The Things I Cannot Change

by Dark Emerald

[Story Headers]

PART 1 - BREAKING - PG

Pacquin, Athens system, 2517

"But Captain! He's all naked--and shot! Shot real bad. And sunburned!"

"No, Kaylee. We ain't on a mission of mercy. We don't take on passengers--least not them as can't pay, and I'm guessing' this one can't, since, as you yourself have pointed out, he's got no pockets. For all we know, he's another fugitive." The captain looked pointedly at Simon. Simon didn't blink. He had no intention of backing down, but getting Mal's permission now would be a lot less miserable than suffering Mal's anger later.

"He ain't a fugitive!"

"Oh? And how do you know that?"

Kaylee looked down and murmured, "I just know, is all."

"Stick to listenin' to Serenity, Kaylee. You're too softhearted to get an accurate read of the workin's of men."

Kaylee muttered what sounded like "zheng ning" under her breath and Simon glanced at Mal, who was fighting back a smile. "Now that there? That's an accurate reading. I am. Best you bear it in mind before settin' out to save one of your strays." Mal leaned intently toward the bay-door control panel and fiddled with a button there.

"Captain!" Kaylee grabbed Mal's sleeve as he turned away. From where Simon was standing, Mal's expression didn't bode well, but Kaylee understood the captain better than he did. Then she turned to Simon with a pleading look. "You tell him, Simon."

"He requires medical attention, Captain. He has two serious gunshot wounds and--" Simon paused and regrouped. Mal hated details. "Captain, leaving him here would be tantamount to murder."

Mal straightened and hit the intercom. "Wash! Everyone's home. Take us out of the world."

Damn, Simon thought. Now they'd have to do the anger thing. But as Serenity's engines wound up to the high-pitched whine of takeoff, Mal finally turned to Kaylee and Simon and said, "He's already in the infirmary, isn't he?"

"Yes." Simon resisted the urge to say more. He could practically feel Kaylee's sheepish grin.

"Patch him up fast, Doc. He can sail with us as far as Beaumonde."

"Thank you, Captain." Simon wondered if he could buy the wounded stranger a little more than the ten days it would take to reach Beaumonde. "I'm sure he'll be grateful."

"Yeah, well gratitude don't charge the fuel cells."

Kaylee kissed Mal on the cheek and said, "I take it back," then wandered off happily in the direction of her engine room. Simon turned to go attend to his new patient, but before he'd gone three steps, Mal said, "Doc. This fella got a name?"


Lex Luthor had experienced some bad awakenings in his life, caused by everything from liquor and recreational drugs, to electro-convulsive therapy, to poison, so he felt he could accurately place this one along a continuum. Where he didn't ache, he was both freezing and burning. In a couple of places there was deep, pulsing pain, buried though it obviously was under some kind of heavy narcotic. What made this awakening worse than any other was that he was submerged in a dark, narrow well of dread and he couldn't remember why. His head pounded with just the effort of raising his eyelids a fraction.

A soft, cultured voice said, "Please keep your eyes closed and just rest. You're--" and then what sounded like Chinese. As something blessedly cool was placed across his eyes, blackness welled up and he sank gratefully back into it.

The next awakening was a small improvement. His eyes were still covered. Taking stock of his body, he noted that the burned feeling had subsided. There was a scent, herbal and not unpleasant, coming off his skin. His overall pain level was lower than before. He could tell that quite a bit of time had passed. The effects of the narcotic were still evident. He was able to move a finger, so he tried a toe, and all digits seemed to be responding to signals from his brain. Good.

He remembered the sound of gunfire, and knew he'd been shot, but before he could pursue that unwelcome memory, there was movement behind his head, and the same quiet voice as before said, "Good. You're awake." The cool covering over his eyes was lifted, and a man's face came into blurry view: pale skin, blue eyes, dark hair.

"Clark?"

"No, I'm Simon. Doctor Tam. You're in my infirmary. You're quite safe. Please don't try to speak just yet. You were badly injured on Pacquin--someone put two bullets in you and I've taken them back out. You were severely dehydrated and sunburned. There's a fluid drip in your left arm, and you're catheterized, so please try to lie still."

"My eyes?" His own voice sounded like sandpaper on stone.

"You were in the salt flats long enough to burn your corneas. Sun-blindness like this is generally temporary. I'm optimistic. You seem to have excellent recuperative abilities. How's the pain? Do you need more medication?"

"No more drugs, Doctor." Speaking was an enormous effort. He took a cautious breath, causing a fresh wave of throbbing pain all across his right shoulder. He groaned. "Okay. Maybe a small dose."

"Yes, of course," the doctor said, replacing the cool cloth over his eyes. "Try to rest. I'll be right here."

Reassured by the man's voice to a degree he recognized as absurd, Lex allowed himself to drift back into unconsciousness.

The third awakening was enough of an improvement that Lex began to construct a graph in his mind, an upward trend of healing that, if it continued at this rate, would have him up and about in three or four more awakenings. He cautiously peeled away the covering on his eyes.

The room--the infirmary, he supposed--was blurry. He blinked, but the blurriness didn't clear. He forced back the dread, tried to find the irony. Just like Dad, he told himself. Temporarily impaired sight. The doctor had said it was temporary. It had to be.

"Not your father," a girl's voice said, startlingly close. He turned his head toward it and made out the blur of a face surrounded by long, dark hair. She was wearing something reddish, he could see that much.

"What did you say?"

"Not your father. No more threads connect you." She rose, moved away. "Simon! He's joining our time."

Someone entered the room, leaned over him, checked his pulse, gently raised an eyelid. "Doctor?"

"Yes. We spoke a bit the last time you woke up. Do you remember?"

And suddenly Lex remembered everything.


SMALLVILLE, KANSAS, EARTH-THAT-WAS, 2004

Lex left Smallville Medical days earlier than the doctors wanted. His father's poison should have been fatal, but since he was still alive--if a bit unsteady--he discharged himself. He ignored the doctors' orders for bed rest, reading the papers, making phone calls, sizing up his situation.

It wasn't great. Chloe Sullivan, his best shot at keeping Dad behind bars for life, was apparently dead. Lex spared little energy for remorse, though he felt it deeply. The only atonement he knew was to see that his father's trial got back on track.

And for that, he needed Clark. Lex couldn't recall their last meeting without pain. Offering rudeness and bitter words at one of the most difficult moments of Lex's life, Clark had hurt him more than he wanted to admit. Apparently that anger had lasted, because Clark had never once come to him in the hospital. After facing death alone, Lex wasn't sure how forgiving he felt. But he conceded that his evidence room--the room that Clark never should have seen--justified some of Clark's anger.

At the Kent farm, Martha answered his knock looking pale and lost. She ushered him into the kitchen with a wan smile.

"What's wrong, Mrs. Kent? You don't look well. Has something happened?"

"Jonathan's still in a coma. Clark--" she swallowed the catch in her voice. "Clark has disappeared."

"Disappeared?"

"Just...gone. No word. Nothing."

Lex felt a sudden hollowness. If Clark had been upset enough to do something foolish... Lex expected to see blame in Martha's eyes, as he'd seen so often in her husband's--and finally, inevitably, in Clark's. But her face showed only stark pain.

"He's taken everything from me!" she cried, leaping up from her chair. "Jonathan's health, and my baby, and now Clark. He's sent him somewhere, but I've been down there and I can't read the pictographs, and I don't dare leave to search for him, even if I knew where to start, and I just hate him so much!"

In the face of her agitation, Lex bit back his questions--chief among them, "Who are you talking about?"--and thought hard. Martha was clearly referring to the Kawatche caves. The godforsaken, fucking caves where so much had gone wrong.

As soon as he decently could, Lex left the Kent farm and drove directly to the archaeological site. His flashlight beam found a pictograph he hadn't seen before: a serpent inside a shield. In Kawatche prophecy the serpent represented Segeeth, mortal enemy to the great savior-warrior Naman. Lex wondered what it meant that Segeeth was contained inside the shield.

Suddenly, a deep, powerful voice boomed out all around him. "My son will not be stopped by you."

Lex nearly dropped his flashlight in surprise. He played the beam over the cave walls. No one was there, and he realized that the voice was electronic, probably a recording. He moved once more toward the new pictograph.

A vibration began deep inside the cracked cave wall. Before Lex could register danger, a bolt of energy shot out of the crack, lancing straight into him, pinning him where he stood. As the vibration became a hum, rising in pitch, the flashlight fell from his grip. The power raged through his body, growing painful, filling the air with a sharp, electric smell.

