It wasn't ripe.
It was cold and wet, but so very tart near the taut black skin that Mal would have made a face if he were anywhere but where he was. Not because it was bad, because fresh fruit could never be bad, but it was sharp, biting even, as if for every bite he took, it bit back. That was some dangerous foodstuffs. Despite it, he flashed Kaylee and River a bright smile, "Dao xie, girls."
"You're welcome, Captain! We picked a whole bunch for the ship," Kaylee beamed, a glance exchanged with River. "Might have eaten of few of them too."
"Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family," River intoned.
"Right, and some gorram fine plums they are. Now, get, there's business to be had," Mal said, carving another slice from the fruit. The blade was sticky, his hands wet. It wasn't the most practical way to eat this particular fruit. He licked the blade, wiping the rest clean on his pants before the blade disappeared back where it belonged. He took a bite of the fruit proper like, eyes still scanning the horizon.
"Ambrose is late."
Mal swallowed a wet bite, "I noticed that myself."
"Ambrose is never late, Sir."
"I wouldn't say that, Zoe. I can distinctly remember a time when Ambrose was late in Anhui," Mal argued.
"Sir. Ambrose lost a hand and an eye on the way to Anhui and suffered burns over 60 percent of his body."
"Yes, but he was late."
The rustle of leather was her only reply, that and the sound of teeth biting into a ripe plum. Mal arched an eyebrow, at the bite and the fact his plum didn't sound that sweet. If plums could sound sweet? He wasn't sure but it sounded wetter. Squishier? That indicated ripeness, didn't it?
Zoe caught his look, taking another bite, "Didn't think the girls were intending to blow my head off, Sir, not since you were still standing."
"Indeed." Mal tossed the pit over the edge of the cargo ramp. "Though I don't think they'd be that obvious. River's too smart for that."
"You think they poisoned you?"
Mal ran his tongue absently over the memory of sharpness in his mouth. "Now Zoe-"
"Just saying, Sir. I don't think either of the Tams are so quick to forgive such an incident."
"It was for their own good."
"If you say so, Sir."
"I do, and here we are," Mal took another step down the ramp as the sound of an engine drew close, a shuttle making its landing in the tall grass in the clearing. It was a nice shiny FX-220, paint just starting to wear through along the hydraulics. It was a fine shuttle, a companion piece to a fine ship. Mal's fingers tapped restlessly at his holster, "Mighty fine ship, fancy even."
"Sir, when did Ambrose get-" Zoe broke off, a look exchanged between the two of them. "I'll see that Jayne and Vera join us, Sir."
"And have Wash ready to fly, we might need to get out of here in a hurry," Mal called back after Zoe as she vanished into the cargo hold.
The shuttle powered down, which was something at least. They weren't planning on making too quick of a get away. A few men got off, non-descript in that illegal smuggler sort of way. Mal greeted them with a sunny smile and a drawl, "Good day gentleman, there anything I can help you with?"
"You Captain Reynolds?"
Mal met the dark gaze of the man that spoke, tilting his head. There were footsteps behind him, but the man's eyes didn't waver. Zoe and Jayne, and the preacher too by the sound of it. Mal didn't spare a glance back to check. "I might be, it depends on who is asking and why."
"Captain Yi of the Jian Shou Lian. Steiger suggested that we might trade."
Mal echoed the man's bow, "I am Captain Reynolds. It was to my understanding that trade was already prearranged with someone, regretfully," Mal flashed another smile, "Not you."
"You were expecting," Captain Yi's lips pursed. "The Pale Horse?"
"Right, that we were," Mal held his index finger straight where it rested at his side. He felt Zoe shift her weight, ready.
"As were we at Dante Station."
"Ain't like Captain Soltin to miss his appointments," Mal studied the other Captain, saw the annoyance in his eyes, a restlessness beneath his still demeanor.
"No, we were most displeased." Then the captain repeated pointedly, "Steiger suggested we might trade instead."
Mal could hear the preacher clear his throat, silenced the old man with a glare before his eyes lingered on Zoe's in silent conversation. It wasn't like Ambrose to miss appointments; it weren't like him to be late neither. Tsao. "Perhaps we could trade at that, then."
Mal stepped forward, Zoe at his side. Jayne stepped back, taking the preacher with him though they didn't go far. It was too early to tell if it was guns or muscle they might need. It turned out to be muscle, trading one set of crates for another. It was a decent trade, a decent take for all once they were through. There was a distinct possibility they made out better than if they had traded with Ambrose, but Mal didn't linger on that. He lingered on the fact Ambrose hadn't been there to trade with and why that might be.
Zoe watched him throughout dinner but it wasn't until after she'd settled in next to him in the lounge with a cup of something hot and steaming in her hands that she asked, "What do you think happened to him?"
Mal shook his head. It could have been anything; Reavers, Alliance interference, a blown do-hicky on Ambrose's boat that left him dead in space.
"Maybe he got sold into slavery," an acidic voice came from the kitchen.
"And maybe you had better get those pots clean, Doc," Mal shot back, not looking up.
An unhappy clatter followed that, punctuated with a splash of soapy water.
"Ambrose doesn't take kindly to slavers," Zoe shrugged, eyes in her cup.
"None of us do," Mal said, a bit louder than necessary.
There was another splash in reply and River drifted into view with one of her plums cupped snug in her hands. "There is not a formula to ascertain the amount of pressure that can be applied before damage is incurred."
"Do plums damage? Bruise?" Mal wondered absently, watching her. "Apples bruise, pears..."
Zoe cleared her throat. "I couldn't help but notice you had Wash set course for Baatsi."
Mal sat a bit straighter. "Quite a place, Baatsi; we can sell off our trade for good credit there and it's got clients for Inara to let up her skirt."
Zoe continued on as if he hadn't spoken. "Steiger stationed himself on Baatsi."
"You don't say?"
"Those smiles don't work on me, Sir."
"You keep saying that but..." Mal laughed as he watched her go, smile fading as he found himself alone with the two Tams. Right. Exactly where he wanted to be. He glanced around, hoping beyond hope that Kaylee would appear. It was so much more convenient when she used to hang on Simon. It was right sweet. He wished she'd forgive Simon for whatever it was he had done that made her all friendly like, but not moon calf like. Not that he was at all concerned about being alone with the Tams. He had nothing at all to feel guilty about. He had done the right thing. He had, so he stretched out, putting his feet up, and went back to the reading that had been entertaining him before Zoe had interrupted.
A shadow cut across his light, "Captain?"
Mal squinted at the dim text, "I'm reading."
"That must be an arduous task as that there is a scarcity of pictures involved."
Simon's face peered down at him. His voice was haughty and his lips were doing that pinched thing again. Mal had hoped the doc had gotten over that. That condition was going to get the boy into a world of pain if he continued in that fashion. Mal looked back to the book, fingers light on brittle old pages. Garcin was right, "Hell is -- other people."
River laughed, "Well, well, let's get on with it...."
Simon looked at them as if they both were mad before his eyes returned to blue determination. "I need to know your intentions toward my sister and myself."
"My intentions at this particular juncture in time are to bid you both good night," Mal said, unfolding himself and rising so he looked down at Simon. The doc stood his ground a full minute before stepping aside.
"You can't just pretend like nothing happened, Captain."
Mal would have done just that if it weren't for the grief in the boy's voice. "Nothing did happen. You and your sister are safe. I weren't going to let either of you come to harm."
"Not let us come to harm!"
The fire was back, the anger in the boy's eyes, and Mal had no trouble turning his back to that. "You weren't hurt, nothing but your pride. Zhu mou ren wan an."
"Good night," River echoed back.
Simon watched him go, unable to find words to articulate his rage and frustration. That. That. He wouldn't resort to cursing. There had to be a word, a perfectly proper word to express his ire. He was simply too frustrated to find it at the moment.
"Still warm," River said curling up on the cushion the captain had vacated. "Much more comfortable than Second Empire chairs."
"River," Simon sighed, turning back to his sister. She smiled up at him, the same wide smile that she had after the door had locked behind them. Trusting and guileless. His hands were free to run through her hair now at least. "You've got a tangle."
"So do you," River shot back.
Simon ignored her, working her hair through his fingers. It was dark and soft, slippery. He tugged at the strands as gently as he could, but as easy as the hair slid through his fingers, it would not cooperate.
"Sorry mei mei, I-"
River tugged on Simon's hair, in what he considered was only fair retaliation. "It wouldn't hurt if you didn't try so hard."
"Kaylee has soft hands," and River was gone, Simon could only assume to find their mechanic and her soft hands. How did a mechanic manage to have soft hands anyway?
Simon looked at his hands. They were dry; he washed them too often with cheap detergent to try to keep wounds clean, stripping them of any natural oils, and the idea of moisturizer here was laughable. They weren't rough though, not like the captain's hands which he stitched up only last week. It occurred to him that he should have checked on the wound, but the captain seemed to be healing fine given they way he had manhandled Simon and River just a few days before.
Simon's hands were dry and his nails had broken off unevenly. One knuckle was still sensitive and swollen from where he punched the captain. Fist to his nose, enough to draw blood, and the captain had merely wiped it away with a "Maybe I deserved that."
Simon cursed, colorful phrases that told him he'd been on the ship too long but he hadn't been able to imagine leaving before this. River felt safe here, he had felt safe here-
Wrinkled fingers from washing dishes, River off god knows where, and Simon hadn't changed a single thing from the way things were, for all his sharp words about trust and betrayal and intentions. His clothing was neatly folded; books and data pads littered haphazard about his quarters and the infirmary, his notes were in perfect order in his desk. He wasn't going anywhere.
"Wo tzau ni ba b'ei tzu-zong!"
