hysterically, until there was a loud din in the infirmary. Finally, the words, "Will everyone please just shut up?" rang through the commotion, and they all turned to see that it was Simon who'd spoken. He was pale and shaking as he added more softly, "It's just too noisy in here. I can't take this right now." He slid off the edge of the exam table, then held onto the table for a second until he got himself steadied. He then made his way slowly out of the room, the others all just staring at him, their argument temporarily forgotten.

Book went after him and found him leaning against the wall just a few steps from the door. "Sorry about that," Simon whispered. "I guess I sounded a lot like River just then."

Book took his elbow and began leading him back toward his room. "It's okay. I think everyone understands, considering what you've gone through."

"I just want to put it behind me, is all."

"And that will just take time."

A few hours later, Mal checked in on Simon. He was sound asleep in his own bed, wearing a clean t-shirt. His hair was damp, and he was clean-shaven, which only made the bruises stand out more. The Shepherd sat beside him.

"How is he?" Mal asked.

"He settled down. I think the painkillers helped. Zoe said to give him the full dose. He did finally agree to let Inara shave him, as she said she was probably the only one who could do it without hurting him. Oh, and she said to tell you that no, this does not mean that she's now servicing the crew. It was a favor for a friend, and no one else should expect similar favors because she sees him as a younger brother, and there's no one else on this ship she regards that way." He managed to capture Inara's tone as he said this, so Mal had no doubt whatsoever that this was exactly the way she'd said it.

"I think it's best if we keep someone with him all the time, until we're sure he's not going to snap on us. He still seemed a bit disoriented last time he was awake."

"That's a very good idea. I'll take this shift, then find someone else when I need a break."

"Good. Thanks."

That particular weight off his shoulders, Mal figured it was time to turn to his next concern, the financial status of their little operation. He went upstairs and found Zoe and Wash at the dining table. The cat sat next to Wash's plate, and Wash fed it scraps from his meal. Mal sat across the table from them. "So, I guess now we'd better figure out what to do next. How are we on fuel?"

"We should be able to get to fuel station 27, no problem."

Zoe shook her head. "Too close. They're tied to Persephone."

"Yeah, we don't know how far Morris' reach goes," Mal added. "What else is there?"

"Give me a sec." Wash got up and ran forward to the bridge. The cat crossed the table and sat in front of Mal, then meowed.

"Oh, okay," he said, reaching out to scratch the cat behind the ears. The resulting purr of pleasure made him smile. He looked up to see Zoe grinning at him. "Not a word from you," he said.

"Wouldn't dream of it, sir."

Wash returned with a display, then punched up a map grid. "There's station 48 here. Probably nothing to do with Persephone, not even too many ties to the Alliance, they're so far out, but that might be pushing it."

"What if we coast?"


"Just use enough thrust to keep us on course and moving forward. Only use the engine to run life support. We could cut back on the heat and lights. It wouldn't kill us to put on a sweater and keep the lights out where they're not needed."

"I'd have to run the numbers, but it should work, with a little to spare. It would take a while to get there, though. At least two weeks."

"We're in no rush to get nowhere, just so long as we have enough food."

"We stocked up pretty well at Persephone," Wash said. "Didn't even have to use cash."

Zoe said, "If we ration, just to keep anyone from being greedy --"

"Jayne," Wash coughed.

"We should have plenty without anyone going hungry. Do we have enough cash to refuel once we get there?"

"We might not be able to fill up completely," Mal said, "but we should have enough to get to where a job is and get the job done. We fill up when we get paid."

"If we can find a job," Wash muttered.

"We'll find a job," Zoe said, patting his hand. "We always do."

Inara swept into the room, looking haughtier than usual. She must still be steamed about what Mal had said in the infirmary, but he'd just been trying to lighten the mood. She walked up to the table and handed him a wad of cash. "Here," she said.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Next month's rent for the shuttle."

"I thought you were leavin' after this month."

"Well, it looks like that won't be happening. You're going to need someone around to look after River until Simon gets back on his feet. So here's next month's rent."