"My son will not be stopped by you," the authoritative voice repeated. It seemed to be inside Lex's head now, because he couldn't possibly have heard it so clearly over the rising roar.

"Clark!" he shouted.

"He cannot come to you," the voice said, and in the part of his mind where a scrap of logic still functioned, Lex noticed that the artificial voice seemed to be actually responding to him. More than just a recording then. Interesting.

"What do you want from me?" he gasped.

"Your absence from this world and this time. Kal-El must not be further shaped by you. It his destiny to conquer, and no longer yours to stop him."

"If you're going to kill me, get it over with," Lex managed to rasp out.

"Your continued existence serves my purposes."

"What purposes?" Flashes of childhood memory arose--inexplicable tests, painful punishments for failures where he thought he had succeeded, and always, the booming voice of his father going on about sons and destinies. "What purposes?" he repeated, hearing the edge of a scream in his own voice.

In answer, the energy beam ratcheted higher, and just at the edge of unconsciousness Lex felt himself accelerating beyond flesh's capacity to withstand, as if the earth itself were receding from him at light-speed.


After surgery, once Serenity was safely off Pacquin and the patient was stable, Simon did his best to clean him up. Bathing an unconscious patient...yet another new experience designed to make him appreciate what he'd had on Osiris--like nurses, and orderlies. Washing dried blood and salt from badly sunburned skin required far more gentleness and far less precision than wielding a scalpel, and after a while Simon found himself absorbed in it. He could almost feel what the man must have suffered to have been bitten here, and pierced there by a bullet, and sunburned so badly here, and here... He'd never felt connected to a patient quite this way before.

Inara, to his surprise, came into the infirmary just as he was carefully tweezing the last of the rock particles from the cuts in the patient's feet. "Hello, Simon," she said quietly. "How is he?"

"Stable. I've done just about all I can for now. The rest is up to him."

"I thought you might have use for this." She proffered an ornate jar. "It's a type of jing wan hong made to the specifications of my House. I don't suppose your medical training included the use of it, but it's very effective."

"I remember jing wan hong!" The scent of the ointment as Simon opened the jar brought back childhood memories of bright, hot days at the lake house. "Our bao mu used to use it on us when we stayed out in the sun too long."

"Well, you're welcome to it if it will help."

"It can't hurt. The burn cream I had on hand was barely enough to treat one of his shoulders. This is very generous. Thank you."

As she glided out, he tried not to think about the uses a Registered Companion might have for burn ointment. Its herbal fragrance was pleasant as he applied it gently to the worst of the unconscious patient's sunburn.


Simon slept for a few hours and returned to the infirmary in the morning to find the patient still deeply asleep. River was perched on the counter watching him with an unwavering fascination. Simon stood for a moment and just regarded him--the whole man--for the first time, now that individual parts didn't need his attention.

He was completely bald, and as nearly hairless as any adult male Simon had ever seen. There was no obvious medical or toxicological cause for the condition. As far as Simon had been able to determine, apart from his injuries this man was in perfect health. Basic tests had turned up a slight genetic anomaly that in a real medical facility would have been thoroughly analyzed by now, traced to its planetary origin, and entered into the Alliance database. As it was, Simon simply noted it, wondering if it might account for the man's unusual appearance.

His features in repose were regular and refined, marred only by a vertical scar on his upper lip. Where the sun of Pacquin hadn't burned it, his skin was pale and smooth. The remains of a manicure, uncallused hands and feet, and musculature that suggested training rather than labor, all combined to give the impression of wealth. The man almost certainly hadn't belonged on Pacquin.

As Simon watched him, he appeared to struggle against his unconsciousness, his eyelids fluttering under the bandages. "It's all right," Simon said. "You're safe. Please try to rest." He checked the patient's pulse and temperature, both near normal. Respiration: slow and regular. Color: surprisingly good. There was a strong immune system at work here.

"He's left us again." River slid down from the counter top and bent over him, laying her head on his chest gently.

"River," Simon began, holding up a cautionary hand.

"Shhh!" she whispered. "He's dreaming. I want to hear."


The motion stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There was darkness all around him. He was standing. He seemed to be whole. Breathing. No sense of how much time had passed. After a few moments, he noticed stars overhead. So he wasn't in the cave any longer. He stood in place and turned. A more or less flat horizon all around, and the ground underfoot crunched slightly, rough and broken, glinting nearly white in the darkness--nothing at all like the rich black loam of Smallville.

So he'd been moved. But where? He sought for a bearing among the constellations, couldn't find the North Star. Okay, maybe he'd been moved a lot. He shifted focus and began looking for the Southern Cross. He turned slowly. No Southern Cross. He tried again. An unfamiliar sky just--wasn't possible.

Before he could look a third time he heard the crack of gunfire in the distance and dropped into an instinctive crouch, gauging the direction of the shots. There was some shouting, hard to tell how far away. Lex made out a good-sized boulder nearby that might provide some cover.

More gunshots, still distant, punctuated Lex's thoughts. After some time had passed--enough for him to notice that the unfamiliar stars had shifted a bit--he realized that his thoughts were simply spinning. He was chilly, surprised to find himself shaking. It occurred to him that he might be in some kind of shock. He couldn't make himself care. He sat.

The moon rose. It was reddish and seemed far too big. Probably a misperception.

It wasn't until a second moon rose a little while later that he began to think he might have a serious problem.


Mal entered the infirmary with his heavy, authoritative tread, demonstrating his usual lack of respect for any patient who might need rest and quiet. Simon was reminded, as he suspected was Mal's intention, that Serenity and everything aboard belonged to Mal. "Your sister doin' some form of medicine we ain't heard of yet?"

Simon turned from his study of the test results. River still had her ear against the patient's chest, her eyes closed, one hand on his belly and the other pressed to her heart. "She says she's listening to his dreams. She might as well--he's barely spoken ten words so far, and I still don't know anything about him--other than his physical condition. Maybe she can learn something."

"And what is his physical condition, Doctor? 'Cause it's been two days, and we'll be at Beaumonde in another eight or ten. He'd best be well enough to put on some clothes and stand on his feet, because Beaumonde is where he's gettin' off this boat."

"Apart from two gunshot wounds, several infected bites of some kind, and the aftereffects of severe dehydration, Captain, his eyesight still seems to be compromised. I don't think ten days--"

Mal cut him off. "Bites?"

"Rodents of some sort. I wasn't able to capture a specimen."

"Sand rats? I saw some of those bites in the war, Doctor, and I ain't never seen a man recover from them without losing a limb."

"Well, then perhaps these were some other rodent. In any case, you'll note that all four limbs are still attached."

Simon watched Mal's glance take in the patient's bald head, the long lines of his torso, the damaged soles of slender feet. "Clean," was all the captain said, giving Simon a peculiar look. Simon swallowed the impulse to answer.

At that moment, River raised her head and smiled. "He's swimming," she said, as if that explained everything.


Lex sat staring at the rising moons (the moons...two of them...Jesus). Trying to exercise his will was like trying to start a car with a dead battery: no matter how many times he turned the key, nothing happened. The night air of this place was clean, a little thin, very dry. Metallic and sharp-smelling. The distant gunshots had ceased. Something small skittered across the ground nearby.

His sense of overwhelm was wearing off. I'm on another planet, he told himself, and as bizarre as that was, it was obviously the truth. He brushed aside a gibbering inner voice impatiently, stood, and looked around in the bright moonlight. The ground was uneven and barren, littered with stones. The shouting had sounded...well, human. Three or four theories about how that could be possible flitted across his mind half-formed, none of them any use at the moment.

What was clear was that he couldn't just sit here. At a minimum, he would need water. Where there were people, there had to be water. He had no idea how long the night would last, but obviously the planet was turning and at some point a sun would rise. Then, judging from the dryness of the air and the faint heat radiating from the ground, it would get hot. Ordinarily (on Earth, the gibbering voice said), he wouldn't choose to head in the direction of gunfire. But it was the only bearing he had. A new shot rang out and Lex ran toward it.


Mal shook his head at River's pronouncement and left the infirmary. "Swimming?" Simon prompted. She looked at him with a mix of gratitude and annoyance that was just like the little sister he remembered from before the Academy. "Yes, Simon! Breaking the lines mooring him. In the current now. He understands. His body understands."

"Let him rest now, River."

"You should rest, too, Simon. His pockets are empty and there's nothing to steal."

"What? Oh. No. I'm not worried about Jayne."

"Yes you are. But you don't need to be."

