Low voices drift from the half-open door of Inara's shuttle. Mal slows his pace, takes stock, and frowns. One of the voices is male and that ain't good. Shepherd's reading in the kitchen and Mal knows Wash is on deck with Zoe. That leaves Jayne or the doc and he can't quite see Inara letting Jayne set one foot into her private space without slamming the door on the other. Hard.
Doc then. Mal strides into the shuttle without knocking and favours the inhabitants with a reptilian grin, "Well, isn't this cozy? Is this a private party or can anyone join in?"
Inara raises an eyebrow at his entrance and folds her hands on her lap, resting them on a pile of brightly-coloured silk. The gesture is unhurried, sensuous as are all her movements, but it feels wrong - like she's hiding something. Mal should know for he's gotten in the habit of filling the dark pauses before sleep with visions of Inara. Walking, laughing, reading, eating. There's no moment too mundane that she cannot invest it with some unexpected twist of grace.
Still, she meets his gaze coolly. "I told you never to come in here without knocking."
For a brief flicker Mal's smile becomes real. "That you did. But here I am, large as life and twice as shiny, all set to make up a threesome."
Usually that's cause for a smoulder or two and Mal would be lying if he didn't admit that he said such things for the sole purpose of ruffling Inara up but she remains perfectly poised. It's unsettling and he can't help pushing a little harder. "Unless there's something about numbers in the Companion Rule Book - what do you think, doc, perhaps we could club together and get a group discount?"
The two voices start simultaneously, but whatever protest Simon is attempting is drowned out by Inara. She speaks sharply, obviously biting back stronger words. "I understand you can't help being rude and obnoxious but since I didn't invite you here perhaps you'd like to say whatever it is you came to say and then leave."
Inara is something when she's angry. She's something any time, of course, but Mal likes her best like this when she can't hide behind her training. The blood is high on her face and neck, a deep, dark rose flush fading to paler pink as it spills down into the deep valley of her breasts. Her dark brows are drawn together over narrowed eyes. She's waiting for a response, but Mal's attention is elsewhere. He's busy staring at the silk on Inara's lap. Her movements have dislodged the material revealing one of Simon's fancy-dancy waistcoats.
Doc himself is in shirtsleeves, balancing a delicate china bowl between clasped hands. The faint scent of jasmine rises with the steam. He looks acutely uncomfortable, but then Simon often is outside the safe confines of the infirmary. How that boy lasted more than five minutes without him and his sister being caught and strung up by the Feds is a never-ending source of amazement. Mal can tell from Simon's face that he wishes the captain gone and that alone is reason enough to make him stay.
"No hurry," Mal says easily. He sits down and reaches across to the tea things, pouring himself a generous helping. "You would tell me if I'm interrupting?"
Inara is still glaring at him so it is Simon who answers the unasked question. "I came to borrow thread."
Mal sips his tea with noisy relish. The cup feels too small and delicate between his hands. The porcelain is old, a soft white paste worn so thin that shadows from his thumbs clearly show through on the inside of the cup.
Mal waits, allowing a questioning look to cross his features.
"I -- one of the buttons came off and I needed thread to --" Simon shuffles uneasily, the movement causing tea to spill over his wrist. He winces and lifts the hand to his mouth to suck away the liquid.
Mal watches him and watches Inara also watching. The expression on her face is unreadable.
" - to stitch on the button," finishes Inara. She flashes a smile at Simon and gestures for him to refill his cup.
Mal's lip curls. "Seems to me you should have plenty enough thread in the infirmary. If you run out, you give me a note and I'll see to adding more next supply stop we make."
"Not colours. I didn't ask Inara to --"
"No, of course you didn't. I offered." Inara's voice is warm. Simon is visibly relaxing although underneath the tension is still apparent. He turns once again to his drink. Over his bent head Inara fixes Mal with a look composed of knives and lemons. It's a face that clearly says "Go" although her tone remains reassuring. "Relax and enjoy your tea, Simon, the button won't take more than a couple of minutes to sew. I'll enjoy doing it. At the Academy I used to help all my friends with their clothes."
She's not joking. Mentally Mal adds another image of Inara to his file and pictures her on an elaborately embroidered bed at the centre of a group of laughing girls holding up a procession of silks and satins as they decide what to wear.
Ignoring the glare, Mal settles deeper against his cushions and sips his own tea. Inara takes out an inlaid box of many coloured threads and sewing bits. She holds up a couple of skeins against the waistcoat before making her selection. In. Out. Pull. Smooth. She's obviously an accomplished needlewoman. There's something timeless and hypnotic about her movements. Mal slants a look at Simon who is watching the process spellbound. Inara chooses that moment to glance up and her eyes meet Simon's. They share a look. Not lust, Mal's seen that often enough to recognise it, or even or friendship, but recognition. Something twists inside his stomach.
"Seems to me surgeon should have more sewing skills than a whore." It's ungracious, even by Mal's standards, and for a moment an almost moment an apology hovers at the tip of his tongue but before the words can form Simon and Inara both speak at once.