"Those are some harsh words son," Book commented, setting tea on to boil. "Bad enough to curse a man, but eight generations of his family? Might say that was being excessive." The preacher's hands stilled. "It is said one should not swear, because thou canst not make one hair white or black."
Simon made a motion to respond, then just shook his head.
"It means," Book prepared two cups. "That you should not put yourself in God's place to judge a man-"
"And that things aren't black or white, I am familiar with the clich." Simon approached, looking in the cup. It was metal, green paint chipped off. He should probably test all their dishware for lead. It could explain so much.
"That wasn't quite where I was going, but it will suffice." Book took a casual swallow. "So it is our Captain or Jayne who has you in a frame of mind to call down hell's fury?"
"Jayne, while being an obtuse Neanderthal with questionable hygiene, hasn't recently humiliated me and sold my sister and myself into slavery." Simon stared into his tea. "Or, at least not sold us into slavery."
Book frowned, "It was to my understanding that money never changed hands."
"That makes a difference?" Simon was incredulous.
"Between a ruse and you being sold? I think it might."
"It was inappropriate."
"I won't argue that, but the captain-" Book paused, dark eyes searching Simon's disbelieving face. "The captain-"
"The captain is all bark and no bite, though he's got a right mean bark," Kaylee interrupted, looking at River who was growling as the two spilled into the mess in a tangle of skirts and jump suits, "And a mean growl too."
To Kaylee maybe, Simon thought. Kaylee kept Serenity flying. She had a practical purpose on the ship. The captain needed her. The captain might need a doctor but he pretended he didn't. He'd already had his hand bandaged by the time Simon had found him in the infirmary; Simon had to unwrap it to examine it and apply the sutures.
That reminded him, "I need to see to something in the infirmary. If you'll excuse me..."
Simon took his cup, warming in his hands, and headed down the stairs. They echoed hollowly, one hand trailing the rail and eyes focused ahead. The grates gave him vertigo still if he looked down. He didn't need to anymore. He could find the infirmary blind. He just hoped one day he wouldn't have to test that theory.
Simon settled his cup on the counter, tapping on the screen to review the analysis of the latest compound he had mixed. They were running short on supplies but if this worked, he could create a less expensive salve to accelerate wound healing that was more efficient than the more expensive prepackaged ointment. There were just a few small matters to resolve to stabilize the mixture.
None of which pertained to the buxom woman moaning on his screen as she masturbated with a-was that a zucchini? Simon stared, face flushing red. "Jayne, you son of a--!!!"
Breakfast looked to be a sorry affair.
Two days ago, the doc had come to breakfast red faced and narrowed eyed, Jayne smirking and making comments of a not so breakfasty nature in response. Mal had sent him from the table and he'd kept a civil tongue in his mouth come dinner. Breakfast weren't formal, so Mal had missed any drama the next day by catching some shut eye after spending the night helping Kaylee fix something that weren't working right, which left his hand itching again and his shoulder aching. He was getting old.
Mal was too young yet to be getting old, but he was most certainly getting too old to put up with whatever made Jayne storm into the mess growling, "Where is he? He can't hide forever! Where the-"
Simon, who had buttered what was pretending to be toast until it was a slick pile of crumbs, had scanned the room and apparently forgiven Mal as that he'd ducked behind his chair, putting the captain between him and one less than pleased looking Jayne Cobb.
"Jayne, stand down," Mal barked.
"Captain! He messed with my!" Jayne sputtered. "There's blood and gore all over! And it's all unnatural!"
"Blood and gore," Mal eyed him, and then turned to give Simon a long searching look. "I see a lot of guilt on the doc here, but no blood and gore. Could someone tell me why there's blood and gore on my boat? Is anyone missing any blood and/ or gore?"
"I'm missing my favorite pair of 7" long nose curving pliers," Kaylee piped up.
"But no blood and gore?"
River stepped into Kaylee's personal space and examined her with a critical eye, "No blood and gore, but 62 visible freckles."
"Thank you River. Kaylee you may return to eating your...that." Mal returned his attention to Jayne, who was mouthing unpleasant things to the doc, complete with agitated gestures. "Care to explain a bit more, about this supposed blood and gore?"
"It's on the monitor in my bunk!"
"Since when do you got a monitor in your bunk?"
"It's...my private personal property for....entertainment purposes," Jayne said quickly, "But now it just shows blood and gore!"
Mal didn't speak a word, merely looked at Simon.
"It's not blood and gore. It's a very unexceptional phalloplasty procedure-"
"They're cutting on some poor bastard's pecker!" Jayne cut in. "It's got, they're-Blood. And. Gore."
"Penile enlargement surgery is simple procedure actually, as I'm sure you'll be pleased to know since you insist on making a bigger and bigger dick of yourself you-"
"Doc," Mal held up a hand. "Was the visual aide in Jayne's room really necessary? I know some of us can't read without them convenient pictures to explain things but I'm sure Jayne and my breakfast could do without."
"I could have done without the woman engaged with the fresh produce on my screen in the infirmary too," the doc shot back.
"...fresh produce." Mal heard his voice, sounding funny in his ears, but he wasn't aware of speaking.
"A zucchini I believe. She was, with a," the doc blushed red. "With a zucchini."
"Curcurbita pepo variety medullosa," River clarified helpfully.
Kaylee looked horrified. "Why would anyone waste good produce for sex?"
"Hands would be more convenient, and there are a wide assortment of manmade devices that would be more sanitary," River agreed.
The doc's face, were it possible, became even more horrified. Jayne blinked. Mal heard enough.
"The rule about no sex in the mess? It has just been extended to no more talking about sex in the mess. That, and no more talk of blood and gore related to any procedures on any part of the male or female reproductive system. Have I made myself clear?"
"Crystal," Wash settled down at the table, stealing some of Kaylee's that. "And why do I feel I missed one of the better breakfast conversations?"
"You didn't. How long until we reach Baatsi?"
"We should reach atmo in another two hours."
"Excellent, by then I want there to be no more unnatural pictures on his monitor," Mal gestured at Jayne, "And no more fornications with produce in the infirmary."
Wash started to speak, but for once in his life thought better of it. The look on Mal's face might have contributed to that wise decision.
"Does that mean I should wipe the player's memory? Because I don't think much of that was natural," Simon asked, and damn if the boy didn't sound innocent despite the wicked gleam in his eye. Jayne's expression promised an unpleasant and painful death.
Mal shook his head, "Just remove what you put there and leave the rest, which I would appreciate never hearing about again. Now, unless there are any other crises that need my attention, I'm going to go let Inara know that she will have roughly a week to fornicate with who or what she wishes."
"As long as it ain't in the mess," Kaylee said brightly.
"As long as it ain't in the mess," Mal repeated, brushing past Zoe, who was standing in the doorway with a smirk. Her footsteps followed behind him. "This had better have nothing to do with produce."
"I couldn't help but overhear that you said Inara would have a week on Baatsi."
"I did at that." Mal smiled, warmth never reaching his eyes. "Your point?"
"Sir, we could sell off our trade, pick up new cargo, and be out of Baatsi in significantly less than a week."
"We could," Mal answered, still walking.
"But we're not. We're just going to," Zoe looked like she tasted the word and found it unpleasant, "sit."
"Never said that, just said Inara would have a week to do her thing. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some trespassing to accomplish," Mal nodded to Zoe, escaping her and stepping into the Companion's lair. It was all fancy furniture and silks and luscious fabrics but the room was somewhat less sumptuous than before.
"Simplifying my dcor," Inara responded, sipping her tea. "I just paid for another month, there is no need for me to pack."
"Are you leaving or not?" Mal didn't mean for the words to come out quite the way they did, hard and bitter. He didn't want that. He didn't want her to go, but this uncertainty was intolerable. After all, he had income to replace if she was leaving, which would be complicated with his crew peopled by fugitives. He couldn't rent to just anyone.
Her slip made him feel better about his. Business arrangement. Right. "We're coming on to Baatsi in two hours. I ain't planning on our departure for a week or so, so you can take that into consideration of your plans. We might pick up a little short range work, but nothing you need to worry about getting back here for. Take your sweet time and enjoy your..." Mal wouldn't say produce, he wouldn't. "Your business associates."
Inara's eyes were sharp; she'd been part of the crew too long. Not that she was crew. She was just renting space. "Short range work? "
"Nothing to concern yourself with, Ambassador." Mal made a mock bow. "Two hours."
"Made out of clay, covered with skin and filled with blood," River whispered, watching Jayne move cargo out of the hold and into the sunshine.
"What was that, mei mei?"
Simon closed his eyes, missing the coherency he knew River was capable of on her good days. He had thought this was a good day. She had seemed cognizant speaking to Kaylee earlier.
"You have another tangle," River sighed. "Baatsi, the Creator formed him from clay, covered him in skin, and filled him with blood. He gave him a woman and told him to people the earth. A Creation myth from the African continent of Earth That Was. The colony named for it in 2437 to herald their new start in the galaxy, away from racial tyranny." River tilted her head, eyes vague. "Except Baatsi was filled with blood. The ground here is saturated with it."
"Wonderful. This is going to be a fun week," Simon groaned. "Don't go outside!"
River made a face. Simon was unable to resist making a face back before he trudged down the stairs. "Wash?"
The pilot looked up from the pad he was scrawling on. Simon assumed he was taking notes on the trade, but closer it appeared to be... Huh. "Nice sketch."
"Yeah," Wash tilted his head, "My wife is all sorts of inspiring. Isn't she?"
"Um. Very," Simon blinked. "Maybe you shouldn't bring that up to the mess?"
"Are there rules about that now?"
"Possibly. Does Zoe know you. Er. Draw?"