Simon doubted this. The stranger was so obviously a man of means that even Jayne would notice it, and begin thinking of ransoms and rewards. Simon felt protective of his new patient, but it was a small ship and everyone on board would see him sooner or later. What was he going to do? Stand guard with a gun? He really needed a rest.

"I'll watch him," River said, looking up from her station beside the stranger. "You can take a rest now. Go on!"

"Um...all right. I'll lie down on the couch for a few minutes. You have to call me if he moves, or wakes up, all right?"

She rolled her eyes at him.


Lex made his way over a low rise and saw firelight below. A man and a woman--and it seemed pretty obvious to Lex that they were human--were sitting near a small fire, and there were horses tethered near them.

He was deciding how best to get their attention without startling them when a single shot rang out and he felt himself pierced through the right shoulder. The impact threw him backward. He staggered and fell, clutching at his shoulder, feeling the hot wetness of his blood pouring out. The pain didn't hit till he was sprawled on the ground.

Quick, heavy steps crunched toward him and a man came into view, yelling, "I got 'im, the bastard." Through a haze of pain, Lex noticed that the man spoke in perfectly understandable English. He heard the cocking of a pistol somewhere above him and tried to roll away, gasping, "Wait! I'm unarmed!"

"Yeah?" said the man's voice. Lex felt the cold steel of a gun barrel press into the side of his neck. He held up both hands and said, "I was in Kansas. Where am I now?" The man leaning over him was wearing a broad-brimmed hat. Lex wondered if he was hallucinating some kind of bad Western.

"Kansas? Never heard of it." The man pressed the gun harder into Lex's neck.

"Look, I don't know where I am or how I got here. At least tell me the name of this place."

Before the man could answer, Lex heard more crunching footsteps, and another man's voice. "That ain't him, you damn fool."

"Shoot first, I always say," the gunman replied. "'Sides, he was up here watchin' you. Coulda been one of Hawke's gang."

Lex felt his consciousness slip a little as the pain in his shoulder mounted. He tried and failed to stifle a groan.

"He's hurt bad," the second man said.

"Them clothes is worth somethin'."

The second man sighed. "Go ahead. He'll be dead by sunup anyway."

Lex saw the gunman lean over him again, then felt his jacket being pulled off roughly, jarring his shoulder. The wave of pain was so severe that he barely noticed it when the man took all the rest of his clothes.


He awoke to dawning daylight. Some kind of small rodent was gnawing on his left forearm, and he flung it off in disgust. He sat up. The gunshot wound had stopped bleeding, but he couldn't tell how bad it was. There was no exit wound, and the whole shoulder area throbbed with a deep, feverish ache. The rodent had left bloody tooth-marks in his arm. There were similar marks in his right thigh, alongside an open sore where a chunk had been--eaten, Lex conceded. The fact that he could feel no pain from either bite worried him.

He managed to stand, and saw immediately that the people and horses were gone, the campfire buried. He was thirsty. He was completely naked. He was severely wounded, in the middle of what was clearly a desert, and the sun--some sun--was rising. The ground, merely pale in the night, glinted in the sunrise with a sharp, crystalline brightness that made details hard to discern. It seemed he was in the middle of some kind of mineral field. From the taste on his lips, it was salt.

"Think, damn it," Lex said to himself. Basics, basics. Shelter, water, and help, in any order. Scanning the land in a slow circle, Lex felt hope fading. He saw nothing but desolation from horizon to horizon. Nothing--no one--seemed to move in the landscape. He could see nothing resembling shelter, and worse, no sign of water.

He began walking in the direction opposite the sunrise, ignoring the agony in his shoulder. He kept his shadow directly in front of him. His bare feet were no match for the sharp, salt-encrusted stones that littered the ground, and were bruised within a few steps. Pain built in his right foot, but the left was numb. His head began to ache from squinting against the whiteness, and he could feel a dangerous sunburn developing on his back.

The sun climbed, crested. Lex kept walking, stumbling more and more often as the numbness in his leg got worse. He caught himself fantasizing about a water source, although he knew he would find no such thing. It was getting harder to see through the spots in front of his eyes, and his eyelids felt like sandpaper.

When he stumbled for the twelfth or perhaps the fiftieth time, he landed on his hip and gunshot shoulder amid the never-ending sea of sharp stones and salt. Hissing in pain, he rolled onto his back and lay looking at the sky for a long moment before he felt the trickle of warmth along his upper arm. The shoulder wound had opened and was bleeding again. He tried to press his left hand to it, but it might as well have been an empty glove.

Get up, Lex. He could hear his father saying it. You're not dead. Get up. You're a Luthor, son. Luthors never concede. Now get up.

He tried to get up, fell again, and collapsed. "Fuck you, dad," he muttered, and laughed.


A sharp drop in temperature roused him. So thirsty that his tongue was like a stack of dry paper in his mouth, Lex opened his eyes to gathering darkness. He couldn't really see much--those spots were still dancing around in front of his eyes and nothing felt as good as just closing them again. The ache in his shoulder had become generalized to his whole upper right quadrant. He'd developed a fever. On the whole, he thought, death would have been better. He drifted in pain as the night grew darker and colder.

Longing to stay in bed and sleep off this truly legendary hangover, Lex wondered for a moment what his father was doing in his room. Excelsior Prep didn't let visitors enter the dorms, not even Lionel Luthor. No, that wasn't right. This pinching around his arm--that ill-fitting tunic should have been removed from the fencing gym. But he wasn't moving. He was dreaming. One of those dreams he couldn't wake up from. And his head hurt so badly. And his arm--had Dad actually pierced his shoulder with a real blade? Couldn't he stop wiggling it around in there?

With a start of horror, Lex opened his eyes. One of the rodents was sitting on his shoulder, gnawing at...Jesus. Lex shouted, flailed at the thing, and managed to sit up, dislodging it. Two others skittered off his leg and slunk away--but not quickly, and not far. The tiny adrenalin surge let him find the last, ragged ends of his will, and somehow, Lex stood up.

Day was dawning again. Everything around him was a blind blur of dots and sparkles. He could tell where the sun was rising because it was a brighter white. The world was intensely quiet. He faced away from the sun and took a hopping step, mostly dragging his numb leg. He knew the effort was hopeless, but he had a grudging admiration for the sheer survival instinct of it. The day was already growing hot. He was starting to think that one of those rat-like things might have some moisture in it, if only he could spot one. And catch it.

A sound hit his ear. He stopped and stared uselessly. His own labored breath nearly covered it, but there it was: the distant drone of an engine. It was moving, and it was coming his way. His numb left arm wouldn't go up, so he ignored the excruciating pain of raising his right one, and waved.

Lex didn't care who it was--the worst they could offer couldn't be that much worse than being eaten alive by bloodsucking rats. Maybe they'd just kill him quickly. He wasn't feeling too particular at this point. "Hey!" he shouted. "Hey!" His throat was too dry to make much sound, but he kept trying. The engine noise was a lot closer, and the sun seemed higher. He'd been standing there a little longer than he realized.

He got a dozen or so painful, dragging steps before he stumbled and fell to his knees into the sharp-edged scree. He could just make out a vehicle coming his way. Someone jumped down and walked toward him, a heavy tread crunching across the salty rocks. A rough voice said, "He ain't armed. Hell, he ain't any kind of danger."

Lex heard a woman's voice, high and light, suddenly cry out from the vehicle, "Jayne, behind you!" just as a second man yelled, "Up there!" Before the words were out, there was a gunshot from very nearby. Lex felt a bullet whistle over his head. He dropped the rest of the way to the ground and rolled a few feet down a slight slope. It was pure instinct. There wasn't much else left.

There were more shots. More shouting. A man screamed, and a few seconds later a broad felt hat bounced to a stop on Lex's chest. Its owner's body rolled down next to him. Ignoring the intermittent gunfire, Lex put the hat on, gasping with the pain of moving his arm. Shade at last. He closed his eyes gratefully. Something seemed to bump into his leg, and he looked down to see darkness spreading across his thigh. He wondered if somehow the rodent bite had opened up. It took him another moment to realize he'd been shot. Again. He couldn't feel it at all, but there was a lot of blood.

The vehicle's engine revved and Lex heard the rough voice shouting, "Gun it, Wash. Get us the hell outta here." The woman's voice said, "We can't just leave him!" As the vehicle moved off, the big man said, "Gorram it, Wash, don't this thing go any faster?" and the sound of the engine quickly receded.