"You don't know what my skills are!"
"It's not the same, skin and cloth. There's no call for --. You know you can't --" Simon glances at Inara, interupts himself, and stares down at his tea. His fingers are knotted tightly around the cup. Mal ignores him and watches Inara as she carefully sets a final pair of stitches into the bright silk and ties a knot. She smoothes down material around the button and, smiling, holds it up for inspection.
Simon puts his cup down and reaches across for the waistcoat. In his hurry to put it on he mismatches the buttons until Inara stops him, reaching out to undo the fastenings and match them starting from the stop. Her movements are quick and neat as if she has helped men dress many times before. And she has.
"Thank you." The extra layer seems to have armoured Simon. He sounds like the doctor again, remote and professional. "I'm very grateful."
"It was no trouble." Inara's words are for Simon but her eyes rest on Mal. Simon moves to shake her hand but instead raises it awkwawrdly to his lips, kissing the knuckles. "You're very kind."
"It was no trouble," she repeats. "You know you're welcome here anytime."
Mal scowls after Simon's retreating back. "Are all your clients that grateful?"
"Naturally. But Simon's not a client." She turns away busying herself with replacing the contents of the box and returning it to its shelf.
"Just keep it that way. I don't want complications with my crew." He sips his tea but it has gone cold.
"Then I suggest you develop some kind of personnel policy."
She's angry and it's not the kind of good angry that's usual between them. The words are there but the fit's wrong. It's because of Simon, he knows. Damn boy and his sister have managed to totally unsettle the running of the ship. Wherever they are there's trouble.
"Whoo hoo! And it's another pinpoint-precision docking by Serenity's favourite pilot!" carols Wash. He switches off the engines and spins round in his chair, face alight with eagerness. "Come on, Zoe, my little passionflower, the pleasure planet awaits our every whim."
Zoe rolls her eyes at her husband, glances at Mal, who shrugs. "Go on, if you want. There's nothing much we can do here until MineralCorp turns ups tomorrow afternoon. Might as well have a night on the town."
"Nice landing, Wash!" Kalyee pops up on the bridge in time to hear his final words. "Did you mean it about free time?" At Mal's nod she flings her arms around his neck and does a little dance. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I'll go tell the others! A night out on Ursa Int! Oh, this is gonna be sooo good! "
Immediately she's off again, boots thump-thumping down the metalic corridors as she runs, trailing little exclamations of excitement. The three left in the cockpit grin at her enthusiasm. Wash pulls an unresisting Zoe down onto his lap and murmurs into her neck, echoing Kaylee's words but with a totally different intonation. "Going to be sooo good."
"Yeah," says Mal, feeling like an intruder. "I'll go spread the word to the crew. We leave at 19.00. Meantime, figure I've seen all the precision docking I need to for one day."
"Sure, Captain," Wash mumbles, still buried in Zoe.
He's not sure they even notice him leave.
Marital distractions notwithstanding, both his pilot and second are there on time for the landing party. Wash now sports an eye-wateringly bright yellow and orange shirt while Zoe wears her usual uniform. Mal lets his eyes drift over the remainder of the crew dressed in their holiday finery. They're a motley bunch even by Ursa Intermediate's standards. He tries not to think of Inara as he last saw her, bandbox perfect in satin and pearls, as she is escorted by a liveried servant into a horse-drawn carriage.
River has refused to wear shoes and stands barefoot in the road. She's wearing a full-skirted sleeveless dress that's way too large for her. It hangs off her shoulders and is only saved from sweeping the ground by one of Kaylee's scarves that's doubling as a belt. Simon holds her flat pumps in his hands in the hopes that she'll agree to put them on later. He's chosen to grace the occasion with suit, shirt and waistcoat, all fully buttoned and tied. Mal recognises the waistcoat as the one that Inara mended and feels a brief fly-brushing of remembered unease. Sartorically, the two Tams could not be wider apart. Visually their expressions are identical. Disbelieving.
"This is a famous pleasure planet?" The question's not quite rhetorical. It's obvious Simon's not entirely sure that he and River are not being set up for some kind of elaborate practical joke.
"Only the best," says Jayne, slapping his shoulder. "Only the tamade best!"
Neither Tam looks convinced. Mal can hardly blame them.
Ursa Intermediate is not a naturally imposing place- the sun's too close for any but the most hardy of scrub plants to eke out an existence in the cracked and dusty ground, but what it lacks from nature it makes up for in the fantastic application of manmade attractions. Huge pleasure domes hold everything from tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains. Water is manufactured and stored in vast underground chemical refineries and food plants are grown under dome cover or imported. It's not cheap to live here but that hardly matters because there's plenty with money enough to embrace every thrill the planet can offer. Serenity is trading foodblocks in return for ore.
"Bear by name, bare by nature." Simon mutters to himself as he takes his first steps along main street some twenty minutes later. It's true that the free-entry street bars are shabby and the outer surfaces of the commercial domes don't give much away but the streets are clean and well lit.