"Just took it up again." Wash snapped the pad shut. "Something I can help you with, Doc?"
"I just wanted to check on our itinerary." Simon looked around the emptying cargo hold. "I couldn't help but notice Jayne seems to be unloading all the trade we took on."
"Say what you like, or don't like, about the captain. He does have a head for business. Common sense? Fashion? Not so much. But business, yes," Wash moved to help load some crates on the lift Jayne was maneuvering.
Simon tried not to wince at the brilliant glare of the sunlight on Wash's colorful shirt, tried not to get run over by Jayne "Right. So, has our departure time moved up?"
"Can't say. You'd have to talk to the captain about that."
Simon cast a glance back into the dark bowels of the ship. "And where might our illustrious Captain be?"
"Can't say that neither," a hint of concern shifted over Wash's face then was gone. "He and Zoe went out to talk with someone."
"Ahh," Simon winced. "Would this be the talking that involves words, fists, or high powered projectiles ventilating parts of the human anatomy?"
It was a good thing Simon wasn't expecting a response; Wash didn't give him one.
"Steiger! It's been ages since we talked face- to- face, man- to-man. I wonder why that is!" Mal left his hand on the blond man's shoulder, looking back to his second in command and taking note of the four large gentlemen who were reaching for their guns though the smoke in the bar. "Do you wonder why that is, Zoe?"
"I suspect it might have something to do with last time you talked face to face, Sir."
"I suppose it might," Mal took Steiger's chin in his hand and turned his face to examine his profile. "Your nose seems to have healed right."
"Two operations later, yes," hissed the man, attempting to pull back.
"Steiger, Steiger, Steiger: you know I ain't letting you go til you tell the nice men back there to stand down."
Blue eyes narrowed. "And I would tell them that, why?"
Mal gave a smile. "Because it would be bad for business?"
"Bad for business?" The man looked dubious.
"Being dead?" Mal's hand tightened. "Tends to be bad for business."
Steiger made a sharp gesture and the men faded back into the shadows. "Did anyone ever tell you threats aren't nice?"
"It's come up once or twice." Mal shoved the man towards a booth, sliding in across from him. Zoe stood, eyes dark and vigilant. "We were supposed to meet up with the Pale Horse. The captain and I had business."
"And you had business with Captain Yi, with which we all made out well from what I hear."
"Personal business." Mal felt Zoe's eyes on him but he concentrated on Steiger, who was straightening his jacket. "Where can I find the Pale Horse?"
Steiger scowled at Mal, motioning for drinks. Mal didn't touch the glass in front of him; Steiger swallowed his in a single shot. "I'm not of a mind to be of any assistance to you, except the captain of the Pale Horse did seem to misplace some valuable cargo."
"Cargo you're still interested in?" Mal swirled the liquor in his glass.
"Very much so. Ain't many people that would risk the Devil's Hiccup."
"Someone would have to be crazy to go there," Mal downed his drink.
"Yeah, so tell me Captain Reynolds, how sane are you?"
Simon found the infirmary the most reassuring room on Serenity. It was clean and sterile. If he closed his eyes the smell could be any hospital, any clinic, anywhere. His fingers could walk through the instruments, recognizing them with the slightest touch. He could reach and find what he wanted without looking. It was here, that was, there, and there. Yes, he found comfort in the knowing that came in this room. The infirmary was home, or it had been.
Serenity found its way into the infirmary. It invaded it. Jayne's damn prank. The black dust from the engine that snuck into the vents no matter how many filters Simon had Kaylee install, or how much he cleaned. It wasn't much, but it kept the room from being truly sterile.
The room could only be on the ship. With trepidation Simon was realizing that he could only be on the ship. He was a danger to himself and River off of the ship. He was a danger to the ship off of the ship.
If Simon closed his eyes, even if he didn't, he could feel the captain's grip around his wrist, hands sliding over him as his voice dripped, sickeningly sweet, then cold and distant as Simon found himself bound. He was shoved aside. Wash had said the captain had a head for business. He had the cold heart for it too. He was slick and shrewd, not asking but telling the slave dealer how things were going to be.
Simon had never felt as worthless as he did at that moment, not even when his father had all but disowned him. He had turned his back on his father, but it wasn't like he could turn from the ship. He had nowhere else to go, and as the captain had made it appallingly clear, nothing to offer the world outside.
Top three percent of his class, an accomplished surgeon in the capital city, a rising star, and in the depths of space he was utterly useless.
Or maybe not so useless, "Is there anything I can help you with, Captain?"
"There might be," The captain tugged down his suspenders. He hoisted himself onto the examination table, fingers deftly undoing the buttons of his shirt.
Simon arched an eyebrow. "You don't seem to be bleeding."
"My shoulder, I pulled it or strained it helping Kaylee." The captain pulled the shirt awkwardly off. "It's my dominant side, I can't afford for it to heal wrong. Hell, I can't afford for it to be this stiff."
"When did you originally hurt it?" Simon examined the indicated area, rotating the captain's arm to watch the muscles move under the skin. "And if you wouldn't be so stoic and actually tell me what hurts? That might be helpful too."
"That hurts," The captain scowled. "I hurt it sometime between the violation of certain produce and blood and gore occurring in Jayne's bunk."
"You should have come to me sooner." Simon turned to the cabinets, hunting through several jars.
The captain shrugged, "I thought it would heal up on its own."
Simon snorted. "A diagnosis made after your extensive medical training, of course. How is your hand?"
"Better." The captain sniffed at the jar in Simon's hands. "What's that?"
"Something you'll be applying to your shoulder twice a day for the next two weeks," Simon responded, slathering some of the ointment over the captain's shoulder less gently than he could have. He ignored his patient's pained hiss of breath, rubbing at the muscle vigorously despite the tingling of his own fingers in response to the active ingredients in the salve. "And your stitches?"
"I removed them when they weren't necessary no more." The captain shrugged under his fingers. "Are you quite done yet, Doc?"
"Yes," Pent up anger and frustration flared to life. He didn't shout. Simon didn't shout.But his voice was hard. "I'm quite done with this. I am the medical professional here. That might not mean much to you and your devil may care attitude toward you own health and well being, let alone that of your crew-"
"Wait just one minute-"
"No, I've waited long enough. You might make the decisions on the ship for the ship and its occupants, but no matter what you think of me personally you have to respect my judgment on medical matters!"
"I respect you plenty Doc, what the hell?"
"Respect?" Simon laughed bitterly, stepping back. "When I'm just a pretty face taking up space and yammering away, unable to complete the most effortless of chores on a ship, with my head stuck up in some world that has no room for me when my head ain't stuck up my ass?"
"Thems were just words," The captain snapped back, eyes a flinty grey. "It ain't like they were true!"
Simon froze, back straight and skin pale.
Mal cursed again, "You honestly think I could possibly believe that rubbish? You're part of my crew!"
"Jayne's part of your crew," the doc said, which must have been a logical progression in his brain, somehow. Mal didn't much see the connection. Jayne and the doc, they were both crew, but their jobs on the ship didn't cross paths save when there was blood spilling or tom foolery occurring that he'd rather not hear about.
"You might note that I don't trust Jayne with things of a more delicate nature than killing and hauling. It ain't me," Mal was suddenly sure, relaxing the painful muscles in his shoulders and letting his voice come soft. "It was you that believed that rot. Top three percent, and you ain't all that smart after all."
The doc just stood there and Mal cursed yet again, silently this time. He had thought they had gotten over this. Foolish, really, since they had never talked about it, but what was there to talk about? Nothing, except apparently there was.
"I don't have time to draw you pictures so you listen here. Even if you were as dumb as a post, unable to pull out a splinter, let alone do your fancy doctoring, if you couldn't identify a gun let alone aim one, even if you couldn't handle chores, broke ever dish we owned, and lit the cargo hold on fire, you would still be worth something. Maybe not much, but you'd be of value and no one would have any right to make you a slave, particularly me that took you on this ship. You are my responsibility." Mal took a breath. "You earn you keep Doc, for you and your sister both, but even if you didn't, you're crew now."
The doc fiddled with his... whatever they were, shiny and ringing of metal, as he did. "When we do leave the ship?"
Mal misinterpreted the words on purpose, "You're still crew."
"You sold us."
The words were slow, flat, as painful to hear as Mal thought they were for Simon to say, if the boy's eyes were any indication. Mal reached, stilling Simon's hands. "I put you away for safe keeping."
"With a slave trader!" Simon pulled back, leaving Mal clutching at a scalpel.
"But one in good standing that stands by their word, not like the Alliance." Mal pulled back his hand, looking at red. "Tsao."
"You are insane," Simon said, a statement of fact as he pulled Mal's hand to him, inspecting the cut.
"It's a dirty trade, despicable, and I don't agree with it, but it ain't like there aren't honorable men in dishonorable professions." Mal's smile was dark. "We can't all be doctors. Some of us aren't meant to save lives, but to take them."
Simon's voice was soft. "I'm not a doctor anymore."
Mal didn't have time for emotional crises, existential or otherwise. "Like hell you aren't."
"No, I... I doctor wounds," Simon's smile was wry as he did just that. "But that isn't who I am anymore."
Stinging disinfectant, some foul smelling ointment, and Mal's hand was wrapped in gauze. The doc's moves were clean and clinical. Practiced. Like when he calmed River down from one of her spells, gave her medicine or stopped her crying. Mal understood. There were jobs and then there were vocations. "You're your sister's keeper."
"She's my responsibility."
Fair enough, but, "You're both my responsibility."
Doc had the piercing blue gaze thing down pat. "But she's mine and I don't know how to take care of her."
"With your needles and medicine, Doc, same as you've been doing."