Lex collapsed back onto the sharp rocks. His body would never be found. The Inquisitor would have a field day. "Lex Luthor: Abducted by Aliens," the headlines would read, and no one would ever know how close to the truth it was. Dad--if he ever got out of prison--would have to dust off that black marble gravestone for a second empty-coffin funeral. Twenty, thirty, forty years on, people would still speculate about Lex Luthor's mysterious disappearance, and swear they had spotted him, alive and well, and eating at a roadside diner.

He let his head fall to one side, giving up the struggle. It's so easy, he thought. I wonder if Clark will miss me.


Simon heard the cargo bay door lowering, signaling the return of one of the two raiding parties. A moment later, Kaylee appeared at the infirmary door, breathless, with Wash right behind her. "Simon! We got a patient for you. Come quick." She tugged at his arm. "We gotta go now, before Jayne stops us."

"What? Who's been hurt?" Simon looked at Wash, whose face was a study in worry and doubt.

"A man. A--a bystander!" Kaylee said. "Jayne wouldn't let us stop for him. He got shot by Csigi's gang."

"He looked bad," Wash added. "If he's not dead already, he's likely to be real soon."

"No! We can get back there in time. I know we can. Come on, Simon. Grab your medkit and let's go!"

Wash shrugged and said, "I'll drive. If my wife asks later, just--lie. Okay?"

Simon had learned during his very first days aboard Serenity to keep his medkit stocked with the first-aid essentials for gun and knife wounds. He picked it up and said, "Okay. Let's go."

It was a tense few minutes as they barreled out across the desert and into the salt flats. They came within view of a scene of violence; Simon counted four bodies on the ground, one of them apparently stark naked.

"Oh my God, Simon. There he is." Kaylee pointed to the naked man. "We gotta hurry!" He lay sprawled face down, a dark stain of blood on the ground near his groin. Simon thought Shepherd Book's services were probably called for here. Still, he jumped down from the mule and ran to the man. It wasn't good triage, but since all four bodies on the field looked dead, he supposed he might as well start with the man last seen moving.

A rat-like creature scuttled off. A quick examination showed no obvious head or spinal injury. To Simon's surprise, the victim gave a soft moan when Simon rolled him onto his back. Kaylee hurried up behind him. "He's alive!" he said, setting to work.

"Lao tian ye, Simon! He looks so bad."

"Kaylee, I'm going to need something to cover him with. Can you get me a coat?" He didn't look up, but her hesitation was palpable. "Any coat will do." He focused on binding the man's thigh to stop the worst of the bleeding. The man was barely conscious, in deep shock. "Wash," Simon called out, "I'm going to need your help."

Kaylee came back with a long canvas duster, bloodstained around a bullet hole in the front. She held it out to him gingerly. "He gonna make it?"

"We'll see." Simon spread the filthy coat over the patient, who had begun to shake. "He needs surgery immediately." To the patient he added, "Sir? I'm a doctor. We're going to move you now, so that we can transport you to my infirmary." He got a bare nod in response.

"Everyone else is dead. I checked," Kaylee said. Simon glanced at her in surprise. She wore a closed expression, and if his hands hadn't been full helping lift the patient onto the mule, he thought he might have given her a hug.


PART 2 - MENDING - PG

Lex felt himself rise gently into waking consciousness, and spent a few moments with his eyes closed, simply admiring whatever drug he'd been given that worked so smoothly. He assessed his physical situation. The IV drip had been removed. And, yes, so had the catheter, thank God. The pain in his upper body had diminished. Things were definitely improving. He opened his eyes. The room he was in was still blurry, but clearer than before. Relieved, he raised his head a little, and, feeling no serious ill-effects, tried to sit up.

"Whoa there! Look, Simon. He's awake." A young woman with thick brown hair, wearing overalls and a bright top, put a hand gently on his chest, smiling at him. He thought he recognized her voice from out in the desert.

"It's all right, Kaylee. If he can sit up, he should. He's been in the same position for more than two days." The doctor came to stand on the other side of Lex's bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Surprisingly well." It came out as a rasp. "Thirsty."

The doctor pressed a button to raise the bed. The girl called Kaylee handed him a cup with a straw. The water in it had a brackish, stale taste that nevertheless felt very good going down.

"So, what's your name?" the girl asked.

"Lex. Lex Luthor."

"Well, Lex, I'm Kaylee, and this here's Simon."

Lex met the young doctor's eyes and tried for a smile. "I believe I owe you my life."

"Oh, everyone on Serenity does, near enough," Kaylee said. "He's just a life-saver."

The doctor cleared his throat. "Actually, you owe your life to Kaylee. She mounted the rescue effort. All I did was stitch you up."

"And Wash drove."

Lex looked from him back to Kaylee. "Then thank you--all three of you. I really didn't think I was going to make it."

"Well, here you are!" Kaylee patted his arm gently.

The doctor said, "Can you tell us anything about your situation? How did you come to be in the middle of the salt flats on Pacquin?"

"Yeah, and how'd you lose all your clothes?"

"Things aren't entirely clear to me." Lex shifted slightly to sit up a little more. He noticed that he was wearing a white hospital gown. The doctor quickly reached to adjust the bed for him, observing him intently. This guy was good--must be a great diagnostician. Clearly, he was watching for the slightest sign of pain or strain. "So far, so good, Doctor," Lex reassured him, bringing a slight smile. "Now, where am I? What's Serenity?"

Lex knew the answer before the question was out of his mouth. The muffled hum and slight vibration had been a constant throughout his recovery, waking and sleeping. He was on...God, it was strange even to think the word. He was on...

Kaylee said, "Serenity's a Firefly-class transport. Best little ship in the 'verse."

...A spaceship. Okay. What would be the next logical question? "And where are we, exactly?"

"'Bout halfway between Pacquin and Greenleaf," Kaylee answered.

Nothing. No idea. Not sure what question to ask next that would result in meaningful information. Okay. "How far from Earth?"

A silence, and Lex saw Kaylee and the doctor exchange looks, Kaylee puzzled, the doctor more...stunned. "Where am I, exactly, Doctor?"

"Nowhere near Earth," he answered. "What made you say that?"

An unexpected question, and Lex couldn't think of any better way to answer, so he said, "Last time I knew where I was, that was it. The only place I've ever been. As far as I know, the only place any human has ever been. You are human, right?"

"Yes of course, but are you telling me that you're from Earth-That-Was? Because that's impossible. No one--it's completely dead. No one's been from there for three hundred years or more."

Never taking his eyes from the doctor's, Lex swallowed back a surge of something like fear, remembering the voice inside the Kawatche caves. Your absence from this world and this time. "What year is this?"

"Twenty-five seventeen."

"Twenty-five seventeen." Lex stared at Dr. Tam for another long moment, feeling an overwhelming number of questions clambering for first place at his throat. None of them won. He was aware that his mouth was open, and shut it. He reached for the water cup and Kaylee handed it to him, looking back and forth between him and the doctor, puzzled. Twenty-five seventeen. Five hundred and...thirteen years. Well, it would explain a few things.

"Wait? What?" Kaylee said. "You mean like, from Earth-That-Was, when it...was?"

"Time travel isn't possible," Simon said at last.

"So I've heard. But last time I checked my calendar, it was 2004. And I assure you, though I've lost track of time a little, it was nothing like five hundred years ago."

"Well, ain't this a story."

Lex turned to see a man at the infirmary door. Simon rose--almost defensively, Lex thought--and said, "Mal, this is Lex Luthor. Lex, this is our captain, Malcolm Reynolds."

Lex looked steadily at him, though he was a bit blurry, noting instinctively his closed, suspicious stance, and the dark planes of stress in his face. "Captain Reynolds," he said. "I understand I'm aboard your ship. I'm grateful."

"Don't thank me, son," Captain Reynolds said. "Kaylee here's the merciful one."

"Yes, so I'm told."

"So, Earth-That-Was. That's one I ain't heard before."

"Believe me, Captain, neither have I." Lex knew the type, had a pretty good idea suddenly of what he needed to hear. "But I do know that I'm very much in your debt, and I can assure that you will be compensated." As he said the words, it dawned on him that the resources he'd commanded all his life were at best a footnote in some ancient history text. He felt as if he were in freefall and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Oh, I don't doubt you mean well," the captain replied. "As I've already told the good doctor here, you're welcome to sail with us far as Beaumonde. Seems I got roped into this mission of mercy without knowin' about it. All the same, I can see you needed help. Time to time, someone's helped us. But Serenity ain't principally a passenger vessel, even if you could pay. We'll do our best by you. Won't leave you stranded like we found you on Pacquin. But so we're clear, Beaumonde it is."

"I understand, Captain. Again, I'm grateful."