"It's not due for another week."

"You know me. If I don't pay you when I have it, I might just go and spend it on something frivolous. You'd better take it now." He knew exactly what she was doing. She was providing him the cash he needed to keep them flying for a while, and she was giving him an excuse to take it without looking like he was accepting charity. For that, he was grateful.

"Okay, then. Thanks. I'll update your account." She left the room without a word, her head held high. He knew he was going to have to apologize to her, sooner or later. Better later.

"Is that enough to refuel?" Wash asked.

"Together with what we have, looks like it. Now we just need to find ourselves a job. Keep an eye on the Cortex, see if there are any leads -- someone making a big purchase or sale, new factories, whatever. I'd prefer to keep it as legitimate as possible for the time being -- but not so legitimate we're dealing with any officials. If it's shady, make sure it's very low profile. We may still be a bit hot, and I'd rather let things cool down a mite before we start making any noise."

Simon woke to the sense of being completely wrapped in cotton. No, a cloud. His nerve endings felt all fuzzy. It was the first time in nearly as long as he could recall that he actually felt comfortable. Ah, drugs. Lovely, lovely painkilling drugs.

He must have shown signs of waking up, for a voice nearby said, "Simon?" Kaylee. He opened his eyes to see her sitting on the edge of his bed. Then he closed his eyes and counted to three. This all looked just like it had when he was hallucinating in his cell, and he wanted to be sure it was for real this time. When he opened his eyes again, she was still there. "You okay?" she asked. "Are you in pain?"

"No, no pain. I think there is pain, but it's very far away. I feel pretty good right now."

She laughed, and it was a really nice sound. "Yeah, Zoe's keepin' you drugged up but good."

"Zoe is a very good doctor. She knows what she's doing." He felt something soft and warm move against his right hand, and he looked down to see Cat lying next to him. "Hey there, Cat!" He turned back to Kaylee. "The captain let you keep him?"

"He said it's only temporary, 'cause we didn't have time to find a good home for him, like he promised, and 'cause I think he felt sorry for me when I was so scared about you being took, but I suspect he'll end up giving in and letting me keep him for good."

"See, I told you I'd come up with a plan."

She smiled and touched him playfully on the tip of his nose -- which was about the only spot on his face that wasn't bruised. "Well, next time you come up with a plan, don't go to such extremes. We were all worried about you."

"I'll keep that in mind. I wasn't having fun either, you know."

Her smile faded and she looked sad. "No, you probably weren't." He wanted to say something to make her smile again, but his drug-fogged brain wasn't in the game. "Are you thirsty?" she asked. "I've got some juice here for you. Well, it's not real juice, just some powdered stuff mixed with water, but it's strawberry flavor, which is my favorite, and it's got vitamins, which you need to get well."

"Juice would be good." She shifted so that she got one arm under his shoulders to lift him almost to a sitting position, then she scooted over to sit cross-legged behind him, so that he was propped up against her, his head resting on her shoulder. "Comfy?" she asked.

"Yeah." In fact, he was more than comfortable. This was nice, being held by her like that, and it wasn't something he intended to allow in ordinary circumstances, so he'd better enjoy it now. She leaned over to the nightstand and picked up a glass, which she then put in his good hand. "There you go." He took a cautious sip of the juice. It was sweet and tart, and delightfully wet. He hadn't realized how thirsty he was. "Hey, take it easy," she laughed as he drained the glass. "There's more where that came from, and you don't want to make yourself sick."

When he finished the juice, she took the glass and put it back on the nightstand, but she didn't move from her position. He didn't mind one bit. In fact, he'd be willing to stay like that all day. "You okay?" she asked after a while.

"Just fine," he replied.

"No, you're not."

"I'm better than I was, and I will be okay."