"If we get real lucky, boy," agrees Jayne, spectacularly missing the point. A shit-eating grin of pure speculative happiness threatens to split his face in two.
"Nrrrrgh!" Wash inadvertantly meets Mal's eyes and chokes on a burst of suppressed laughter. Zoe thumps his back efficiently and is rewarded by a teary smile. "Thank you, dear, I would hate to die before we've spent all our credits. Think we can afford to visit a swimming dome, Zoe? A nudist swimming dome with waterslides and bubble jets?" Zoe's expression doesn't change but Wash apparently sees the answer he's looking for in her eyes. His face lights up and he licks his lips lasciviously.
Simon takes in the by-play, unmoving, his face still reflecting uncertainty.
"Just wait, Simon," says Kaylee, linking her arm through his. "It may not look much but Ursa Int's real shiny. You and River are going to love it, dong ma?" She gives a little skip of excitement. "Right, Mal?"
Mal makes a conscious effort to sound cheerful. After all, it's been a profitable run and they're here to relax. He's left Book guarding Serenity with instructions to report in on the hour but he's not expecting trouble. There's plenty of lowlifes on Ursa, but by and large, they make their money legitimately. He scuffs the toe of his boot into the red earth of main street and debates if he can afford to visit one of the smaller domes. He could swim maybe, or ride, that always takes his mind off things. Maybe later. Until then, he leads the crew into the least shabby looking of the public drinking houses and calls for a bottle.
Inara is enjoying a tropical sunset by a shoreside restaurant in the company of the Head of Production of MineralCorp. His sun-spotted hand is draped loosely on the red silk that barely covers her shoulder fingering the loose knot that holds the silk to her form. The hand reaches down, fingers cupping over the full curve of her breast.
...his fingers curling.
Except it's not his hand, not his fingers, and it never will be.
Qu tamade! Mal clenches his fists and forces the image to dissolve. Apart the location, which he knows because he insisted that Inara be contactable at all times, the rest is a figment of his imagination. All he can actually see of the Elysium Paradise Dome where she is staying is the billboard advertising its attractions and rates. This is visible through the window of their own bar. Of course, it's sheer coincidence they ended up here. Elysium Paradise View the tavern is called, with no irony, even though all the only view is the road outside, the poster and the dark, impenetrable walls of the dome. The tables are scarred wood and the seating either simple bench style or high backed settles. He glances down and notices they're bolted to the floor. It's busy enough though, and the clientele not noticeably dirty or armed, so he figures it's safe enough to relax for a while.
Mal wipes a trickle of sweat from his brow and, once more, tries not to think of what lies on the other side of the structure. It's too damn hot here. He turns his gaze on to his companions who are passing around a glass bottle of pale blue liquid. Aqua Vita although there's precious little aqua in it. There's half a dozen little shot glasses lying unused on the table while they chug straight from the bottle. Jayne took one look and said they weren't big enough to spit in and the others followed his lead.
Simon wipes the rim before raising it to his lips.
"Ain't got nothing catchin', pretty boy." Jayne's voice is a growl as he jostles Simon's hand. Inevitably the liquid spills, trickling down Simon's lawn shirt in a ragged blue line. In a concession to the occasion he's undone the waistcoat which falls in soft folds of colour along his sides. "Tianna! Sorry!" Jayne doesn't even try and make it sound sincere. He runs an ungentle finger down Simon's shirt in feigned amazement "Well, lookie here, dirt doesn't just fly off you but messes ye 'up same as the rest of us. Who'd have thought?"
Simon shifts back under his touch. "Certainly not you."
Jayne looks puzzled, knowing he should be offended but not quite sure how. "Meaning?" he asks at last.
Simon smiles. "Meaning you're messy. I'm not."
Jayne still looks dissatisfied, but in the interim the bottle has gone round again. He throws his head back and drinks noisily. Blue liquid drips down his chin and along his chest. He wipes his mouth and laughs, good humour restored. "Now we match."
"Twins, definitely," says Wash.
Kaylee giggles. "Oh yes, nothing to choose between you."
"Peas in a pod," agrees Simon. The drink has loosened him up somewhat. His eyes are wide and slightly glazed. Suddenly it seems hilarious and they are all sniggering helplessly, even Mal. Bananas in a bunch. Corn on a cob. Virgins in a temple. The bottle goes round twice more while they think of unlikely collectives.
"Gotta pee," says Jayne abruptly. He swivels his head around once or twice before rising from the table and stumbling out of the door.
Zoe fixes Wash with a look. He pretends to misunderstand and then gives in a shrug. "Oh, all right. I'll go with him, but that's all. When we find the place he'll have to hold his own."
Kaylee giggles again and stands using the table for leverage. She sways a little, even with the additional support. "I gotta go, too. Whatever's in that bottle travels mighty quick. Coming?" Her glance takes in Zoe and River who also rise.
Simon's lips lift in amusement. "What all of you at once? Is there some secret signal I'm missing."