The captain left and Lex looked at the doctor, sensing in him an ally. "So."

"So. That is...that's Captain Reynolds."

Lex felt certain from his tone that he was ill-at-ease with the man. "Tell me, Doctor. This Beaumonde. How much time do I have before we get there?

The doctor turned to Kaylee.

"Maybe eight, ten more days," she said. "I'm real sorry, Lex. That ain't a lot of time for you to get back on your feet."

"Then I guess I'd better start preparing. I have a lot of catching up to do."

"But maybe..." she trailed off, rose. "I gotta run up to the engine room. I'm real glad you're awake, and real glad to meet you," she said. "Simon'll take good care of you, don't you worry."


Lex was sitting up in the infirmary bed with Simon's encyclopedia, working his way through the densely-packed electronic pages of images layered over English, Chinese and Arabic text. His eyesight had cleared enough for him to read for a few minutes at a time, and the encyclopedia had a voice interface as well. He was listening to a document about the recent civil war between independent factions and what was called the Alliance, when a woman appeared at the door. He had already met a preacher and the pilot. Kaylee had visited him twice, and the doctor's strange young sister had been in and out several times. This was someone new.

"Hello, Lex," she said, moving gracefully into the room. Lex was struck by her beauty and the elegance of her clothing. The distinctive rustle of silk accompanied her reserved, formal movement, and Lex caught a whiff of a rich perfume. Perfect eyesight wasn't necessary to see that the dress she wore was closely fitted to her excellent figure. Her elaborately styled hair was dark and wavy.

"Hello," he said. "You'll have to excuse me for not getting up."

She smiled and sat on the stool next to his bed. "I'm Inara. Simon has been telling me about you. You have quite an extraordinary story. I wanted to meet you."

"Inara," Lex repeated. "Pretty name."

"Thank you."

"You obviously don't work on the engines."

She laughed. "No. I leave that to Kaylee's expertise. I'm more of a passenger. I'm a Companion."

"A companion." Lex tried for a moment to square the sumptuousness of her appearance with any caretaker role he knew about, and then realized what she must mean. "Ah. A Companion." Interesting. To cover his momentary lapse, he said, "You know, you remind me a bit of my second wife."

"I hope that's not a bad thing."

"Not at all. Her name was Helen. She was a gifted physician and a beautiful woman. She tried to kill me, though. Of course, I tried to kill her too. We both failed. It was not a successful marriage."

The woman--Inara--smiled and said, "I see," in a slightly sardonic voice, clearly undisturbed by this disclosure. Lex liked her.

"So, does marriage still exist?" he asked after a moment.

"Certainly. And divorce. And attempted murder."

"Good to know."

"It sounds as if you've led a colorful life. I'd love to hear more of your story. For now, though, I imagine you must have a great many questions. I'd be happy to answer as many as I can."

They spent the next hour in the sort of conversation Lex hadn't enjoyed since before moving to Smallville. Inara was cultured, poised, and frank about her profession, which Lex eventually placed somewhere between "geisha" and "hetaera". She answered his questions clearly and thoughtfully, and asked intelligent ones in return.

"So, this civil war ended only six years ago? And the Independents are either being assimilated into Alliance culture, or relegated to the backwaters of civilization?"

"That--well, that's a very good short summation, yes. You must have had wars like it on Earth-That-Was."

"Well, yes, of course. All wars are the same war, really. Whether you're talking about Alexander the Great or World War Two, it's always about empire and the consolidation of power and wealth...."

It wasn't long before he realized that Inara was testing him. She seemed very well-educated--the captain, less so. In the captain's place, Lex thought, I'd have sent her to ask questions too.

"You know, Inara, I understand your need--and the Captain's--to try to ferret out my real story. So if you don't mind, just tell me what it would take to convince you that I'm telling the truth, and then maybe we could move on. I really do have a lot of questions."

She looked stricken for just a split second, then recovered and smiled. "You're quite right, Lex. Mal has asked me to find out what I can about you. I apologize for being disingenuous. I can't begin to understand how you came to be here, but for what it's worth, I'm beginning to believe your story. I'll tell Mal the same thing. Not that he'll listen to me." She shifted on her stool, her perfect posture intact. "Now, what would you like to know?"

"What about starting with this Earth-That-Was thing?"


Lex was discouraged to find that he needed rest after every small exertion. He had gotten up and moved around a bit, and then very shortly had to lie back down. Dr. Tam said his fatigue was to be expected with such extraordinarily fast healing, but that didn't make his weakness any less irritating. Or humiliating.

Lex swam up from yet another brief nap as the doctor came into the infirmary and put a tray beside the bed. "I've brought you some dinner. Do you need help eating?"

"I think I can manage." Lex suppressed a flash of real annoyance at the thought of being fed. By the doctor. He managed a small smile and added, "And if I can't, I think I'd just as soon go hungry."

Lex adjusted the bed himself so that he was sitting up, and took a look at the food. Up to now he'd received intravenous fluids and nutrient supplements, and was feeling hungry enough to eat even the very strange-looking substance on the plate. His right arm was still bound up, stiff and fairly painful, but his left was fine. He took the tray and the chopsticks and tasted. It was bland--some sort of rice-and-tofu-like stuff. Dr. Tam watched him carefully. Diagnosing. Observing his arm movement, his appetite, his skin color, probably his respiration.

"You know, Doctor, I've been in the public spotlight all my life, and I've been completely bald since I was nine years old. So I'm used to being watched. And I have to tell you, I've never been observed as acutely as you're doing right now."

That threw him a little, Lex was satisfied to note. The frank mention of his most obvious physical trait usually did.

"Oh. Oh, I'm--uh, I'm sorry. Medical training." Dr. Tam--Simon--appeared to adjust his focus from diagnostic to conversational, looking into Lex's eyes rather than at his surface. "I'm very impressed with your healing progress. I can't help wondering if in your time, people simply healed faster, having always lived on the planet where they evolved."

"Interesting theory. But no, I don't think so. My immune system was enhanced by the same thing that caused me to lose my hair."

"Oh? What was that? My tests were inconclusive."

"A meteor strike. I've lived--" Lex paused, regrouped. Only the faintest echo of his father's driving voice remained...get over it...move on... "I lived for several years in the town where most of the meteor material fell. It's--it was--a substance with some very interesting properties. Mutagenic properties, as far as we could tell. I was studying it when--" Lex met the doctor's eye and managed a small smile. "--when I was interrupted."

Dr. Tam's eyes didn't waver, but he blinked. "Interrupted," he said faintly. "That's rather an understatement, don't you think?"

"Possibly. But I was raised to deal with what is, and not to wish things could be otherwise." Lex took another bite of the food. "I actually have quite a bit of experience losing everything."

The doctor looked down, a muscle working briefly in his jaw. So does he, Lex thought, and the idea of hearing his story was suddenly intriguing.

"Just the same," Dr. Tam answered after a moment, "as your physician I should remind you that you've undergone some significant physical and emotional shocks. It's quite natural to feel overwhelmed. There are drugs available--"

Lex cut him off. "I'll let you know if I can't handle things, Doctor. I'd prefer not to be medicated."

"Of course."

"What is this?" Lex changed the subject by indicating the food.

"Oh. Formed protein, mostly. We get fresh food planetside, but I'm afraid you slept through the meals that had vegetables from Pacquin. Are you tolerating it so far?"

Lex smiled and took another bite. "It would go down better with a nice bottle of Bordeaux, but I'll manage."

"Bordeaux. Wine?"

"Red."

"Ah. For this particular protein I'd have selected a Minerva white, myself."

Lex shook his head. "Red with everything." Common ground. That was unexpected. "Good to know there's still wine, though." It was strangely easy to make light of the whole thing. A sort of gallows humor, he supposed. Without it, he would definitely need that medication.

The doctor smiled. "Oh yes. And brandy. And sake. And, uh--whisky, and beer. And mudder's milk! God, mudder's milk."

"Sounds like a story."

"Oh, it's a story all right. Just not my finest moment." The doctor actually laughed then in self-deprecation.

"Tell me about it," Lex prompted, taking another bite of the strange food. "Or tell me another story about your life--this world. I need to know anything--everything. All the information I can get."


Simon dimmed the lights in the infirmary before pulling the door quietly closed. His new patient had fought sleep for a while, asking questions about his Higgins' Moon story, about Simon and his background, about the other people aboard Serenity--soaking up details voraciously. Finally he had drifted to sleep, his slight smile giving way to a slack and haunted look as his eyes closed. Simon was amazed at the man's capacity to endure emotional shock.