He thought he heard a sniffle, and then he felt her hand on top of his head, stroking his hair. "I missed you," she whispered roughly. "When I thought you might be gone for good, well --"

"But I'm not. I'm back." He hated being the one to make her that upset. That was why this was a very, very bad idea. He couldn't stay on Serenity much longer without putting all of them at risk. Too many people now associated him and River with that ship, and that jeopardized the whole crew. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't let himself get any closer. He let himself enjoy being in her arms for the time being because he knew it was as far as he dared let things go. Good-bye was going to be difficult enough, as it was.

He looked up and noticed that the door to his room was closed, then was surprised at the shot of panic that sent through him. That was stupid. He knew exactly where the door was, and he knew that all anyone had to do was push on it to open it. It didn't even take any fancy electronic controls. In a real emergency, he could probably just burst through the door itself without opening it. In fact, he'd often complained to himself about the lack of privacy the flimsy paper door afforded. There was no reason for the sight of a closed door to send him into such a panic. He wasn't in a cell anymore. He supposed he could ask Kaylee to open the door for him. Or he could just close his eyes, pretend the door was open and enjoy her holding him. He decided on the latter course of action.

Her breathing seemed to settle down, so maybe she'd stopped crying. He hoped so. He'd caused her more than enough pain already. "You hungry?" she asked.

He was, he realized. He still hadn't had anything to eat. "Yeah, a bit," he admitted.

"Well, if I can find someone to sit here with you, I could go make you some soup."

"I think I'm okay being left alone for a little while." If she left to make soup, she'd have to open the door, and then he could ask her to keep it open.

"Not according to the captain. I guess he wants to make sure you're not gonna freak out on us or keel over, or anything."

There was a light tap on the door, then the panel slid aside. Simon was surprised at how much better he felt with the door open. It seemed easier to breathe. The captain stepped inside, took a look at their position, raised an eyebrow and said, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

"I was just helpin' him drink his juice," she said, with no sign of shame or embarrassment in her voice. Simon felt like he must be turning red, but he wasn't sure the blush would show under all the bruises. "But now, if you'll sit with him for a while, I'll go get him some soup."

She crawled out from behind him and gently lowered him back onto the pillows. He felt suddenly cold and alone without her comforting warmth surrounding him. The captain sat in the chair by his bed as Kaylee left. "You can leave the door open," Simon called after her.

"So, how's it going, Doctor?" the captain asked when she was gone.

"Okay, I guess. Thank you for coming after me, and for looking after River."

"No problem. I was just taking care of my crew. I am curious about one thing, though. How'd you get out of that place on your own?"

"Now that I think about it, I'm not sure. It's all kind of fuzzy. I think you told me I had to get up and get out."

"I told you?"

"I was sort of hallucinating at the time, but you were right. And then I just asked myself, what would Jayne do?"

At that, the captain laughed, long and loud. "So, let me guess, something violent and impulsive."

"Yeah, something like that. They thought I was too weak to do much of anything, so they weren't guarding me too closely. And then I just stumbled around until you found me. I'm not sure how I managed to get away without them catching me."

"Now, see, that was part of our brilliant plan. Some of the preacher's old friends were keeping your buddy Morris distracted so we could get to you, but I guess it also worked to let you get away."

"I'm truly grateful, believe me. I am curious, though. Where did you find River?"

"Oh, no one's told you that part yet? You're not going to believe it."

"Try me."

"She was dancing with a group of street musicians."

"She was what?" Simon almost sat up, until he felt a twinge of pain in his chest and lay back down.

"I thought you'd appreciate that. It seems she landed on her feet okay. She was quite the big hit at the marketplace. She was pulling in a fair amount of coin, too. Maybe we should hire her out in the future. She still has that costume she was wearing."

"And I was so worried about her being okay."

"I don't think you have to worry about her as much as you think."

"No, I probably don't." It was nice to know that his sister would be okay, no matter what happened, but it also made him feel somewhat useless. If she didn't really need him, then what was he supposed to be doing?

The captain stood. "Well, you just take it easy for a while. Inara's keeping an eye on River for you. Zoe'll be by in a bit to check on the bandage and see if you need more medicine."

"I take it this means I can be left alone now."

"Yeah. It don't look like you're gonna go crazy on us."