Kaylee sparkles back. Mal wonders if she knows how much she gives away every time she looks at the doctor. And if Simon really has failed to spot it or is just feigning obliviousness. "Don't you know that girls always go together? That way we can talk about you."
"Me? Why would you want to talk about me?"
"Not you. Menfolk!"
"What! I'm a man." He sits up straighter, squares his shoulders, all stiff dignity.
Kaylee leans forward confidentially, "You? You're a doctor. Could be a man, but you'd rather be a doctor. Pity, 'cause you're so pretty. Prettiest thing I ever did see."
She catches hold of Zoe and River and links one on each arm, in what could be either companionship or support, before adding, in a lightning quick change of mood. "Also, we talk about engines. And strawberries. Important stuff."
Simon's got his mouth half open and looks like he wants to say something but has no idea what, which is probably the case. Boy really is as clueless as he seems. As they leave River turns her head and speaks for the first time that evening. "It's alright, Simon, you and Mal can both be alone together."
This has the effect of silencing whatever it was that Simon might have said. Come to think of it, there's never much you can actually say in reply to one of River's crazy pronouncements. The girl is some kind of conversation killer. Mal takes a swig of the Aqua Vita and passes it back to Simon. He thinks again of Inara and resolutely pushes the images of her out of his mind. He's fought one lost cause in his life and it's taught him enough to leave well alone in future. So that leaves Simon. He tries to come up with something to say. And can't. He simply can't talk to Simon. It ain't never happened. Not since their first meeting. The boy and he just don't mix. Oil and water. He had a horse like that once. High spirited filly, back at the ranch. Always thinking she knew better, trying to double guess his orders. Training her was a mixture of the flick of the whip and gentle caresses. Sweet ride she proved but always with that odd kick in her gait. Best damn horse. he'd had to shoot her in the end, broken leg.
They sit silently passing the bottle back and forth. Mal tries not to think too much about the couple in the dome bathed in a deep orange sunset and splashing through a blue-green swirl of water that he can only imagine, not see. Eventually Wash and Jayne return with a new bottle and join in the drink passing ritual. Zoe comes back with River in tow.
Simon looks around, worried. "Where's Kaylee. Shouldn't she be with you?"
Wash and Zoe exchange glances and Jayne laughs rudely. "Little Kaylee isn't coming back, leastways not tonight. She's getting herself some kind of examination if you get my drift, Doc, fancied herself a little bit of mouth on mouth resuscitation."
"Mouth to mouth." Simon corrects automatically then flushes. Oh that boy is green. It would be painful to watch if it wasn't so damn funny.
Jayne is speaking again, wrapping the words round a leer. "I'm going to get me the same kind of treatment. Full body inspection. What about you, doc?"
Simon adjusts a cuff. "I think I can check myself out."
The delivery is deadpan. Mal grins. Green but learning. Jayne is shaking his head, trying to work out if he should laugh or form a fist. Mal steps in just in case the latter impulse wins out. They really don't want trouble. "Aren't you afraid Vera will get jealous?"
Janye taps the side of his nose and drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Ain't going to tell her." He downs a healthy swig of liquor, burps loudly, and swaggers off in the direction of the bar girls.
As if on cue Wash and Zoe rise, as does River. "I want to go and behave badly, too," says Wash, slipping a hand around Zoe that starts at her waist but immediately slips down to rest on her bottom.
"Permission to go and behave badly, sir?" asks Zoe. "No, Simon, don't get up. We'll see River safely back first."
"You don't have to do that. I'll take River home. Captain?"
Zoe silences him with a frown. "Not have, want. River wants to go back and Serenity's on our way."
"Nothing to do with me," says Mal. "Just everyone be back at Serenity in time for first shift."
Simon protests but is overruled by River.
"Not Simon says. River says. And River says she wants to go home while you stay out and play. It's not bedtime yet."
This earns a reluctant smile. "River says, huh? Are you sure?" He waits for her nod before continuing. "Go on then. Sweet dreams, xiao mei." Simon hugs her briefly and waves as she disappears with Wash and Zoe. "Seems like everyone's disappearing. Are you about to go too?"
It's meant as a simple question, and from anyone else Mal would take it so, but as always, Simon manages to make the words sound wrong. His hands tighten on the bottle. "Meaning I'm not welcome to stay?"
"No. Not at all." He can see Simon's shocked at his tone. "It's just everyone else is leaving. I wondered if you had plans."
"What kind of plans?"
Simon shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe going to one of the Domes. Checking up on Inara."
"Spying, you mean."
Simon's starting to get riled himself. He's had just enough drink not to be cautious. "If I meant spying I'd have said spying. Unlike Jayne, I do have a vocabulary wide enough to be precise about my meanings. I meant keep an eye and make sure she's alright."
"You don't say? Well, just so's you know, checking up's a fancy word for spying where I come from. Maybe that's a meaning you'd better compute into that genius vocabularly for next time you want to use it?"
"Are you being deliberately offensive?" Simon's turned to face him full on. The flush on his face could be drink or anger but neither shows in his voice.