He carried Lex's dinner things back to the galley.

"So, Doctor. You got any better notion of his real story?" Mal sat at the dining table, his boots on a cloth before him, a greasy rag in one hand and a tin of wax in the other.

"Didn't he pass Inara's test?"

"Oh, she says he did, all right. Knows stuff about Earth-that-Was nobody knows anymore. I'm lookin' for your opinion now."

"I see." Simon put the kettle on and got out the oolong before taking the chair opposite Mal's. "My education isn't what Inara's is, so I can't judge his historical knowledge. He doesn't appear to be lying, and he has definitely undergone a serious emotional trauma very recently--although his wounds alone could account for that."

"You believe him, then?"

"I can't think how his story could be true, but I believe he believes it completely."

"'Nara said the same thing."

"River--" Simon broke off at Mal's sudden glance.

"Your sister heard the truth there listening to his chest?"

"Sometimes, she--"

"Makes a kinda sense?"

Mal could surprise the hell out of him sometimes. "Yes. She said something about him 'joining our time'--before he even regained consciousness. It's hardly proof. He is physically unusual though--I mean, besides his baldness," Simon added quickly, in annoyance at Mal's smirk. "There are indications of what might be a sightly...earlier moment in human development, though he claims it's the result of an accidental mutation."

"What kind of unusual we talkin' about?"

"He's healing extremely quickly from some very traumatic injuries. You noted yourself that rodent bites similar to his usually result in loss of the affected limb. His system seems to have thrown off the neurotoxin. The only thing keeping him down at the moment is fatigue, as far as I can tell, while his..." Simon searched a moment for a brief, non-technical explanation. "While his body's systems work overtime to heal themselves."

"Good for him." The captain finished waxing one boot and set it on the floor. "We'll be at Greenleaf tomorrow."

"Greenleaf? I thought we were heading for Beaumonde."

"We were, but Kaylee and Wash tell me we've got a couple of parts on the verge of failure, and as it happens, the Pacquin job has left us with enough cash to buy them before we wind up dead in space. Greenleaf should have what we need."

"He's doing well, Captain, but I'm not prepared to release him as soon as tomorrow."

"Didn't imagine you would be, Doctor. Greenleaf's no place for a sick man. I said he could stay on board as far as Beaumonde. Just gives you an extra coupla days to see to him."

"I--yes. Thank you, Captain." The kettle came to a boil and Simon hid his relief from Mal by getting up to make tea.


Lex found Inara's company soothing. He was on the settee in her shuttle, having walked all the way there with no support from her. Hardly any. He was dressed in cotton overalls and a T-shirt with its sleeves ripped off, a diagonal slash across the chest that had been neatly stitched. Both garments were too large, the shirt having belonged to the big soldier with the unlikely name of Jayne, before some unnamed incident with a knife, and the overalls donated by the pilot, Wash. Black rubber flip-flops protected his still-healing feet from the deck plating, and he was taking a ridiculous amount of comfort in the fact that flip-flops hadn't changed in five hundred years. He had never actually owned a pair before.

"I'm working on a couple of lists in my mind," he told Inara. "Things that have changed radically since my time, and things that seem to be essentially the same."

"Oh? And what do you find on that first list?" She poured tea from a tiny pot into tinier cups and offered him one.

"It's surprisingly short. Apart from space travel, which was barely possible in my time, a lot of the things on it are just--personal to me. Like the fact that everyone I know died more than four hundred years ago." Lex forced himself to keep talking, keep a light tone. You'll never move on if you dwell on it, he reminded himself. "It would seem that I can no longer take food, clothing and shelter for granted. Let alone access and connections. I guess I never thought of the family wealth and power as fragile or transitory, but it's gone. My favorite Ferrari too--that was a car. Very fast."

"These are important losses, Lex. It's all right to mourn them."

Lex brushed that aside. Too much kindness from her and he'd start feeling, and that was...not to be contemplated. "One positive change is that my father is no longer in charge of my life." He still didn't quite believe that one himself. "And then there's this whole 'Earth-That-Was' problem--" he swallowed hard on that and added, "--which is frankly too big an item to think about."

Inara looked at him with sympathy. "That's probably very wise. And what about the second list? What's unchanged?"

"Apart from rubber flip-flops? I haven't gotten too far with it, though I suspect it's considerably longer. I was hoping you'd help me with it. I would imagine that the ability to find similarities is a key to success in your profession."

Inara smiled in genuine delight. "It is. Very few people recognize that." Lex wondered if Captain Reynolds was one of the many who didn't. Even with his eyesight still a little blurry, Lex had seen the evidence of tightly-repressed feelings between them. "Well! What would you like to discuss first?"

Their conversation meandered over a wide range of topics. Human nature--as he already knew from his experiences so far, both violent and compassionate--remained unchanged; it was merely spread across, and proceeding to consume, some seventy worlds instead of the just the one. The divide between have and have-not was as sharp as ever, the layers of society just as colorful. The ties between corporation and government were simply more explicit than they'd been in Lex's day. He ought to know: buying politicians was a way of life for Lionel. Had been.

"So, talk to me a little about money. The economy. It's an area I can actually claim some expertise in."

Inara gave that a few moments' thought before replying. "You'll find that this crew, in common with many people out near the rim, deal in coin, currency--even barter. Closer to the Core, transactions are virtual. Beaumonde probably operates on a little of each. The economy of the Core, I think it's safe to say, rests firmly on a foundation of slave labor. Does that shock you?"

"Not particularly. Slavery of one kind or another seems to be a constant in human history."

"Then sadly," Inara said, "there's another item for your list of things that haven't changed. I supported Unification in the belief that such things would improve--that many would be better off under the Alliance."

"And are they?"

She looked down. "I regret to say that I don't really know. My profession guarantees me a certain freedom from the hardships of ordinary life out here. Like most people, I suppose, my support of great ideas goes no farther than the edge of my own comfort and safety."

"I can't say I blame you. At least you've earned your status and comfort in the world. I just drew a lucky card at birth."

"You've surely done a great deal with that card, though. You don't resemble the idle rich men of my acquaintance."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"And so you should." Inara looked at him for a long moment and seemed to be deciding something. She went to a small table in the corner. "I wish I could do more for you, Lex. I believe your path will be difficult. I also believe that an intelligent man like you can make his way in the world--in some worlds better than others. Beaumonde isn't a bad place." She wrote for a moment, then handed him a square of rich paper, imprinted with a red chop, on which she had written Madame Tsang Li Mei, Bougainevillea Close, Marais

"That's a friend of mine, a retired Companion. She runs a manufacturing and export business now. I don't know if she has work, or even if she'll be able to help you, but I can guarantee that she will see you if you show her that."

Lex felt some of his worry lift as he looked at this single sheet of paper. A connection of Inara's was likely to be a real advantage in facing his new life. "This is very generous of you. You're staking your reputation with this friend on a faith in me that I haven't yet earned. Whatever happens, I won't let it become a matter of regret for you."

"I believe you," she said, rising. Lex stood too, and she accompanied him to her door.

"I understand that Kaylee and Shepherd Book have been clearing out a room for me. I've been released from Dr. Tam's care. I suppose I should go have a look."

"I hope you will be comfortable. Zhu fu ni, my friend. That means 'good luck.'"

"Xie xie," he ventured in reply. "Is that right? 'Thank you'?"

Inara took his hand warmly in both of hers with a warm smile, and he felt himself smiling back at her. "Lex," she said. "I have a feeling that you're going to do just fine."


"The captain doesn't believe my story, does he?"

Simon was still a little stunned at Lex's recuperative powers as he removed the sutures from his shoulder. "No," he answered. "He's unconvinced."

"And do you?"

Simon looked up from his work and met Lex's unsettlingly direct gaze. "I trust you."

Lex gave a brief, bitter laugh. "I appreciate that, Doctor." He looked away for a second, and continued in a lower tone. "It's been a while since anyone said that to me."

Simon couldn't imagine Lex's forthrightness arousing mistrust, but felt asking about it would be intrusive. Instead he said, "You know, you really should just call me Simon."

"Okay, Simon. Thank you."

His voice was...Simon couldn't pinpoint the quality, but he liked the sound of it now that Lex was fully recovered from his dehydration. Mellow, he supposed. Polished. More like a voice from home. It had none of the rough edges he'd gotten used to hearing out here on the Rim. Simon laid aside his forceps and stripped off his gloves. "All done. How does it feel?"

Lex shrugged the shoulder experimentally, then extended and rotated his arm. "Feels fine. Barely a twinge."