Simon winced. "Sorry about that."

"Don't worry about it. Just get yourself better. Zoe's looking forward to turning the medic job back over to you."

"Please leave the door open," Simon called after him as he left.

The problem with taking the slow road, Mal thought a few days later, was that it was so boring. He didn't have much to do other than walk the ship to make sure everything was working properly and in its place. Going over the ship's books was too depressing for him to want to spend much time on that. The recent crisis seemed to have solidified the crew, so he didn't even have to deal with any petty spats. The doctor being out of commission helped in that regard, so he and Jayne hadn't had any words, and Jayne was acting strangely subdued. He seemed to be working out most of his aggressions playing tug-of-war with the cat. Maybe Zoe had a point about that animal being good for the crew.

He finished his inventory of the contents of the cargo hold and came to the conclusion that things were just as grim as he'd thought. They didn't have much of anything worth selling or bartering. They'd have to get work as soon as they refueled.

He stepped through the hatch into the passenger area and heard River's voice coming through the open doorway of her brother's room. "And then they threw lots of money at me, so I danced some more," she explained. Just out of curiosity, Mal wandered over there and stuck his head in the door. Simon was out cold. River sat on the floor near his bed, chattering away while she drew what looked like an elaborate technical diagram of some piece of machinery. She seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that her audience was completely unconscious. Come to think of it, he couldn't recall her spending any time with her brother when he was awake. Then again, finding him awake could be something of a challenge. He apparently had been serious when he said he planned to sleep for a week.

With a shrug, Mal headed upstairs to the dining room. Jayne was in the seating alcove, teasing the cat with a piece of string. Zoe, Wash and Kaylee sat at the dining table. "Hey, Mal," Wash said, "I may have something for you."

"What kind of something?" Mal asked, taking a seat.

"A job kind of something. It's one of those friend of a friend of a cousin's friend's brother sort of things. I could draw you a chart, if you like."

"Don't matter, so long's the job's on the up and up. What is it?"

"It's on Ceres, less than a day from the fueling station. It'll be harvest time on the upper hemisphere when we hit there, and they'll need transport for some of their exports. The pay's not extremely lucrative, but the job's totally legit."

"Sounds just like what we need. Go ahead and tell 'em we'll do it."

"Okay. Hey, it's probably a good thing we've got that cat. You always tend to pick up a few mice when you're hauling foodstuffs."

Mal groaned. "Okay, I give up. Keep the gorram cat. Just quit with the public relations campaign, already."

Kaylee squealed and hugged Mal. "Oh, I knew you'd come around. You ain't as mean as you try to be."

"Yes, I am."

"You hear that, Cat? You get to stay," Jayne said. The cat didn't look impressed. It probably considered it a foregone conclusion.

Mal figured that meant just about everything was pretty much settled. The doctor was on the mend, the law seemed to be leaving them alone, and they had a job lined up. There was just one more thing he had to make right, and he was not looking forward to it.

Simon was still asleep when Kaylee got to his room with the dinner tray. She set the tray on the nightstand and watched him sleep for a while. He was looking better. His right eye was no longer swollen shut, and some of the bruises were fading around the edges. He did need a shave, though. She gently ran a finger across the stubble on his jaw. The beard was kind of sexy, but she'd like to see it without all the bruises.

He blinked, then opened his eyes. As usual these days, it took him a second or two to bring everything into focus. When he woke up, she always got the feeling he expected to be somewhere else. He looked a little less foggy than he had for the past few days. Zoe must not be drugging him as much. "Hey there," she said. "Ready for dinner?"

"Is it that time already?"

"Time flies when you're sound asleep." She helped him sit up, noticing that he was getting stronger. He was almost able to do that on his own now. Then she scooted into her usual place behind him, holding the bowl so he could feed himself the soup she'd brought. She imagined by now he could manage just propping up against pillows, but she kind of liked the chance to snuggle with him like this, and she figured if he didn't like it, he would have made a fuss about it. He hadn't been at all shy about not letting people do for him while he was sick.