The doc wiped the scalpel clean, dropping it in a cylinder of some clear fluid. "I want to learn how to shoot."
There was no way Mal was putting a gun in that boy's hands. There were them made for saving lives, and them made for taking lives. The doc wasn't the latter. There was no reason for him to become the latter. This weren't war. He was just a civilian in a bad spot.
It weren't war, but Mal had seen eyes like that in the war. He was trying to protect an innocence the boy had already lost. "Fine, but when things go down, you remember your place is on the ship to patch us up again so we survive it." Mal rolled his shoulder experimentally. "This going to heal right?"
"Good, I'll be needing my arm for more than teaching you how to shoot in the near future," Mal slide off the gorram exam table.
"I need all personnel to convene in the mess in five minutes," Mal ordered through the intercom. He caught Doc's eye with a salute. "That would be you too, Mr. Doctor, Sir!"
Mal chuckled. That boy did have an interesting variety of faces in his repertoire; that he did. "Come on."
Simon would have preferred a moment to collect his thoughts first, but he found himself jogging in the captain's wake instead. He still wanted to yell at the man, but he had a feeling that the captain might just as easily turn that anger around too. For an uneducated man, Mal seemed to know too damn much about psychology. For an educated man, Simon was wondering if he knew anything at all. He just had the wrong education for out here, and the though made him feel bereft again.
"Keep sulking like that I'll stick Kaylee on you; ain't no one who can be maudlin around her long," the captain threatened.
"No thank you," Simon responded politely, eyes drawn to where Kaylee and River were sitting in the lounge, chattering away about something. Where there was one, there was the other now. Simon was glad for that, all the same as he wasn't. If he thought about it too long it gave him a stress headache.
Actually, socializing with people on a regular basis was far more difficult than Calculus, Quantum Physics, and Advanced Psychoneuroimmunology put together. People seemed to wrap around each other here in ways he couldn't quantify and extrapolate on. They just wound together like the little flowers painted around the mess.
"All present and accounted for, Sir," Zoe announced, interrupting his thoughts. She stood by the table, arms crossed, while her husband slid himself into a chair. He looked between Zoe and the captain as if he was trying to figure out something. Simon wondered what, if anything, he did see. All he saw was Zoe looking stone-faced and the captain looking... Captain-y. His language was deteriorating at a deplorable rate, stationed on this ship, it really was.
"So I see, so I see," the captain's eyes traveled around the room, making eye contact with Jayne, who was lumbering in a doorway, the Preacher pouring himself tea, Zoe and Wash, the girls, and even pausing on Simon's. He was serious again, cold and contained. There was no teasing about Kaylee in his gaze, no teasing about anything. Simon found himself uneasy. He wondered absently when what the captain was thinking had started to matter so much to him.
"We got a job?" Jayne asked abruptly.
"We might, depends on Wash," the captain replied.
"Me?" Wash looked up, smile in place. "Wacky fun!" His eyes narrowed, "Why me?"
"Because as damn fine as the take would be for this job, it wouldn't be worth much if we were all blown to a bunch of itty bitty frozen hunks of flesh in the Devil's Hiccup, now would it?"
"No, don't reckon it would," Wash answered slowly, holding Mal's gaze. Zoe's hand reached for his shoulder, lingered there.
Jayne made a grumbling sound and Kaylee spoke up, "Devil's...Hiccup?"
"It is an area of space that was heavily mined during the war," Zoe spoke up.
"And even before that, it was a dangerous corridor because of space clutter," Wash added. "But with the mines now, if something so much as sneezes it can set off a chain reaction between the mines and whatever else is in there, sending about shrapnel that can sever a ship in two."
"If something so much as sneezes?" Kaylee gasped.
"Or hiccups," Wash shrugged. "A pilot would have to be crazy or pretty damn amazing to risk going in there."
"I already know you're crazy," Mal leaned forward. "How amazing are you?"
"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait," Simon held up his hands. "I know we need work, but...this sounds a little past dangerous and a lot closer to being perilous, if not down right suicidal. No offense, Wash."
"None taken," Wash responded, eyes still on the captain.
"The doctor does have a point." The Preacher stirred. "The Devil's Hiccup isn't something to be attempted lightly. Has anyone ever successfully navigated it?"
"A few have," Wash finally broke the captain's stare and looked up at his wife. Simon watched her knuckles pale as she squeezed his shoulder. "And I think we could."
"You think?" Jayne sounded none too pleased.
"One simply has to adjust speed to the velocity of reactive variables affected by the displacement of mass equal to the density of the ship in regards to the rate of our acceleration."
All eyes turned to River.
"I can draw you a diagram," she shrugged.
Kaylee patted River's knee and smiled.
"You do that, Physics Girl," Mal nodded, looking back to Wash. "Can you fly it?"
"With or without a diagram, I think so."
"Ain't no shame if you can't," the captain held up a hand. "I just need to know."
"I can." Wash repeated it with more confidence. "I can."
Mal trusted Wash, but just the same he set his alarm to wake him an hour before they headed into the Devil's Hiccup. Him breathing over Wash's shoulder might not do much good, but it would make him feel a might bit better about the job. He was even ready to bring Wash a cup of coffee, a preemptive strike to get him in the pilot's good graces. He wasn't sure how Wash took his coffee, Mal always preferred tea himself, but he got them both cups of black brew, deciding Wash would be twitchy enough without sugar.
Mal leaned against the kitchen counter, eyes roaming over the mess as he sipped his own cup. Mostly his eyes strayed over the long sheets of white paper papering the mess, making a mess of the mess, full of small neat handwriting which didn't make much sense to him. Then again, he wasn't a brilliant prodigy who had his brain chopped up neither, so he didn't take it as a personal failure. He just sipped his coffee and made his way to the passenger's quarters.
He rapped his knuckles on the metal of the doc's door, walking past to pause in River's doorway. She was awake, still drawing and sketching and filling paper with words and formulas. Mal heard the doc stumble through his half open door behind him.
"Captain? Is there a problem?"
"Not particularly, no." Mal offered Simon Wash's cup, as that the boy looked like he could use it. "River, honey? I have to question your taste in decorating."
"I tried to start very basic, so that you could follow, but the root formula is misconstrued and I had to -"
"That's fine, really, I'm sure you made a right smart change to it, but perhaps you'd better take all this up front and share it with Wash? Since he's flying the ship and I just boss people around."
River stared up at him, dark bottomless eyes. "No touching."
Mal nodded slowly, "No touching anything on the bridge, but you have permission to be there. Now, get." Mal looked aside, seeing Simon hold his coffee cup with a look of bewilderment. "Oh, and River? Might want to bring him coffee when you go."
"Two creams, three sugars," River sang back down the stairs then was gone.
"Huh, so that's how he takes his coffee. Your sister is observant, I'll give her that."
"You sent her to the bridge."
"It's conducive to her assisting in the flying of the ship, her being where the flying is done and all." Mal tilted his head at Simon. "Drink your coffee."
Simon took a sip, made a face, but swallowed anyway. "You're letting my sister help navigate the ship. My sister, my brilliant but insane sister, who has never piloted a ship in her life?"
"That ain't completely true," Mal started to say, than choose not to mention Early. Both Tams were still al little tetchy about that. "She's quick, got a head full of all that math of hers, and she's another pair of eyes. Another pair of eyes that might just see things before they happen, which makes her a right good person to have besides Wash."
"Captain," Simon stood a little taller. "Psychic phenomena has never been proven. River is highly intuitive but-"
"But nothing. Whatever you want to call it? It's useful."
"We would want everyone to be useful on this ship, wouldn't we?"
Simon's voice was as bitter as the coffee in their cups. Mal rolled his eyes, "Exactly. Come on, let's put you to use. Come clean up after your sister."
"At this hour of the morning?"
"You honestly going to tell me you can go back to sleep now?"
Simon grimaced and that was answer enough.
Simon left River's diagrams rolled up in the corner of the bridge behind large blinking panels that looked terribly important. The bridge was quiet, Wash still and silent, his eyes focused on the black in front of them. It wasn't just black though. There were pieces of metal, melded into shapes, parts of ships, parts of things that were unrecognizable, outside, floating past.
"This is where ideas go to die," River said softly.
Simon stepped forward, resting his hand on the cream padding of the chair River was curled up in on the other side of Wash. He'd seen the captain sit here a time or two. The panels in front of it flickered but Simon had never seen anyone touch them. He glanced across at Wash, who offered him a strained smile ever so briefly before his eyes returned to the black.
"What was this place?"
"Military graveyard," Zoe said from behind him. "Alliance used to test prototypes out here, even had a space station at one point so they could construct whatever it was they were working on safely outside the view of the general populace. Something went wrong at some point though and it was abandoned."
"Before the war," Simon looked at a scorched piece of something that happened past. "Was there a battle here?"
"No," Simon heard Zoe shake her head. He couldn't look away from the debris to watch her. "The used to test ammunition here, after the station went down. Some of the damage you see is from that. They mined the place because they were worried we might find something here, something that could be used against them. I always wondered if it was some technology that might have been left lying around or something that we might find that might change public opinion about just how just the Alliance was."
Simon looked back down at River, "Not so just."
Zoe made a sound of agreement but Simon barely heard it. River's eyes went wide, her mouth moving, but no sounds came out until she spoke a name, "Wash-"
"I see it," Wash reached up to three switches, click, click, click.
"Adjust trajectory down three degrees-"
"Gotta be more than that, doll."
Wash cursed in Chinese but the ship moved just a fraction, Simon assumed those scant three degrees. He wanted to say no. He loved his sister, but he trusted Wash in this. There was fire faded away already in the black. Metal had hit metal, was hitting metal, was coming toward them at an angel. Just when it looked like it was going to impact, it hit something and broke in two. One piece went under the ship and out of sight. The other came close enough to the skylight over their heads that Simon would swear he could have touched it.