"Why, I don't know, doctor? I ain't got no pretensions to being a genius. Why don't you tell me?"
Simon meets his glance and this time allows his tone to match Mal's. "Yes," he says. "You are. I know you don't like me. And I also know why -you think we put your crew in danger. And maybe we do. But if that's your feeling, River and I will leave any time you say the word.
Simon just stares at him.
"Obviously." He reaches for the bottle. "We'll go in the morning."
They sit in silence for a while. It's a weird kind of atmosphere charged, but with emptiness rather than anger. Mal speaks into the void. "You don't have to."
He can hear the confusion in Simon's reply. "But you just said."
"And now I'm saying different."
Simon drinks. "I don't understand you."
Nothing to be done but agree so he does. "No." He pauses, then adds, "Likewise."
The silence is back. Inara is probably naked now, held by arms that are not his, pressing her lips to a stranger's mouth. It makes him sick to even think about it. About her. He'll never understand it. He'd like to be angry but has passed that stage.
"There's nothing wrong with caring for someone." Simon's reading his mind. Or perhaps his feelings are seeping through his skin.
"You a head doctor now, too?"
"Then leave it." He looks across at Simon and deliberately clenches his fists, making his face blank. "Unless you want me to hit you again." It's an empty threat and they both know it.
"She is part of your crew."
"No she's not." He's hating this but the words are coming out anyway. Damn Simon.
"She flies with you."
"With me but not under me. Inara's business is her own."
Disbelief is written all over Simon's face. "I don't believe for one minute that you believe that."
"And I don't care what you believe." Mal looks away, at the dome again, stares at its rounded panels trying to breathe deeply to regain some equilibrium. Blindly he reaches for the liqueur. "A companion takes care of herself. She's trained to do that. She doesn't need me, or you, or any other kind of Tom fool idiot looking out for her."
"What's over there?" The question takes him by surprise.
"What?" There's one last swallow in the bottle. He raises it in a half-salute and chugs it down trying to rekindle the buzz and failing. He reaches for some emotion to plug the gap. Fear, excitement, curiousity, pleasure. No luck.
"That dome you've been staring at all night. What's in it?"
Finally there is something. It's not a nice something. Simon wants to know. Simon shall know. Fire burns down his throat into his belly. He sweeps a glance at the empty table, the cheap bar fittings, the over-dressed costumes of the whores. Here's how a real professional earns her money. A feeling of recklessness sweeps through him. Fills him. He brings his gaze back to Simon, offers a challenge. "Want to find out?"
Less than fifty feet in distance the interior of the Dome might as well be a different planet. The very air breathes money. Mal feels Simon's intake of breath. The doctor's shirt clings to him damply where he's tried, more or less successfully, to wash away the trail of Aqua Vita. The hostess greeting them casts a disdainful glace over Mal's dusty leathers but his credits are good and miraculously her smile warms. They are led into paradise.
"Wow." Simon's face is rapt. He's staring at the careless scatter of orchids and the fountains spilling soft blue water. Mal feels his own mouth drop in response. It's a long time since Simon's been somewhere like this. But for all that it is obvious that Simon has been to places like this in the past. He belongs in this setting. As Inara does. And Mal does not.
"Yeah, wow," agrees Mal and tries not to think about how much it must cost to maintain all this artificial life and how much he personally will be expected to contribute towards its upkeep. The complete absence of prices on the menu confirms his worst suspicions. And he has recklessly promised to pay for Simon's meal as well as his own. Quite how that happened Mal isn't quite sure. It must be part of the same slippery slope of drink and regrets that led him here in the first place. He sure isn't feeling generous towards the boy. But there's something about the way Simon asked if he could lend him some money. The embarrassed diffidence and he'd found himself replying. "I invited you, that makes it my treat."
He's still pondering that when the finally food arrives via a procession of white-gloved waiters and silver salvers.
"About time," mutters Mal in exasperation. "Better be good after all this fuss." He picks up a fork and begins chewing. It is good. That's something of a relief. He takes a second bite and chews more slowly this time trying to identify the different flavours. Ginger. And cardamom. It takes a while before he realises Simon isn't eating. He's poised there with his knife and fork in hand suspended above the plate but making no move towards it.
"Eat," The word is muffled by food but he gestures with his fork. "What's wrong? Don't you like it?"
"Yes. Yes, I do." Simon's expression is unreadable. "It's perfect."
"Then eat it," says Mal reasonably. "Cost enough."
"I will. I just - - I don't want to spoil it. You know. It's like the night before your birthday when all the possibilities are endless."
"Guess I don't know about that," answers Mal. "Birthdays, to me, alwa - - "
He stops abruptly and stares.
Inara is about to pass near their table. Her arm is linked through that of her client. He's a youngish man, more or less the same height as she is, and expensively dressed in a pale linen. Her smile is welcoming, radiant and not at all for Mal. Pain stabs through him.
"Good to see a whore enjoying her work." He takes another mouthful. The food lies tasteless on his tongue.