While he ate, she took care of the conversation, filling him in on the day's events. "And looks like Wash has lined up a couple of jobs for us, so we're back in business," she told him. "They're nothing big, but they're simple and even legal, so even the captain thinks they'll go smooth. Oh, and best of all, Cap'n said we could keep Cat, for good. I guess we all finally wore him down."

"Really? See, what did I tell you? He changes his mind. Not too many months ago, he was going to space me. Now he's coming to the rescue."

"Our captain has a weakness for strays."


"I didn't mean nothin' by it. Just that you needed a place." She tickled his earlobe with the hand that wasn't holding his dinner bowl. "And here you are."

"Here I am." His voice sounded distant, and her heart sank. He was doing it again. Every time she felt like she'd got close to him, he started to back off. He'd done it before, but he'd been even worse since he was sick. The first day or so, it was nice, but as soon as he started to feel better, she felt like he was retreating from her. She just didn't understand him.

He finished his soup and put the spoon in the bowl. "That was good. Thank you," he said, his voice all stiff and formal.

"Shepherd Book made it," she said, trying not to let her disappointment show in her voice. "He had to use up the last of the fresh food he got at Persephone before it went bad, and he figured you ought to get a chance to have some, so he made soup, just for you."

"I'll have to make a point of thanking him." Then he yawned and added, "Now, I think it's time for another nap." She didn't need him to draw her a map. She took the bowl and put it on its tray, then slid out from under him and settled him onto his pillows.

"Sleep tight," she told him as she straightened the covers over him. He closed his eyes, and she hesitated for a moment before bending to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. She thought she saw one of his eyelids twitch, and she imagined he wasn't really asleep. With her heart somewhere down around her knees, she picked up the tray and headed upstairs to wash out the dishes.

She just didn't get him. He was the most confounding man she'd ever met. She never had a clear sense of where she stood with him, and it was about to drive her crazy. She figured it was high time she got some advice, so she went straight to Inara's shuttle. "You busy?" she asked as she stuck her head in the open doorway.

Inara turned and greeted her with a smile. "Not particularly. Come in."

Kaylee came in and took a seat on the sofa. Inara was seated at her terminal, the one she used to line up appointments with clients. "What're you up to?" she asked. "Setting up your next appointment?"

Inara gave her a smile that made her look like she was up to something. "Actually, I'm finding work for Serenity."

"Oh, the captain ain't gonna like that. He gets all proud about takin' charity."

"Which is why I'm funneling the jobs I find through Wash."

"So, that's how Wash suddenly has so many old friends comin' out of the woodwork. But aren't you mad at the captain? I haven't seen you two speak in a while."

"That's part of my brilliant scheme. If I act mad at him, he won't suspect that I'm doing him any favors." Her smile faded a bit. "Actually, I'm sure he already suspects, but if he acts like he doesn't, it gives him a chance to save face, and saving face is very important for men."

"You understand men pretty well, don't you?"

Inara left the terminal and came to sit by Kaylee on the sofa. "Is there something you wanted to talk about, Kaylee?"

It seemed like Inara just understood people in general. "Yeah, I guess."

"A certain young doctor, perhaps?"

Kaylee sighed. "Who else? I just don't get him, 'Nara."

"Kaylee, he's been through a lot. He's still very sick and weak, and he's heavily medicated."

"But that's just it. He's doing better, and he ain't so drugged up no more, but the better he seems to be, the more it's like he's fading away from me. He gets all quiet, and I even think he wants to get rid of me."

Inara took her hand and squeezed it. "There's more going on here than physical healing. He nearly died. He was a long time alone in that place, being treated very badly. That's going to affect the way he thinks, and it may be a while before we even realize what it's done to him. I know you're excited because of what you realized about your feelings for him, but he's in a very different place right now."