"Yang gui zi!" Wash hit three more switches, click, click, click, and the ship stabilized.
Simon just stared at his sister.
"The integrity of metal in these conditions is an unpredictable variable."
"What she said," Zoe said stepping into the room. "Here Doc, take these."
Simon turned, mouth falling open. "Is there something going on in the ship I should know about?"
Zoe loaded his arms with firearms. Guns and rifles and things Simon couldn't identify. His skin crawled holding them; he shifted uncomfortably.
"I suppose you should. Captain told me to give you all my weapons. Careful, a few of those are loaded." Zoe stepped back. "The rest are on the table in the mess. You should see to them."
"I-" Simon looked down, "Right. The mess."
It felt like a terribly long walk, the handful of stairs between the two were treacherous. Step, step, step, do not drop anything and blow your head off he kept telling himself. He put the weapons down carefully on the table, on a spread out sheet with other weapons just waiting there. He stared at them for what felt like a long time.
"What did you do to get this chore?" Jayne sneered, adding to the pile. "Not that I'm letting you touch Vera, you da shabi."
Jayne looked like he was going to say more but the captain walked in. Jayne nodded to the table, met with a curt nod from the captain, and left with another nod. Simon thought absently that he'd have to work on the nodding thing. He wondered if there was a reference manual. Two Thousand and One Meanings in a Single Nod, Volume 2.
It wasn't until the captain added the pistol he always carried at his side to the pile that Simon spoke, "What is this?"
"A fine collection of firearms is what it is," Mal flashed him a smile and motioned to a chair. "Sit."
Simon found himself a seat. "And do what?"
"First, check and make sure it's not loaded," Mal demonstrated. "Then take it apart, clean it, oil it, and put it back together."
He said it like it was easy; Simon just stared some more. "How?"
"Top three percent of your class, you figure it out."
"And if I blow a hole in something?"
"That would be unfortunate." Mal sighed. "I'll unload them all, and be reading over there if something gets desperate, but the point of this exercise is for you to do it yourself."
"I asked you to teach me how to shoot, not-" Simon made a gesture. "If it's too much trouble I could ask Zoe or the Shepherd. Even Jayne, I suppose."
Mal snorted, throwing a rag at Simon. "Get to work."
The scent of gun oil was reassuring as Mal settled into an alcove off of the mess. He kicked his boots off to keep Kaylee from sneaking up on him and lecturing him that just because he was captain didn't mean he got to add to other people's chores. He didn't mind, not like there was much to do but wait at this point. Wait and keep distracting himself from the certain death floating about outside the ship.
He flipped on the data pad, scrolling through the anthology. It was an old data chip; it took a while to load. There were dozens of stories to choose from, westerns from old dime novels that someone had given to him at some point. He never knew anyone who could tell him what a dime was, but he figured it was money of some value, as entertaining as the stories were. They were funny and nave, but it was enjoyable to read about how similar things had been once on Earth That Was.
Certain things came up again and again in the stories, and an indeterminable period of time later he asked out loud, "How do you think I'd look in a hat?"
"A hat," Simon echoed, a clinking sound underlying his words.
"It seems like everyone in these stories has a hat," Mal swung his feet down, touching off the pad and stretching. "How is it coming?"
"Think Jayne would kill me if I hurt one of his guns?"
"Yes," Mal moseyed over to the table. Men in the stories were always moseying or sauntering. Mal wasn't sure of the difference. He did know the difference in guns though. "I think you might live. That's Zoe's and you didn't hurt it. Here."
Mal took the gun from Simon, sliding the pieces apart with a practiced motion, after a few rough yanks. "It's an old gun, seen a lot of action. Can't be gentle with it. It won't be gentle with you."
"I'm not nearly done," Simon sounded defeated.
"Better to take your time and get it right," Mal said, checking over the guns Simon had already worked on. Mal was pleased. "And you have got it right."
Simon seemed to take some pride in that, "That's something I suppose."
"It's everything," Mal said, sitting down and picking up a rag for himself, to help. It wasn't necessary; most guns on the ship were kept clean and ready, but a little extra polish couldn't be a bad thing. Besides, getting the guns clean weren't the point of the exercise.
Mal watched Simon. His posture was more relaxed, and while he didn't look happy to be holding a gun the look of distaste from before was gone. He wasn't nearly as edgy either. He picked up another gun, rolling it in his hands and figuring out how the parts worked together and what to do with it to accomplish his task. Mal nodded, "You're getting the hang of this."
"Of cleaning weapons? A lot of help that will be."
"No, of getting used to there being a gun in your hand," Mal retorted, spinning his gun fancy like in his hand. "You're bright, you're skilled, you can hold your hand steady through surgery and all sorts of ugliness, but no matter how many lessons you have on how to shoot, if you ain't comfortable with a gun it won't make no difference. Not if the gun doesn't feel like it belongs there."
Simon looked down at his hand, "It doesn't."
"No," Mal said regretfully. He'd really rather it never did, but the gun was already more a part of the boy than it had been. "It's not too late to change your mind, Doc. You don't need to do this."
"Captain, it isn't like you to be so impractical."
Mal snorted but said nothing. It wasn't practical that Simon didn't know how to use a weapon. It was better for him to learn how. Mal just didn't have to like it.
"When did you first..." Simon's eyes darted back to the gun in his hand. "If you don't mind my asking."
"When did I first learn how to handle a gun? Or when did I first use one to kill a man?"
Simon's hands stilled. He looked up and met Mal's gaze. "Either."
Mal reached for a rifle, turning it in his hands. "My Momma taught me how to handle a rifle, so I'd learn right and no one would teach me wrong. I was small, not sure how old. Guns were just a part of life on the ranch. They were always there."
Silence intervened then, both men working. Simon finally spoke. "The first time I saw a gun not on an entertainment vid was the first time I got arrested for going to a Black Out area to find out information on River. Well," Simon shook his head. "That and on security personnel, but I never paid particularly close attention to their side arms."
"Security personnel," Mal scoffed.
Simon glared, but offered no other comment. Mal had ideas about Simon's life before he went after his sister. He wasn't sure how fair or accurate they were, but he had ideas. There couldn't be two worlds less alike. He was surprised Simon had managed to get as far as he had before meeting up with Serenity. Brilliant he might be, but it was a cruel world out there. Hell, it was a cruel world on Serenity at times too, what with the business they did.
"I was mighty thankful you took up arms for your part at the skyplex," Mal said finally.
"Not that it accomplished anything."
"But you had the intention to and don't think I don't have a grip of gratitude for the gesture. That and for you going in there and not getting your fool head blown off." Mal sighed, "Should have taught you to shoot proper like after that."
"I wasn't particularly partial to the idea at the time." Simon put down one gun and picked up another. "I need to keep her safe."
Mal watched the boy. No, the man. He deserved that after what he'd done. Mal had to respect the sacrifices Simon had made for his sister. He had to respect that regard for family. He respected Simon and his sister both, but if he ever met their gorram parents he might be moved to do something right uncivilized to the both of them.
"You said-" Simon started, but a shout from the cockpit cut him off.
Mal was on his feet and looking over Wash's shoulder a moment later. A ship sat drifting in front of them, a ship that weren't no Alliance wreck. It was a ship that Mal recognized. "The Pale Horse. She looks to be in one piece. Wash?"
"She looks sound. I'm getting minimal power, life support running but no life signs."
Book moved from where he'd been standing still, a shadow beside River, "When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard a voice say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades followed with him."
River made a strangled noise but Mal paid it no mind, just moving out of the way so Simon could get to his sister. She was agitated, not making much sense again, and Simon quietly bundled her up and helped her from the bridge. Mal scowled, girl had been having a good day too. "Thanks Preacher, very inspiring."
"It is an interesting name for a ship," Book shrugged.
"Her captain is an interesting fellow," Zoe replied, moving beside Mal. "We tried hailing them. If Ambrose were among the living you know he'd answer us, Sir."
"If Ambrose were among the living he would have met us at our meet," Mal said. "There. Wash, can we dock there?"
"In theory, yes." Wash looked up at him. "Are you sure you want to? She's drifting, if she hits a mine we can't see from here she could take us down with her."
"She's got what we're in here for. It's that or we keep flying til we find the ruins of the space station, go out in suits for a walk around, and hope for the best. And Wash? I'd be taking your wife with me for that walk around."
Wash made a face, "Right." He hit the intercom. "Kaylee? I need you and Jayne in the cargo hold to help with docking."
"Structural integrity seems to have been maintained so we won't need suits," Mal headed back into the mess, helping himself to his guns as Zoe picked up a few of hers. They reloaded them instinctively, movements clean and fast. "We go in, look around, get the cargo off, and get out of here asap."
"Does 'look around' entail finding out what happened to Ambrose, Sir?"
"It does. Doc?" Mal motioned Simon towards the table from where he'd been, crouched with River in the lounge. "I want you to stand by. We don't know what happened on that ship."
Simon nodded and started to speak but Mal had no time for it. A curt nod to Zoe and they were heading down the stairs. Docking was simple enough, for all the danger they were in with the waiting. He gave a smile to Kaylee and a curt nod to Jayne, "We'll call for you once we find the cargo."
"Sure you don't want extra firepower going in?"
Mal appreciated Jayne's offer but shook his head. "Zoe and me, we served with the people on this ship. Less chance of us getting shot than you."
Mal paused, a step away from the blackness of the docking door, and looked back one last time. "Kaylee? River seems a might bit upset. You might want to help the doc see to her, particularly if I got to call the doc over," and with that last instruction he and Zoe headed into the Pale Horse.