"Well, it looks amazing." Simon caught a slight smirk on Lex's face and quickly added, "The wound. It's barely visible."

"I appreciate your fine workmanship." Lex eased himself down off the patient bed. He extended his arm again, then swung it cautiously in a half-circle before putting his shirt back on. His movements indicated little pain or stiffness. In fact, they were surprisingly fluid. Under Lex's newly-healed skin, the muscles shifted smoothly, very little diminished by his days of inactivity.

Simon dragged his eyes back up to Lex's face. "So! Are you ready to see your fine new accommodations?"

"Lead the way."

The sliding door of the last passenger room on the right revealed a sparsely-furnished space in serious need of paint. The room contained only a low bed, a side table, and a lavatory. It looked as if Kaylee had had a hand in making it "homey"--there were two bright, mismatched throw pillows on the bed, and a string of small white lights around the mirror and the emergency air mask.

In the doorway, Lex put a hand on Simon's shoulder. "I want to thank you for all you've done for me." He stood closer than Simon was used to--than he was comfortable with, really. Ascribing it to cultural differences, Simon held his ground, wondering if someone passing might draw another conclusion.

"There's no need. Really. It's what I do. You've been a very interesting patient. I'm just glad I could help you--that we could help you."

"No, you've been more than generous with your time and skills, and I have no way to repay you except to say thank you. I hope one day to return the kindness."

Lex's hand was heavy, solid. Simon held his gaze for as long as he could, and was appalled to feel his eyes flick involuntarily to Lex's mouth and back. He quickly indicated the room. "Will you--uh, will you be all right here? It's not much."

He lifted his hand at last from Simon's shoulder. "I'll be fine. You know, I don't mind--"

And Simon wasn't sure if he was still talking about the room. "We'll be landing on Greenleaf tomorrow. Perhaps we can step off the ship for a short time. Some fresh air and natural gravity will probably do you good."

"Just as long as we stay in the shade." Lex gave the half-smile that seemed to be his chief mask. "I don't need to work on my tan anymore."

"Well, then. Good night. You--uh, you know where to find me if anything,.." Sometimes he wondered if he'd ever grasp the fine art of shutting up. Lex's smile just grew a tiny fraction.

"Oh, I know where you keep the pain pills. But I should be fine. Thanks. Good night."

On his way back down the corridor, Simon knocked at River's room and looked in. She was sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chin, tracing patterns on the bedcover.

"River, you should try to sleep."

"He won't visit."

"Who won't?"

"Sleep."

"Do you need a smoother?"

"No, Simon. He won't visit you. You looked and you disturbed him and now he won't visit you."

Sometimes her comments were so uncanny that there was no way to ascribe them to coincidence. "It's okay, mei-mei. I'll be all right."


Lex knew attraction when he saw it. He certainly knew it when he felt it. He remembered equating innocence with wholesome farm life and rural values, but Simon, with all his education and social status, struck Lex as far more innocent than Clark had ever been. It was something to do with trust. With a complete absence of lies. Lex wasn't sure he'd ever known anything quite like it. Combined with Simon's sheer competence, it was incredibly appealing.

It wasn't as if he was hard to look at, either, with his serious face and beautiful, skilled hands. Lex wondered if he would see Simon that way under less exigent circumstances. Of all the forms of attraction, salvation was the most compelling. It was also the most unrealistic. Being attracted to the person who saved you was the stupidest idea in the world. Any world.

At the moment, he had significantly greater problems than the tug of inappropriate interest. In only a few days, Captain Reynolds would be letting him off on a planet called Beaumonde with the clothes he had on, a dead man's coat, and, if he was lucky, a few units of whatever the currency was. His most valuable asset was the piece of paper from Inara, now zipped into an inner pocket of his overalls. Apart from those things, Lex had only Lionel's voice in his head reminding him of how to cope with the unknown.

Lex thought briefly about all the fine hotels he'd checked into in his life. All of them were dust now, and he had a low, thin bed, two clashing throw pillows, and a string of Christmas lights. Nothing to unpack, no room service to call, no porter to tip, no view, and no bar. He undressed carefully and hung his entire net worth from a hook on the wall.

He sighed, made himself as comfortable as the Spartan bed allowed, and willed himself to fall asleep.


River was right--sleep wasn't planning to visit Simon anytime soon. He had a slight edgy feeling that he couldn't trace to anything in particular. He kept thinking about Lex's story--maybe, he thought, he was over-identifying with it, experiencing some of the anxiety he'd feel if he were in Lex's position. After half an hour, Simon left his room and walked barefoot along the corridor and up the stairs.

Wash was in the cockpit, playing some game on a small console. Simon knocked on the bulkhead. "Autopilot out this evening?"

"Not so sleepy." Wash ended his game, turned in his chair. "How's our patient?"

"I've moved him to the spare guest room. He's ambulatory, healing fast."

"That's quite a story he's got there."

"Yes. I was wondering--could I access the Cortex from here?"

"Sure. Why not? Trying to find out more about him?"

"Historical research, I suppose. His story makes me realize that I don't know all that much about Earth-That-Was."

"You know, Kaylee says Inara's Cortex link has been active a lot in the last couple of days. Apparently this guy has been doing some research of his own."

"Yes, I know. I recommended it. It seemed best for his mental state. He has a lot of preparing to do."

"Do you believe him?"

"I'm starting to, yes."

Wash shook his head slowly as a look of awe came over his face. "Can you even imagine finding yourself in a different time? What must that be like?"

"It would seem we have someone on board who can answer that question."

"Yeah. It's wild. Zoe doesn't believe him, but me? I'd love to hear some of his stories. Maybe after we leave Greenleaf."

"I expect he'll be joining us for meals now that he's up and about. We could use some new dinner-table topics. He doesn't seem to mind talking about it."

"I always liked Earth-That-Was stories. Stories are good." Wash shook his head again. "You know, I really didn't think he was gonna survive. I'm glad we helped him."

"Yes, so am I. The--uh, the extra time we're spending detouring to Greenleaf for those engine parts should make all the difference for him."

Wash grinned. "Yeah. Thought they might." He rose and stretched. "Well, knock yourself out," he said, pointing to the other chair. "I think I'll try sleeping again. Don't hesitate to call me if you hear any loud warning buzzers, okay?" Wash shuffled from the bridge, yawning, and Simon activated the monitor.

Earth-That-Was history wasn't hard to find on the Cortex. It was just that most of what Simon found was from the lunatic fringe. A search on "Luthor" actually turned up a footnote or two of historical fact--tending to support Lex's story, or at least confirm that he'd done a pretty good research job himself. What was more surprising was the endless material in the crazy category.

Simon waded through as much of it as he could stand: conspiracy theories about how Earth was deliberately destroyed by malign forces that were still operating through the Alliance. Or possibly Blue Sun Corporation. Or aliens. Or mutants. The destruction had all started in the 20th century with something referred to as "globalization"--this was where the name Luthor tended to crop up a lot. Or in the 21st century with mutated humans of extraordinary power. We don't hear of them today, the theories all claimed, because their very existence has been denied systematically for centuries by the media and government. In some stories, they weren't mutated humans, but actual aliens. Their battles against humanity--or alternatively, against other mutants--led to the destruction of the Earth's biosphere. One particularly entertaining article claimed that these mutants, exposed to a peculiar radioactive toxin, had eventually become the Reavers.

Simon paused at that. Until he'd seen their sickening ravages with his own eyes, he had believed Reavers to be just a campfire story. He wondered if any of these other crazy notions had a basis in fact.

It really was getting late.

As Simon skimmed over a few last references, Mal came onto the bridge. "You flyin' the ship tonight, Doctor?"

"Yes. I've been taking lessons from Wash." He reached to turn off the screen, and an odd message caught his eye. Simon read the brief text in increasing surprise. He debated for a moment, then said, "Captain, I think you should take a look at this."

Mal came and read over his shoulder. "Well, now that's a curiosity. Seems like maybe your patient's unlikely story just got a little less poetical and strange."

"Yes. It does." He switched the screen off, frowning, feeling strangely disappointed. He'd become rather attached to the time-travel story. "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me discuss this with him."

"You do that, Doctor. Soon."

"Yes. First thing tomorrow."


Kaylee was waiting for them in the cargo bay the next morning. "Hello Simon," she said. "Hey Lex. Feeling better today?"

"I am. Thank you."

Simon concurred; a night's sleep had brought another noticeable improvement in Lex's condition. A short walk would help him begin rebuilding any lost strength. And it would be an opportunity to talk.