"Yeah, Shepherd said it probably wasn't the right time." She looked away, feeling kind of foolish, then felt she might as well confess. "While he was so sick and delirious, and we thought he might die, I told him I loved him, and he said 'don't,' that it was too dangerous. Shepherd Book said I shouldn't read too much into it, that it may not even have had anything to do with what I said, and he wouldn't even remember. But what if he did hear me, and he does remember, and he doesn't want anything to do with me anymore?"

"I agree with Shepherd Book. Don't worry about it. You're just going to have to give him time and space. What he needs now more than anything is a friend. Be that friend. It's the best gift you could possibly give him."

"So I shouldn't worry that he doesn't feel the same way I do?"

"Not now. You'll have to be patient with this one, mei-mei."

With a deep sigh, Kaylee stood up. "I suppose you're right. Thanks, Inara. I'm glad you're back. You're gonna stay, right?"

"We'll see."

Kaylee wanted to ask for an explanation, but Inara's tone sounded kind of final, so she just left. Funny, but she didn't feel like she had any of the answers she was looking for, though she did feel better. She wondered just how long she'd have to be patient.

Simon woke in a dark, cold room. That should have been an immediate clue that he was in his room on Serenity and not in that cell, because the cell was always bright and he knew the temperature was down on Serenity because they were conserving power, but he still felt the need to make sure of where he was when he woke up. He closed his eyes, counted to three, then opened them again. He was still in his room. And the door was shut. Whoever had come in while he was sleeping had shut the door behind them when they left.

That shouldn't be a big deal. He knew the door could open at any time. It wasn't like he was going to be going anywhere, anyway. As long as he was lying in bed, it shouldn't matter whether or not the door was open. The ship felt still and silent, which meant it was probably night, so he wouldn't hear or see anything even with the door open.

But it did matter. In fact, he wasn't sure he could get back to sleep with the door shut. The walls were converging on him, and he felt like he was suffocating.

He was getting stronger. Surely he could manage to get out of bed, open the door, then get back into bed. He managed to push himself to a sitting position, then it took a second or two for his head to stop spinning. It was high time he started moving around more, anyway. All that bedrest would lower his blood pressure, maybe even atrophy his muscles.

He noticed that he was wearing a sweater. Zoe must have put it on him when she changed his bandage. She tended to do that while he was unconscious so it wouldn't hurt him so much, and for that he was grateful, but he'd have to tell her it was okay to leave the door open when she left.

While he was in bed, he kept his wounded arm at his side because the pressure of it lying across his chest hurt his ribs, so he had to find his sling before he could get up. It was on the nightstand, and it took a little effort to get the sling on by himself. He wasn't sure where his shoes were, but he was only going across the room, so walking in his socks shouldn't be a problem, even in the cold.

With as deep a breath as he dared with all those broken and bruised ribs, he eased himself off the edge of the bed and onto his feet. Again, he had to fight off a dizzy spell, but then he was able to walk almost the entire way to the door while holding onto the bed. At last, he was at the door, and with one swift motion, he pushed it open.

Immediately, he felt like a weight had lifted off his chest, and his breathing became easier. Just to prove that he could, he stepped out of his room into the corridor. He hadn't left his room in days other than for trips to the head, and it was good to remind himself that he could leave the room whenever he wanted to. To further test his freedom, he made his way slowly out to the common area. The ceiling was nice and high there, and it felt open.

But not open enough. He realized then that he couldn't leave the ship. He was trapped inside, cut off from the outside world. His pulse raced and he felt beads of sweat break out on his forehead. This was ridiculous. He didn't want to go outside the ship. He hated EVA suits. What was wrong with him? He'd never been claustrophobic before, but now he had an overwhelming need to see out. Slowly and carefully, he started climbing the stairs to the upper deck.

Mal's late-night ramblings often took him into the cargo bay. He tried to tell himself that he was just checking on the cargo, but that excuse didn't work too well when there was none. No, it was all about the shuttle that opened onto the catwalk above the cargo bay. He knew he wasn't going to knock on her door and apologize at this late hour. That would be rude. Funny how he managed to avoid the general area when she was likely to be awake.