"You'd rather she had to deal with someone she hated?"
"Yes," he says savagely, loud enough to carry.
Inara swings her head round sharply as though pulled by a wire. Mal stares at her for seconds that feel like hours. Then he draws Simon closer and kisses him deliberately on the mouth.
After a shocked moment, Simon pulls away. He's breathing heavily but Mal hardly notices. Inara is gone.
"What was that for?" There's surprise in his voice but not revulsion.
"I felt like it," says Mal simply.
Simon raises a hand to his mouth and then drops it. "Was it because of Inara?"
"Does that make it better?" he asks in a dead voice.
"Just eat, Simon. Then we'll go home."
Simon picks up his knife and fork and begins eating. He says nothing but Mal can sense the pleasure has gone. Obscurely he feels guilty. Sorry I took you to this beautiful dome, bought you wine and treated you to the best meal any of us have seen for months. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. And, oh yes, sorry I kissed you too.
"Don't be. It doesn't matter."
"What?" Apparently he's said all that out loud. "Well, I'm sorry anyway."
Simon attempts a smile. He opens his mouth starts to say something, changes his mind and tries again. "It was a good kiss."
"Like you'd know."
"Trust me, I'm a doctor."
"Was that what you meant to say?"
"Say it now."
Simon's eyes are all pupil, the blue a ragged edge around a pool of black. He runs a hand through his hair and speaks carefully. "What's between you and Inara is just between you two. Don't ask me to comment."
The sympathy on Simon's face is unbearable. The deflection is almost unthinking. "Don't sell yourself short."
"I've never sold myself at all."
"There's more than one way of being a whore."
"You should tell yourself that more often. Is that what this is?"
The edge is back. It's sharp but somehow sweeter, lemon rather than vinegar. "I do tell myself. And no, that's not what this is."
"Good." This time it is Simon who leans across to kiss him.
The boy's a better kisser than he would have expected. But then it's not something he's spent much time imagining. The taste of wine lingers on his lips and tongue. He can fall into this and stop thinking.
"Eat up," he says. "Stay with me tonight."
Captain's cabin. It's the furthest away from the crew and a little larger in space. That wasn't the reason Mal led Simon here though. It just seemed right. They have not touched since the kiss in the restaurant and not talked above commonplaces. It's not because Mal has had second thoughts but because he is no longer thinking at all. He stopped round about the time Inara walked past his table. And the non-thinking part, which has held itself in wait, circles like a tiger prolonging the hunt now the kill is in sight.
He shuts the door behind Simon and sets the lock. It catches with an audible click.
Simon licks dry lips. It's a nervous gesture transformed into invitation. He sucks in a breath but does not move as Mal steps into his space.
Before their lips meet there's a sudden sense of waiting, of anticipation, because this time Mal knows what's ahead. He pushes out his tongue and runs it along the edge of Simon's lip.
"Fruit of the vine," he murmurs.
"Of the Yelibery bush," answers Simon, incurably accurate. "The vine substitutes have produced some remarkable vintages that are almost indistinguishable from terra-grapes." He raises his eyes to meet Mal's and grimaces. "Have I just spoiled a moment?"
"Not for lack of trying," says Mal.
He looks painfully young. And awkwardly happy. The expression the more appealing because Simon's so obviously trying to hide under nonchalance. "Want to try again?"
Mal is reaching for him almost before the words leave his mouth. The mixture of eager and restrained is just too much. He's not much on romance. At least not with men. His fantasies of making love to Inara have almost always employed her shuttle as a backdrop, his imagination balking at the thought of pushing Inara against the metal bars of his bunk. Even through the haze of drink he knows that there's going to one hell of a fallout from this night. Meanwhile it's too late to turn back. So he might as well be hung for a whole sheep. He's not sure he could actually stop even if he wanted. And he doesn't want. Or at least doesn't want to not want, rather than want to want. The thoughts tangle his mind even as his hands move in similar random but unstoppable progression seeking skin and more skin.
"I thought you never got involved with crew." Simon's splayed across the bed. He's lost his shoes at some point and his shirt and waistcoat are open and hanging loosely from his shoulders.
Mal sighs. Always talking. "Two things. One: I ain't proposing to marry you. Two: Don't you know when it's time to shut up."
This time Simon's grin is a challenge. "Make me."
He pushes Simon's shirt away, hands finding purchase on the pale skin, brushing against a button. Unbidden his hand folds round the tiny circle.
Simon makes to shrug the garment off but Mal stops him, knocking his hand away. "Leave it." Shirt and waistcoat open he looks like an exotic stranger. Simon and yet not Simon. He can see an echo of the same confusion Simon's face.
He runs a light hand up Simon's flank. Milk white skin. More muscled than you'd think from the stiff way doc holds himself on the ship.
Simon knows his way around a body. As with his kiss it's a surprising mixture of shyness and expertise. He runs firm hands along Mal's thigh, stopping at the silvery stripe of a old scar, a faint reminder of the Battle of Serenity. For a disorientating moment Mal can sense him pressing the skin around, checking the flesh for residual injury.