"No, no, no!"
"River, please," Simon held her in his arms and rocked her softly. He wasn't sure what he was asking. Please don't cry? Please don't scream? Please just don't be broken anymore? Please be my River again? Please... He closed his eyes, burying his face in her hair as she clung to him.
'Burning, burning, burning. But he went. Can't go no more. Drowned in blood." River pulled back, trying to escape. "My fault, my fault. If no one touched me-"
"No touching, no touching, no touching!"
Simon crouched beside her, not sure what to say, but then there was the sound of guns being loaded and the captains' voice. The words were there but his attention was focused on River until, "Doc?"
River whimpered, "I like him, I don't want him to hurt too."
River's words sent shivers up Simon's spine but Mal was still talking. "I want you to stand by. We don't know what happened on that ship."
Simon nodded, tried to speak, but he didn't know what to say. My crazy sister thinks it might be dangerous? He closed his eyes as Zoe and the captain vanished from sight. It was always dangerous. Too damn dangerous.
"Two by two. Gloves of blue. They set traps and wait and wait and wait."
"So much blood," River seemed to be settling in again, rocking softly. "So much blood because you came for me. There wouldn't have been as much if it had just been mine."
"No," Simon reached for River again. "Not your blood mei mei, we won't let them hurt you anymore. Not me or the captain or-"
"But he's already dead."
"No." Simon refused to accept that. River couldn't know. The captain couldn't be dead. Mal wouldn't die. Mal. Mal and Zoe had gone on the ship - the strange, derelict ship floating dead in space. He stood up and repeated his denial, "No."
"He tried to help, a favor, and now he's dead. " River looked up at Simon, eyes strangely clear. "And no one will cry."
Kaylee would cry, Simon thought. Kaylee who was there, walking in with a beaming smile, not directed at him but at River. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?"
"Everything falls to pieces."
"Then we'll just have to put them back together again won't we?" Kaylee sank down beside River, wrapping her arms around her, fingers combing through River's hair.
"Soft hands," River breathed.
Kaylee giggled then looked up at Simon, "Captain told me to help here so you'd be free to go over if he needs you."
How long did docking take? Simon ran the nail of his index finger over his thumb, River's words repeating in his head. "Has he gone yet?"
Kaylee nodded and Simon felt hope slip away. River couldn't be right. She couldn't know. "Wha-"
"Doc!" Jayne barged up the stairs. "They need you on the ship. Captain says to suit up and-"
"Jayne, I'm really not in the mood for pranks," Simon cursed, already moving towards the infirmary for his med kit.
"No, it ain't no prank. Gorram germs can't get in a suit and-"
"Germs?" Simon turned sharply, looked at Jayne.
"Bleeding from mucous membranes and conjunctiva is a classic symptom of hemorrhagic fever."
"Like your crazy sister said," Jayne nodded.
Hemorrhagic fever. The nonspecific and variable clinical presentation of hemorrhagic fever viruses presented a considerable diagnostic challenge. They were most easily recognized post mortem. A nucleoside analogue could be distributed to slow the progression of the disease, but there were a wide variety of viruses that had no cure. Supportive treatment was the most common course of action. Either the person lived or died, and apparently Simon could get to the infirmary blind because he had no memory of getting there at all.
Mal turned over another body, eyes tracing the features of the face underneath the blood. Dusky skin, pale in death, and eyes unseeing, looked back. They were full of blood, crimson stained, but Mal remembered when they were black and laughing. He shook his head, "I found Crow, same as the others."
"The cargo is here, for all the good it does us. Do you think whatever caused this came from that which they took? " Zoe paused, looking down at Mal. "Sir, do you think you should be touching..."
Mal wiped the blood on the floor, "Had to close his eyes, Zoe."
"Crow always had a thing about eyes."
"Yup." Mal looked up toward the heavy footsteps and heavier sound of breathing he heard coming toward them. "Glad you could join us Doc."
The doc nodded, face hidden by the glare on his helmet. He crouched down beside Crow, "He looks to be in the same state of degradation as the body outside the docking bay."
Mal nodded. "Whatever it was happened fast. No one was put up in the infirmary, the bunks are clean."
"How many bodies?"
"Three found, they'll be two more in there," Zoe nodded towards the doors in front of them.
"The bridge," Mal said shortly. "Ambrose and Lily's bodies are the only ones missing, and that's where they'll be. Zoe?"
Zoe pressed a sensor on the wall, but nothing happened. She pressed again, and once more, before pulling her gun on it.
"Maybe they tried to isolate themselves from the virus, but it could have gotten through the ventilation system..." Doc rambled on, something about creating quarantine conditions and big words Mal didn't care to know.
Mal tuned him out, scanning the bridge and finding the bodies he was dreading seeing. "There."
Zoe nodded but turned her attention to the bridge controls, looking through for the captain's logs, leaving Mal to inspect the bodies. They were prone and pale and bloody, but that wasn't what gave him pause.
"Doc, does it do much good to shoot at germs?"
"What?" Simon stopped his tirade.
"I didn't reckon it did, and Ambrose being the educated man he was, he'd know that better than me. Yet he's still got a gun in hand. Lily too."
"He could have been suffering paranoid delusions. That's very common with high fevers," Simon lumbered closer, his suit making his movements awkward and cumbersome. He started to speak then paused, reaching out to touch the scared flesh of the captain's neck.
"He got himself hurt bad in the war," Mal mentioned, voice tight. "Zoe, anything on those logs?"
"There's nothing here."
"What?" Mal squeezed in beside her. "Nothing?"
"It's wiped clean. There's nothing here, not even basic programs."
That didn't make sense. "What's the ship running on?"
Zoe tapped at several buttons, scrolling though code Mal hoped she understood. "Secondary systems."
"I suppose paranoid delusions could have made them do that too but," Mal turned back. "Doc? What do you need to do to figure out what it was that killed these folk?"
"An autopsy might be revealing, but there is not a way to transport a single one of these specimens to the infirmary without infecting the ship." The doc stood tall. "I can't risk that, Captain."
"And I wouldn't ask you too. Can't you do the autopsy here?"
Simon held up his gloved fingers.
"Things can't ever be easy," Mal sighed, looking down at his own hands and across at Ambrose. Sorry old friend. "Fine then, this time around you do the bossing and I'll do the cutting."
"Unless you got a better idea? How long does it take for something like this to manifest? We could just sit around and wait to see if Zoe and I die, but I'd rather not." Mal licked his lips. "Sit around or die, though the sitting around is preferable to the dying."
"I second that, Sir." Zoe added in.
"Strains of hemorrhagic fever can take up to three weeks before symptoms begin to appear."
"Ain't got three weeks. Way this part of space is, we might not have three hours."
Doc looked like he was going to argue again but he just took a loud breath through his respirator and asked, "Where can we find a flat surface with adequate lighting?"
"One more cut, easy now," Simon found it difficult not to pull the instruments from Mal's hands and do things right, but it was no use given the clumsy mobility the suit afforded him. It was warm and sweaty inside the bulky contraption and his near claustrophobia was making it difficult not to be short with the captain. Zoe had told them both if they didn't stop with their bickering she was going to shoot them herself, so they wouldn't need to worry about dying of something nasty in three weeks, they'd be dead in three seconds.
Simon found the cavalier attitude of the captain and Zoe hard to understand. They were faced with an unpleasant and painful death, surrounded by the unpleasant and pained remains of their compatriots, and they made jokes, very bad jokes in fact.
It was also somewhat unnerving to hear stories about the body on the table, when it was being cut up on the table. Perhaps not so much unnerving as wrong. It made him feel foolish for his previously expressed concern though, for the captain cutting into a friend, but the look in Mal's eyes in response to that had already made him feel uneasy. A flat dead stare and his voice full of not right humor; "Ain't like I haven't had to be elbow deep in friends' blood and guts before, Doc."
But it was almost over. One more cut, which Mal made a little roughly, but there. No sign of infection. It should have been a relief, but it left Simon concerned. "There's no sign of infection but, how...?"
"Some sort of weapon I'm thinking," Mal stepped back. "The first body was at the docking bay doors, as if maybe letting someone on. The second and third between the docking bay and here, in close proximity to each other. The only ones with any real warning were Ambrose and Lily, and they locked themselves on the bridge."
"What sort of weapon could cause..." Zoe motioned, "That?"
Simon was thinking. There were possibilities, but none that seemed plausible. "Bleeding from the eyes, nose, mouth, ears. I don't know. I suppose the right sound waves, certain electromagnetic waves...but how to harness those particular waves without causing bodily harm to the person wielding the weapon and... I just don't know."
"But you do know this weren't no sickness?"
"I am roughly 95 % sure that no known illness caused this but-"
"That's going to have to be good enough, Doc." Mal looked at Zoe, "You go get Jayne and get the cargo out of here now. We've already dallied too long."
Simon watched her go, unable to come up with an articulate argument against her going, save for that 5 % of his brain that said there was still a possibility, whatever this might be, it might still be contagious. It was a very wide margin of error, 5%, particularly when it could mean his sister's life. "Captain. Mal?"
While Simon had been woolgathering Mal had picked up the knife again. He was cutting very carefully at the other captain's gloved hand. Simon took off his helmet and tried again, "Mal? What are you..?
"Ambrose lost his hand when his lost his eye and most of his skin. This is a prosthetic and," Mal flashed a bright smile. "Here we are. His secret compartment. Old bastard."
"You are all insane," Simon breathed. A secret compartment in a prosthetic hand? He supposed it wasn't much compared to smuggling in dead bodies, but it was true, they were all insane.
"Take your glove off, Doc."