But there was a figure on the catwalk as he came down the stairs from the foredeck. The figure was graceful and wore flowing robes, so odds were it wasn't Jayne. He could tell that much, even with the lights dimmed. She turned in his direction, and he knew she'd seen him. He couldn't pretend to have missed her in the darkness.

Hell, it was as good a time as any for that apology he owed her. This would be easier when they couldn't see each others' faces so well. "Inara," he said. "What keeps you up this late?"

"Oh, I was just thinking. I rather like the way the cargo bay looks with the lights out like this."

He leaned against the railing next to her. "Yeah. It is kind of atmospheric. Romantic, even." He glanced in her direction, but she was still staring straight ahead.

"If you get really desperate, you could rent this place out for parties."

"Yeah, that's us, have party, will travel. Hold your shindig in the finest party boat the 'verse has to offer. I doubt we'll sink that far. I'd shoot myself, first. It's bad enough that we're gonna be hauling wheat from continent to continent for a while. Not that I'm not grateful for the opportunity, mind you." She didn't react, not noticeably, but he thought he detected a slight quirk to her lips. "Thank you, by the way."

"For what?"

"For stirring up the work, as menial as it might be."

"What makes you think it was me?"

"Because Wash don't have that many old friends. Why, Inara?"

"Because you needed the work. You did the right thing, and you've suffered for it, and I think you should be rewarded."

"What right thing, get screwed over by Badger?"

"Even without the job from Badger, you could have found work around Persephone, but you made a priority out of helping River and Simon, and that cost you business. I'm just doing my part to help make up for it."

"And here I thought you were mad at me. I was planning to apologize for what I said, by the way."

"I wasn't mad. Well, not for long, anyway. I know what you were trying to do. You were trying to lighten the mood and make Simon a little less uncomfortable. Just next time, don't do it at my expense."

He gave her a mock salute. "Never again. Scout's honor. And I am sorry. It was rude and inexcusable."

"Stop it before you start sounding insincere. Good night, Mal." Before he could say anything else, she was inside her shuttle, with the hatch closed firmly behind her.

He climbed the ladder up into the bridge, ready to sit alone for a spell before heading back to his bunk, but he noticed right away that someone was already on the bridge. Simon sat slumped in the co-pilot's chair, his head resting against the chair back and his legs stretched out in front of him. He stared off into space -- literally -- as he gazed out the front viewscreen.

Mal was used to looking in on him in his room, but out of that context, it was almost startling how bad he still looked, even though he seemed to be getting better. Quite frankly, the boy looked like go se. He carried his left arm in a sling. Some of the bruises on his face had faded, so his skin was mottled with shades of yellow, green, blue and purple. Underneath the bruises, he was still deathly pale. He was in desperate need of a shave -- Mal imagined that shaving over those bruises wouldn't be fun -- and his hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb in a couple of days. But it was his eyes that roused Mal's concern. They were sunk into deep, dark hollows, and they had a look in them that Mal was all too familiar with because he saw it whenever he looked in the mirror. His eyes said that while his body might have escaped, his soul was still trapped back in that place of torment and couldn't find a way out.

They'd been so worried about getting him out of the woods physically that they hadn't paused to think that the hard part of healing him was only just starting. Judging from his own experiences, they had a long road ahead of them. It had taken Mal years to get back to even the degree of sanity he currently had. He wasn't sure Simon would have that much time. It would be a miracle if the boy lived to see thirty. What he was up against was just too damn big.

Mal tried to keep his voice casual as he climbed the last few steps. "What are you doing up here?" he asked.

Simon's attention didn't waver from the starfield. "Looking out the window," he said. His words were a bit slurred. Zoe was still keeping him pretty heavily doped up. As she put it, "As many broken ribs as he's got, ain't no such thing as a comfortable position."

Mal sat in the pilot's chair and swiveled it to face Simon. "Aren't you supposed to be resting?"

"I'm resting here."

"Is there something wrong with your room? I imagine your bed is a lot more comfortable than this."

"The walls were closing in. Too much like that cell. I just couldn't -- I needed to see out."