He stops at the tattoo, running around the edges with a light finger. Mal instinctively draws in a breath. It's not the touch but the instinct behind it. Simon's going to ask and that's something he doesn't want to talk about. But Simon merely traces the line one more time and goes on, exploring the marks and scars of over thirty years of living and fighting.
"You ain't on duty now, doctor," he says mildly.
Simon looks up from his task. "No. No I'm not."
"So you can stop treating me like a patient. Unless you got some kind of weird ideas about conducting an examination."
"Would you like that?" The slight uncertainty is back. Again, it's oddly endearing.
He allows a himself a grin. "Maybe some time. But not just now got a couple of hundred bones waiting to be touched, not catalogued.
Simon looks serious. "Two hundred and six."
"You've got two hundred and six bones." He drops his head to the soft skin where ankle joins foot and stops. Mal can feel the hot breath slightly uneven against his skin. Without moving his head, he raises his eyes to meet Mal's. "I am very good at cataloguing."
Mal sighs. "I ain't never had anybody talk to me in text book at this point."
Simon's eyes glitter. "Then you're not as experienced as you like to make out. Know what a clavicle is? Or a scapula?"
He moves across Mal's body, tracing his hands along collar to shoulder. The grip is firmly professional. It knows the sensitivity of skin and how the blood rises to pressure from an outside point.
Mal lies back. "Get the feeling you're going to show me."
Simon moves and the light from the side-wall catches his face. His hands and expression are at odds, the former so knowing, the latter so uncertain. It's a conundrum but one Mal's too preoccupied to puzzle at this moment. The boy is good is what he does.
At last he's done. "Finished playing doctor?"
At Simon's nod he flips them, so that the younger man is lying on his back. Simon splays his legs, the movement deliberately provocative. He looks more naked for the shirt and waistcoat that still hang off his shoulders.
"Want to find out just how experienced I am?"
It's a rhetorical question at this stage, since Simon's mouth is occupied with his. And Mal's hands are occupied with creating a space within Simon's body. Mal presses in with a thumb, feeling a sudden tightening in his balls as hot muscle clenches in response to his touch. Simon rests his head back against the pillow, throwing the line of his throat into sharp relief. Simon's skin is pale against the dark untidiness of his hair and the unbleached cloth of the bedclothes. Mal thinks with a sudden sharp regret that the setting is wrong. It's too plain. Simon, like Inara, belongs somewhere better.
Mal pushes in with sudden intensity. Simon cries out in response. "Lashi!" Then, because Mal has stilled, "Don't stop."
Mal finds his hand wrapped round silk and a button as he thrusts. The mother of pearl is sharp and warm taking life from the skin it touches. He pushes away the thought of Inara. This is what privilege looks like. It's skin and bone and warm and flushed to the touch. And that wasn't what he wanted to think. He moves, further, deeper, faster, working Simon's prick in time with his own movements, until eventually there is no thinking, only feeling.
Shaking and spent, he crawls up Simon's body and gathers him in a loose hold. Simon mutters something intelligible and closes his eyes. Mal pushes a stray strand of hair behind Simon's ear and kisses the exposed lobe. He feels tired and unexpectedly content. They fall asleep.
Several hours have passed before Mal wakes up. He throat and mouth are parched and sour with memory of the night's excesses. His head is clear but for the moment that hardly seems like a blessing. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And going against it all is the heart beating in synch with his own and the limbs curled around his that insist, against all reason, that this is right. Going to be some fallout here and that's for sure. What was that saying about not fouling your own nest? The air in the cabin feels chill against his skin. He wants to shower and brush his teeth. He shifts, dislodging Simon's arm from where it rests against his hip.
The movement wakes the doctor. Their eyes meet. The flash of warmth in Simon's is swiftly blanked out as he meets Mal's gaze. Whatever excuses Mal had thought to make die on his tongue. They aren't going to be needed. And in a way that's a hundred times worse because now this will hang between them as something huge and unsaid. "Morning," he offers finally.
Simon looks away and checks the time on the control panel set into the wall. He says, "I should be going." It's a statement. It sounds good, too, simple and unemotional, but Mal can still hear the plea.
"Yeah." He forces some semblance of a smile. "It's late. Or rather early. You want to be going back to your bunk and get some sleep." If Mal hadn't still been naked, skin smarting where Simon's scratched him he would hardly have believed it himself. Even now, a part of him wants to call Simon back, push him against the bed and see if he can recall the djinn from the doctor, strip away all the caution and restraint and rekindle the abandon in the blue of his eyes.
Deliberately he lies back and closes his eyes. Watching Simon dress is suddenly an invasion of privacy.
Rustles mark Simon's movements around the room. Mal waits perhaps a minute after the sounds have stopped before looking. Simon is completely dressed, buttoned up his chin. Only the fullness of his lips and the residual flush in his cheeks remain to give evidence of the activities of the last couple of hours. His waistcoat is ripped again. Inara's expert stitches no proof against the force of Mal's hands.