Simon did, holding his hand out as the captain motioned. Something small and metal was deposited in his hand. "A data chip? Why give this to me?"
"Well," Mal finished scrubbing his hands and dried them on his pants leg. "It could be the latest exploits of your favorite zucchini, it could be some old blueprints for Ambrose's next heist, or it could be the information I asked him for."
"What sort of information?"
"Anything that could be found regarding one Simon Tam and one River Tam, from various and nefarious sources. I figure you should have it. Though if it is blueprints for a heist? I'd be pleased if you could share those."
"I. Yes. Right." Simon stared at the chip in his hand.
"Good boy. Now think you can manage some heavy lifting? I want off this boat."
Mal wouldn't be happy until they were out of the Devil's Hiccup, but they were on their way and that made him something like happy. He was something heading towards glad, with a bit of being content, and a large helping of not dealing with anything but the present, beside. The present had his ship flying, expensive cargo in the hold, and everyone safe and sound. He liked the present very much.
Unfortunately Zoe brought the past in with her in a grey metal box she left on the mess table after dinner. "Found this in Ambrose's quarters, Sir. Thought it might have something of value."
"What's in it?" Mal eyed it warily.
"Didn't feel right to open it."
Mal sighed, "Doc, toss me a knife? One not all sudsy from your washing."
Doc responded from the sink with an, "As nice as it is to feel useful here, I am not throwing knives at crew members for the feeling of personal and professional fulfillment that comes with stitching them back together again.
Mal made a face and would have argued but Zoe pulled a knife from somewhere Mal knew he shouldn't dwell on. "Thanks."
It didn't take long to jimmy the lock open. It was there more as a request for privacy than anything to keep hardened criminals out. There were papers for the Pale Horse, some legal, some not, some he weren't sure if they were forgeries or not. There was a gun. Nothing fancy, just an older model that did what it was meant to do. There was some spare ammunition rattling around with some spare credits. There were pages upon pages of paper, neatly lined with numbers and letters, some sort of code Mal assumed. There were data chips he passed to Zoe silently, the unspoken directive for her to check them out. The papers were another matter though; he ran his fingers over them a moment before smiling.
"Kaylee? Think you could part with River a moment?"
"Don't fancy I could, I'm in the middle of braiding her hair!"
"She's fixing me," River added from where she was curled up in the other girl's lap.
"She's fixing you up right pretty, but I've got a present for you when she's done."
Mal nodded at Zoe who left him for the bridge, to Wash or to listen to the data chips, Mal didn't know nor care. There were a few other odds and ends in the box. Some buttons. A multi function knife with scissors and do-hickey's attached to it. There was a picture of Ambrose's first wife, and a tress of short black hair with a pink bow around it. Martha. Or Mary? What had Ambrose's little girl's name been? She had died with her mother during the war, after some Alliance raid, when Ambrose had been trapped in some trench defending someone else's family. He hadn't even heard they died until Anhui, after he got the information to the troops and collapsed, taken away to a medical facility somewhere. That's where he had been when he heard. He had written Mal about it, and Mal had carried the letter until it was no longer readable from all the dirt and blood he'd carried as well.
"These here papers are for you, River." Mal patted the stack, closing up the box and feeling the need to stretch his legs. "Do what you like with them, just if you make a mess of the mess? This time you, and not your brother, is cleaning it!"
River giggled and Mal offered her a thin smile in response. The girls were good together. Kaylee could fix anything. Engines. Ships. Broken girls. Mean old captains. It was a warm thought he carried with him to a cold place.
The cargo was safe and sound, the hold quiet. Jayne and Book were nowhere to be seen, but the equipment they seemed to have made theirs was still out. Mal sat, adjusting the weights, adding more than he usually did. He had energy to burn, thoughts not to think, and time to spend.
Simon had never washed dishes at home, at what had been home, but on Serenity if you didn't cook you cleaned, at least on a certain rotation. Since Simon never cooked, not after that first fiery affair, he seemed to find himself washing dishes more often than not. That might have had something to do with some of the other chores he couldn't quite manage either. He had found it irritating at first, but for once he was glad of the warm soapy water. He felt dirty still from the Pale Horse, and since they were no baths on the ship this was as close as he'd come to soaking clean.
Simon still couldn't imagine weapons doing what they saw, but a few comments from the Shepherd had made him feel more confident that a weapon was what it had been, and that Simon had not let people who should have been quarantined back on the ship. That would be little comfort if they were all dead or dying in a few weeks, but Simon tried not to dwell on it. It had been hard enough thinking of Zoe and the captain dying that way. He couldn't imagine them giving into the illness, he could see them fighting it until the end, but dying from it? It was too horrible to contemplate.
It was also too horrible to contemplate the image that had come to him, that they wouldn't let themselves die that way, and that he'd walk into the infirmary one day to find out they had eaten their guns. He shivered, adding hot water until the sink was steaming again.
He could hear Kaylee and River behind him, not their words but their voices, soft and happy. He could remember River small, with braids in her hair. She had been so young then. She didn't look young now. Simon dried his hands, watching as she stepped, danced really, to the table. Kaylee was watching her with bright eyes.
"What did the captain leave for you, Honey?"
River tilted her head, "Algorithms," she brought the papers back to Kaylee to show her.
Simon felt strangely detached watching the two of them so he turned his attention back to the table. The gun was out. The captain left a gun out? And ammunition. That wasn't like him. Mal had made sure the guns in the mess were cleaned up by Book before River could get near them unsupervised. Simon reached for the gun, fingers lightly running over it. It didn't feel right in his hand yet, but it felt less wrong.
"Oh my goodness!" Kaylee shrieked, pulling something from River's hand. "It can't be! It is! Oh my goodness!"
"They were happy, almost," River said, touching the paper.
Simon drew closer, "What is it?"
"A picture! An honest to gosh photograph," Kaylee leaned forward to show Simon. "Of the captain and Zoe and a whole bunch of people I don't know! Don't he look happy?"
Mal did look happy. He had the biggest grin on his face, arms slung around a man that looked vaguely familiar, and a Zoe who looked as stern and fierce as the first time Simon remembered her. The memory wasn't from boarding the ship, or their first dinner, but from when she had stood with the gun, Kaylee bleeding and-
River's touch brought him out of the memory.
Simon blinked, focusing on the picture again. Mal, looking terribly young. Zoe, looking like herself. The familiar man and another, the second he recognized from the Pale horse. It had been the dead man by the docking bay, the first he examined. The other man, he looked carefully. The burned man. The captain of the other ship. Ambrose.
There were other people in the picture, people Simon's eyes glazed over, but it was to the captain they kept returning. "This was in those papers?"
"Yes, I don't think he knowed it was there," Kaylee answered.
Knew, Simon wanted to correct but he held his tongue.
"Think we should give it to him or Zoe?"
"I can bring it to him. I believe he went downstairs, and I need to stop in the infirmary as it is," Simon replied, not yet done looking at the picture.
"That would be right sweet of you Simon, thank you," Kaylee beamed.
Simon forced a smile, with one last look at the picture. They were armed. They all had guns in the photo. Simon hadn't seen that before. His eyes fell to the gun on the table. He picked it up again, deciding to bring it with him to Mal for safekeeping.
It wasn't hard to find Mal, once Simon followed the labored breathing down into the cargo hold. He was lifting weights, shirt draped over a crate and sweat tracing the few scars not even the most advanced dermal regenerating topical ointments had been able to erase. Simon took those marks as a personal affront to his profession.
Then again, the captain seemed to excel at discounting the medical profession.
"I do realize that my instructions were not comprehensive in regards to the physical exertion of the ligaments of your shoulder; my mistake for assuming you had the common sense to allow it to recuperate without further injury."
Mal snorted, hefting the weights twice more before sliding them back onto their perch. They wobbled a bit as they settled in and Simon took a worried step forward. "Aren't you supposed to have someone spot you, when you..." Simon made a vague gesture, "do that?"
"In theory, yeah," Mal breathed. "Toss me that towel?"
Simon looked where Mal was pointing, throwing him the towel. "Like in theory you might try to not re-injure the shoulder you were so adamant you could not afford to damage permanently, what? Three, four days ago?"
Mal made a face at the towel, at some smell Simon didn't want to contemplate, but used it all the same. "Something you wanted Doc? Besides lecturing me?"
"You deserve to be lectured, often." Simon's eyes narrowed. "Are you even using the salve I gave you?"
"Yes, twice a day as indicated."
"That is something, I suppose."
Mal ignored him, drying off. His movements weren't as smooth as they should have been, as they often were. Simon could see the difference. He wondered if it was exhaustion or something else. The captain looked tired. The captain sounded tired. "You going to just stand there and gawk Simon, or have you something to say?"
"Something to show you, actually." Simon glanced back at the photograph he still held. He showed it to Mal, sitting down beside him on the... thing. "The girls found this in the papers you gave River."
"Huh," Mal took it, face expressionless.
Simon wanted there to be some expression, some response. He couldn't explain why, he simply did. His eyes flickered down to the picture then back up to Mal. "Zoe looks the same."
"Nah," There was a hint of a smile in Mal's eyes. "She's not that mean anymore."
"And is that Ambrose?"
The light left Mal's eyes. "Yes."
Simon regretted the question, but he had to indulge his curiosity. Injuries like the man had, burns like that, they should have been treated, but they hadn't been. "What happened to him?"
The silence stretched. Simon didn't think the captain was going to answer. He was about to excuse himself and leave Mal to his memories when he finally spoke, "He was an intelligence officer, or as close to one as we had. He was bringing us information about Alliance forces and movements when he got caught in some sort of blast. We were never sure what sort. It could have been any of a dozen things. He was due in at 0800 but it wasn't until 1100 he dragged himself in to report to our commanding officer, information that probably kept us all from dying that day. We took care of him best we could, but conditions being what they were he lost the hand, and by the time they got him to a real medic facility there weren't much they could do for the rest of the damage neither."