Mal nodded even as he had to fight back an impulse to hit something on the boy's behalf. "So I guess you got the upper-class accommodations, not the good old-fashioned kind of cell with bars on it."

"I had one of those at first, but only for a couple of hours, give or take. But the rest of the time, it was an isolation cell, no windows, and I couldn't even find the door once it was closed. It was like being in a tomb. And blank white walls." He looked at Mal and smiled a smile that didn't touch his eyes. "Would it have killed them to put up some art work, or even those motivational and safety posters they used to have in the hospital break room?" He gestured with his right hand. "'Teamwork gets the job done' or 'Prevent accidents: dispose of sharps properly.' I always hated those."

"That's a real shame, 'cause I just picked up a bunch of those cheap and was thinkin' about redecorating the common area." That earned him a slight grin, but it still didn't go all the way to his eyes.

After a long silence, Simon spoke again, his voice not much above a whisper. "They never did book me. They didn't go through any of the usual procedures."

"And you know all about the usual procedures, do you?"

"Well, yeah. You don't think I spent three years trying to find River without getting into a bit of trouble, do you? I probably have more arrests on my record than the rest of the crew put together. I also know where all of the blackout zones in Capital City are. That could come in handy someday."

"I imagine it could." But not anytime soon. Mal didn't intend to go anywhere near the Core until things had cooled down considerably. Then he added, "And, no, they didn't book you. That's why it took us so long to find you. There wasn't any record of them having you." That also meant he hadn't been under the protection of any law, which explained the physical condition they'd found him in.

"River saves the day again. I'm glad I got her away from the Academy, though I suppose I wouldn't have been in that situation if I hadn't got her away." He frowned, then said, "No, I'm still glad I got her out."

"Look, Doc -- Simon -- I'm sorry I let this happen to you."

"Not your fault."

Mal took a deep breath. "Yes, it is. Badger set a trap, and I pretty much jumped into it head-first. I should have thought. He got a good look at you two before, and I should have known that he'd figure out who you were and use that to his advantage. Hell, it took Jayne to figure that much out even after you got took. I got greedy, and we needed the work, so I didn't even stop to think about how it might work out."

"Then I was way ahead of you. I figured it out pretty quickly. But, I'm the fugitive here. I should be thinking a step ahead. I knew he got a look at us, even talked to River some. I even got a warning from River that I was in danger, and I didn't try to do anything about it. I need to be thinking about things like this. Maybe I've felt too safe here. I've forgotten that I have to think like a fugitive, all the time."

"If it makes you feel better, I'm planning on killin' him."

"Need some help with that?"

"You and this boat aren't goin' anywhere near Persephone ever again, dong ma? I think we made a few enemies in high places back there. Morris isn't going to be happy about his prize prisoner escaping. But someday, when I've got a bit of spare time and a job the rest of you can handle on your own, I'm going back there and I'm gonna kill that little qingwa caoh liou mahng with my bare hands. I don't take kindly to bein' played for a fool, and nobody gets away with betraying me or my crew."

"I appreciate that, Captain."

They sat in silence for a while, each of them lost in his own dark thoughts. "How're you feeling?" Mal asked at last.

Simon took a deep breath, like the start of a sigh, then winced and breathed shallowly through clenched teeth for a few seconds before speaking. "The ribs are the worst, I guess. That fever left me pretty weak and tired. The headaches are mostly gone. Other than that, I just hurt like hell, everywhere. It's going to take time." He turned to Mal and gave him the first genuine grin in a long time. "But hey, we're still flying."

Mal grinned in response. "Yeah, that we are."

Simon turned back to look out at the stars. "And for now, that's enough. It has to be, because I think that's about all I've got."

"Don't knock the small favors, son." Mal stood to leave. "You gonna be up here all night?"


Mal opened a locker, took out a blanket and tossed it to him. "Holler if you need anything, and keep your hands off Wash's dinosaurs."

"Yes, sir."

Mal left him there, still staring out at the stars. They were still flying, and for that, he was extremely grateful.

The End

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