"Mal." Simon's at the foot of the ladder now. He's stilted again, voice cool and formal. "Last night - you'll let me know how much I owe you for the meal."
"I said it was my treat."
Simon's reply is written on his face. He spins and starts to the climb the few rungs that will take him out of Mal's cabin. Damn. Much as Mal would like to he can't let Simon leave like that. Heedless of his nakedness, Mal follows, catching Simon a bare few paces from the top. He puts one hand on Simon's shoulder to keep him there. It is at this moment that Inara passes. Her hair is brushed and make-up perfectly applied. Only the fact that she is still wearing yesterday's silks gives away the truth that she is only just returning to Serenity.
For a moment they stand in tableau. Mal stares at Inara, Inara at Simon, and Simon at Mal. Then Inara sweeps on head held high. Simon break away from his grip and strides quickly down the corridor. Mal drops back into his room and slams the hatch. He sits on the bed and drops his head in his hands.
"Tianna," he says. And repeats it again and again into the empty room.
Secrets spread faster than an electrical current on a ship this size. No words pass but somehow by dinner everybody knows his business. Everybody that's bothered to turn up. Simon's found something important to do in the infirmery and Inara's eating in her shuttle. Mal can't blame them. Meanwhile he's left to deal with the fallout. Wash and Zoe are striving for normality carrying on a stilted conversation about planet rituals with Book. Kaylee's not talking. She's not eating either, despite the fact that Book has liberally dosed their meal with some of his precious spices. Her eyes are red and puffy and her cheeks blotchy.
Her eyes fill with tears as she looks at Mal, "I thought you were my friend."
"I am, meimei."
"Don't call me that!"
"It's not what you think."
"No," she sobs. "It's worse. You took him and you didn't even want him."
Jayne laughs. Mal's going to kill him someday. "No wonder doc didn't want to find no whore. Hell, if I'd had a thought he might do it, I might even have made a play myself. Certainly prettier and cheaper than the bitch I found myself last night."
Mal's defence is automatic, as is Kaylee's echo. "Simon's not cheap."
"Look at you two. You gonna fight over him now?" Jayne makes a rude gesture and laughs.
Simon arrives in time to hear these words. He helps himself to a bowl of stew and leaves the room. He's wearing the waistcoat again. It could be defiance but more likely is just a marker of how few clothes Simon's got on Serenity. He can't afford pride. At least not that sort. The button is fixed again, but obviously so. Simon wasn't lying when he said he couldn't sew.
River follows him with her eyes. She sings softly, under her breath. "Don't know what you've got till it's gone."
Book cuts across them, the calm authority of his voice filling the room. "For what we are to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful."
Footsteps interrupt his train of thought. Mal tenses but doesn't turn. He knows who it is, anyway.
"Something wrong, Doc?"
"No." Meaning 'yes' but ain't no way Simon's going to play confidante with him. It's three days and they've barely talked. Difficult on a ship this size but not impossible when neither party wants to meet. He hasn't seen Inara at all.
Simon's striving and mainly managing for emotionless. "You asked for a list of things we need for the infirmary. This is it."
Mal glances at the words. It's a long list. Expensive but he isn't going to query the items. "You in a hurry for this stuff?"
"We reach Ursa Minor in two days. It's small but it'll have enough shops to be going on with. That good enough for you?"
"Yes." Meaning 'no'. Nothing he can do about that though. He turns back to the list and Simon leaves the room without a backwards glance. Seems he's done a lot of room leaving lately. There's other stuff they'll need to be getting. It's going to eat into their stocks of coin this next stop even supposing they get a good price for the ore in the hold. Can't be helped. Ursa Intermediate was at least profitable in cargo terms. There's sure to be cargo on Minor worth picking up. Probably wood or grain as Ursa Minor is mainly farming country. Inara won't find much to occupy her there. For once he hardly cares. Two days, he thinks. He should go to the Bridge and check with Wash.
At the lintel he pauses. Left will take him past Inara's shuttle. Right leads to the infirmary. A simple enough choice. But still a choice and once he makes up his mind there'll be no going back. Mal's always been one for action but he's hedging now, mind seesawing back and forth, trying to weigh the odds.
So much gain so much loss with either choice, on either side. He goes back to the console and stares unseeing at the distant stars shining through the viewport. Unbidden, the words of River's song drift through his mind, don't know what you've got till it's gone. The sky at least is unchanging. He's still got Serenity. As for the rest, he shuts his eyes, opens them again, no closer to making a decision. Perhaps he'll bide here for a while longer, watching and waiting for the night to pass.
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Author: arachne [email]
Details: Standalone | NC-17 | *slash* | 44k | 02/19/04
Characters: Malcolm, Simon
Summary: Relationships change and Mal finds there's a big difference in what you want and what you get.
Notes: Thanks to Mandragora and whitecrow for beta help. All horrid things left belong to me.
Disclaimer: No ownership claimed, no money made, no harm intended.
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