"I'm sure the field medic tried to make him comfortable," Simon tried to console.
Mal snorted, "We didn't have medics in the field."
Simon had no answer to that. He couldn't fathom it. No medics? He remembered hearing the numbers of injured on the news feeds, abstract statistics that had been background noise as he waited for an entertainment broadcast or a documentary on the latest biogenic advancements. The memory of Mal's eyes before the autopsy came back to him. Tsao.
"That's Miguel," Mal finally said, pointing to the other man that had been on the Pale Horse. His finger moved from face to face, listing names. "Giovanni, he could have given Tracey a run for his money in the pranks department. Could have taught you and Jayne a thing or two, too."
Simon smiled, "Where is he now?"
"Dead." Mal sighed. "With Ambrose and Miguel gone, Zoe and I are the only ones left alive in this picture."
Simon felt out of his depth. "I'm sorry?"
"Just the way of things Doc, people get dead."
That effectively killed conversation, or would have if Simon wasn't feeling daring. Maybe it was the fact that he was armed, and for once Mal wasn't. That, and sitting this close Simon could see that Mal's shoulder looked sore and swollen. "Maybe if you followed your doctor's medical advice it would assist in postponing that condition indefinitely?"
Mal actually laughed, "Not if I keep getting shot, Doc."
"Yes, I've been meaning to speak to you about that," Simon said very seriously.
Mal arched an eyebrow.
"Right, I'll just let tell the next gun wielding maniac I encounter that he can't shoot me, I'm under my doctor's orders." Mal's smile echoed the one in the picture.
"Do you think that would work?" Simon asked wistfully.
"Doc, you swore!"
"I do swear when the situation warrants it." Simon wasn't sure this situation warranted it, but it seemed as good an answer as anything.
"We're rubbing off on you."
"Indeed. Note my utter disregard for my attire and appearance." Simon ran a hand through his hair. "I daresay I shall start using ain't any day now."
"You look better scruffy."
It was such an odd and unexpected statement from the captain that Simon had to laugh. "Kaylee doesn't seem to think so; given how little attention she's paid me of late."
"That's because she's sweet on your sister now."
"She-what?" Simon blinked, sure he had misunderstood.
"I don't know what you did that caused her eye to go a wandering, but I pretty sure she's taken with River now. " Mal tilted his head, "That or they're being particularly girly."
"River is seventeen!"
"Kaylee ain't that much older, Doc. Besides, how old were you when you first--"
The captain snickered at him. There was most definitely snickering coming from the direction of the captain. Simon was too annoyed to appreciate it.
"Stop that!" Simon hit his shoulder, his sore one just to be spiteful. If it hurt the captain paid it no mind, still snickering. "I am armed, you better stop!"
"Haven't taught you to shoot yet," Mal answered, gesturing to Simon's pants. "That Ambrose's piece?"
Simon pulled it free, holding it gingerly. "You left it on the table."
"Wasn't thinking clearly," Mal rubbed his temple. "You keep it. You need a gun if you're going to do this."
"I am," Simon said resolutely, looking at the expression on Mal's face. "You've gone all impractical on me again."
Mal didn't deny it and Simon wondered why it mattered to him whether Simon learned to shoot or not. Mal's mother, Simon smiled slightly at the word the captain had used, his Momma had taught him to shoot young. Simon would think it would only be logical to the captain to correct that gap in Simon's own education.
Simon glanced back at the picture, young Mal looking back with some large projectile weapon hanging at his side. "How old were you in that?"
"Hmmm?" The captain dragged his eyes down from Simon's face. "Younger than you are now."
Simon couldn't imagine it. He was glad for that, but at the same time he wished he had known the captain then. Not that he could have known him then, he'd been barely more than a boy then, and he was rambling in his head. Apparently sentence structure as well as logic dissolved on Serenity. Or in close proximity to Mal, whose face was dark again as he looked at the picture. Simon wished he'd smile. Not his sweet talking someone smile, or his Zoe you know we're old war buddies and you don't honestly want to kill me for whatever it is I've done smile, but that bright, happy smile. An honest smile.
The captain had honest smiles from time to time. Kaylee earned them frequently. River had gotten one that morning. At dinner sometimes they snuck across the captain's face. Simon could graph and calculate situations that lead to them, look for common variables to extrapolate data that could be used to escalate their occurrence, but he was sidetracked wondering why he knew offhand when the captain smiled. Why had he even noticed? Why did he care?
Why had he cared so much what the captain had said? Jayne said cruel things on a daily basis. He had never listened to a word Jayne said, at least so long as it didn't seem to initiate death and dismemberment.
Mal shifted his shoulder painfully besides him. Simon ran his fingers over it, massaging the abused muscle, even as his mouth opened to say "I told you so" in a professionally appropriate manner. He didn't say it though; he was too busy staring at his errant hand.
The doc had good hands, a sentiment Mal's shoulder agreed with wholeheartedly. It hadn't hurt before, not when he was working out, but now it burned and protested loudly. He wondered if it would be worth the attitude he'd get if he asked Simon for something for the pain, besides the foul smelling junk he had to rub into it. He turned to risk it and found out the doc had nice lips to go along with his good hands. Nice soft lips and a nice warm mouth. Sweet tasting. It reminded Mal of something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
He could put his fingers on Simon though and he did, pushing him away abruptly. "Now Doc, that's a whole bunch of complication right there, and I don't do complication so you-"
Mal sat up straighter. "Did you just insult me?"
Simon's lips were wet. "If you didn't do complication you wouldn't have taken two fugitives on your ship, you wouldn't let the Shepherd stay, you wouldn't have hired Jayne in the first place, or taken half the jobs you have. If fact, you wouldn't be what you are if you didn't, you'd be a law abiding businessman living on the right side of the Alliance. But you're not, and you did, and you do, ergo, you do in fact do complications."
"You're as crazy as your sister."
Simon looked as crazy as his sister too, eyes all bright and crazified. It wasn't a bad thing per say, like looking scruffy it suited him, but Mal hadn't been lying. He didn't do complication, Simon's supposed evidence aside. He didn't do it with Inara, who most certainly hadn't broken his heart, and he wasn't doing it now with no fugitive doctor he sold one of his best friends out for.
Mal had to know what Ambrose died for, "What was on the disk?"
"The disk?" Simon looked confused.
The light in his eyes dimmed. "It was blank. Whatever it was they did that wiped the computers, it must have effected the disk too. There was nothing on it, nothing."
Then they had all died for nothing. Ambrose had operated under the radar too long for it to have been anything else that drew attention to him, the sort of attention to use such high tech, classified types of weapons. They didn't send those out after smugglers with a penchant for hacking. Mal could tell himself that whatever Ambrose had hacked into that he shouldn't have had nothing to do with River or Simon Tam, but he didn't believe it. He believed in taking responsibility for his actions. His actions had put his friends in a position that had earned them painful and unpleasant deaths.
"Mal," Simon was leaning close again. It would have been easy to brush his lips against his, distract them both, but he couldn't. Wouldn't. The boy was his responsibility too.
"No complications," Mal repeated, rising to retrieve his shirt and his composure.
Simon could come up with several logical arguments against Mal's complication caveat, but he remained silent in defense of his own confusion. He had kissed Mal. He had touched Mal. Neither of those things he had expected to do, therefore arguing to do them again seemed to be something best postponed until after he had ample time to analyze his actions and reactions.
Simon didn't want to though; he wanted to kiss Mal again.
Mal took the choice from him, leaving after a long searching stare and no more words. There were only his footsteps across the cargo hold, then up the stairs.
Simon's footsteps led him to the passenger quarters and his room. He opened the door, he closed the door, and he took his carrying case out from under the bed. His fingers ran through the combination numbly. He left the gun snug in the bottom of it, with the handful of other items he attempted to keep private. A journal, important papers, three vials of clear liquid, and, as of that day, a gun without ammunition and a data chip.
The data chip looked tiny and insignificant. More than anything Simon wanted to reach in, take it out, pop it in a disk, pop the disk in a reader, and read. Some man had died for it, for a favor Mal had asked for them, for Simon and River. One captain, an entire crew. There had been so much blood, just as River had said.
It had been a trap, but not for them.
Simon closed his case, locking the data chip away. Too many had already died for that information. He wasn't going to trigger another trap and sentence his crew to the same fate. He hadn't understood the extent of the danger Mal accused him of bringing to his ship that first day. He did now. He was responsible for it. He wouldn't be responsible for anything more.
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Title: No Exit
Author: Dae [email]
Details: Standalone | PG-13 | *slash* | 87k | 07/02/04
Characters: Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book
Pairings: Kaylee/River, Mal/Simon
Summary: Life is what is made of it, even in the black, through missions gone awry, pranks and unexpected affections.
Notes: Spoilers: All
Warnings: This story is more pre slash for Simon/Mal than slash and while River/Kaylee are a pairing, that isn't completely obvious yet, just assumed by Mal.
Author Notes: This story was meant to be a stand alone piece, but Simon and Mal felt differently so it will someday be part of a trilogy. I make no promises about when the other stories will be done though. I write very very very slowly, except when I don't. This story was one of the few times I didn't. I affectionately call these my Sartre stories because I'm a dork. Updates for the arc will be made in my lj: http://www.livejournal.com/users/themagdalene/ as they happen.
Disclaimer: All hail Joss Whedon! All hail Tim Minear! Not so much with the hailing of FOX, which canceled the series. Firefly, its premise, characters, etc etc belong to them. No harm intended nor profit made.
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