Kaylee skipped ahead down the ramp, watching Lex's face as he came out into the sunlight, squinting. "See? There she is--Serenity!" She swept her arm wide to indicate the bulk of the ship behind them, berthed between two larger vessels, and Lex turned. Took a few steps backward, his hand shielding his eyes from the glint of bright daylight off Serenity's steel skin. Simon watched for any sign of unsteadiness as Lex took a few more steps and left the ramp altogether, still gazing up at the ship.

"Wow," Lex said.

"Ain't she beautiful?"

Lex regarded the ship for several moments. "She reminds me a little of one of my cars. It was silver, not very big, German-engineered." He traced Serenity's shape in a broad gesture, still squinting up at her. "Had rounded lines, kind of like your ship here. I had a whole fleet of cars and a lot of them were sexier and faster--and newer, too--but this one was my favorite. It was a classic, a solid piece of machinery. Really fun to drive. I loved that car."

Simon watched Kaylee's grin grow wider. The man knew exactly what to say to make an ally for life. And Simon felt reasonably sure that he meant every word of it. Lex turned to Kaylee with a smile. "I had some great times in it, too. Right up to the day I drove it off a bridge. Even that turned out--all right." And in that pause was a story, Simon felt sure.

"Ya drove it off a bridge?" Kaylee giggled incredulously. "You must be hen xing yun."

Simon cringed inwardly. Kaylee meant well, but tact wasn't her strong suit. He'd hardly call Lex's current situation "extremely fortunate."

"Hen xing...?"

"She--uh, she says you must be strong with life force."

"Ah. Yeah. Nine lives."

Kaylee, realizing her own mistake, shot Simon a grateful look. "What'd it burn for fuel? You know, back...then?" she asked, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Petroleum."

Kaylee's eyes went wide. "You mean internal combustion? You had that?" She turned to Simon. "Simon, ain't that what finished off Earth-That-Was?"

"That's, uh, that's certainly one theory," he said. Actually one of the less loony ones he'd encountered in his research last night.

"Well, so, you two takin' a walk?" Kaylee looked from Simon to Lex with an avid expression that took Simon a moment to interpret, but when he did, he felt deeply embarrassed. Going medical had always been a good refuge from that sort of discomfort. "I've prescribed light exercise." Of course, just saying nothing was usually better.

"Uh-huh." The avid look didn't fade. "Well, I gotta go with Wash and start lookin' for those parts we needed. Have a nice walk. You two."

Lex, his hands in his pockets, directed a smile at the ground, and Simon felt strangely exposed. Fortunately--or maybe out of compassion--Lex didn't look up again for a few seconds, giving Simon time to get past the moment.

The dock area was bustling. They walked into the midst of it, Simon watching closely for any early signs of excess stress as Lex took in his new surroundings. They entered the market, a scattering of stalls and booths selling everything from tea to building materials. "How does it all look to you?"

"Strange. Mostly because it's all so familiar." Lex's eyes seemed to take in everything, sorting, understanding. "It's not that much different from the Amazon docks in Iquitos." Simon shook his head, not understanding the reference, and Lex added, "A city in the jungle--can't get to it except by air or on the river. Couldn't get to it..."

"I'm sorry." The jungles of the Amazon lived on in sad Earth-That-Was legends known to every child, but Lex's expression at this moment was compellingly like personal loss--like grief.

Lex smoothed it over quickly. "No need to be. Hell, the rainforest was about half gone already. I guess it's all gone now. So what's really on your mind?" Simon wondered how obvious he'd been, but welcomed the easy opening to a delicate subject.

"I was on the Cortex last night and saw a message. About you. It was more than three years old, posted from a backwater moon called Lilac. Someone is looking for you."

Lex looked genuinely puzzled. "For me? I don't see how that's possible. Are you sure?"

"Reasonably, yes. It was quite specific. It said--let me get this verbatim--'Seeking Alexander Joseph Luthor, probably mid-twenties, may be bald, may have unusual story related to Earth-That-Was. Reward for information.'"

"That's...Huh. That's pretty damned specific, all right. Did you answer it?"

"Of course not." Someone offering a reward was a little too close to home. Simon could only hope that Jayne didn't regularly scan the Cortex. "I did show it to Mal, though."

"I understand. I might have done the same in your position." Lex shoved his hands deep into the pockets of the too-large overalls and began walking again. "But now you're wondering--what? If I've escaped from a mental institution with my 'unusual story'?"

"It crossed my mind, yes. I no longer have access to those kinds of records, so I couldn't check. Have you?"

"Not in the last five hundred years or so."

The light, bantering comeback seemed to be one of Lex's principal methods of controlling the conversation. Simon ignored it. "And before that?"

Lex hesitated only slightly before saying, "I actually was institutionalized for a time. I was given electro-convulsive therapy and eventually pronounced cured. I did some very nice tempera paintings while I was inside."

Simon ignored that deflection as well. Lex tried a different tack. "Have we evolved beyond barbaric practices like ECT?"

"A year ago I would have said yes. But my sister is living proof that we haven't. Her brain was surgically violated and she was tortured for purposes that I don't begin to understand. So, no. I'd have to say that we're no less barbaric. Just more technically sophisticated in our barbarism."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"It's not a story I like to tell."

"But you got her out."

"I did. And now we're fugitives."

Lex, strangely, didn't ask what they were running from. He just said, "Still, you came for her," and there was a shadow of hurt.

Simon ventured a guess. "No one came for you?"

"No. Not--successfully." Lex's face closed suddenly on a flash of anger and sorrow. Simon sensed that the conversation was approaching some basic source of Lex's pain--maybe his whole, true story.

"Why was it done to you?"

"The ECT? My father ordered it. Seems he needed some incriminating memories erased. The treatment was successful. I'm still missing seven weeks of my life." He gave a rueful smirk and added, "It seems pretty minor in the whole five-hundred-year picture, doesn't it?"

Simon stayed focused on the painful point. "Your father?"

"I come from a very warped family, Doctor. I've been trying to be something other than a Luthor most of my life."

Simon looked at Lex for a long moment, thinking hard. "I've studied genetics," he finally said. "Believe me, you're not doomed."

Lex looked down, a haunted sort of smile passing quickly over his features. His jaw clenched and he blinked, hard, a couple of times. The desire Simon felt to help him find solace was irrational, and he knew it. He let a few moments pass in a silence made more obvious by the roar and bustle of the busy market around them. To break it, Simon said, "I found you in the history texts last night."

Lex attempted a grin. "No kidding. I find that hard to believe."

"Well, I might have. Your family, anyway. There were mentions of a Lionel Luthor--"

"That would be my father. The aforementioned bastard."

"--and something about a 20th-century corporation called Luthorcorp."

"Yes. The source of the fleet of cars I was telling Kaylee about," Lex answered.

"You failed to mention that your father was one of the wealthiest men on the planet."

"Did I?"

"You did. That would account for his presence in written history."

"He'd be so gratified."

The barely-concealed heat in his tone convinced Simon that Lex had a very harsh and complex relationship with his father, whatever his true story was. "In any case, I learned quite a bit. I couldn't find anything solid about a meteor strike five centuries ago on Earth-That-Was, though there were some--well, folk-tales, I suppose, that might have the kernel of fact in them."

"It happened on October 10, 1989, in and around Smallville, Kansas. In the United States. North America." Lex grinned. "It's not a date I'm likely to forget."

"No. I suppose not."

"Are you thinking that I could easily have done the same research you just did?"

"The thought occurred to me. But then I had to wonder why anyone would do that when a much simpler story would work."

"Work for what?"

"Whatever cunning scheme you're pursuing that includes being shot twice and bitten by sand rats on the off chance that a medical doctor--on a spaceship--would happen by in the nick of time."

"So...you're saying that you believe me?"

"I'm saying that I still trust you."

Lex looked at him quizzically for a long moment. Standing too close. Again.

And again, Simon blinked first. "We should return to the ship. You're tired."

"I'm fine."

"You're tired. Your pulse is rapid, your respiration is shallow and has increased about twenty percent, your temperature is up slightly, you're sweating, and the gunshot wound in your thigh is causing you to favor that leg. You'll be limping before we get back to Serenity."

Lex seemed to hear only one part of this litany. "Wait. You can read my pulse remotely?"

"Your superficial temporal artery is readily visible. Just under your scalp, there above your ear."

To Simon's surprise, Lex's expression opened into a quick, dazzling smile, and he gave him a look so forthright that it was very nearly a physical touch. "Showoff."

Simon covered his confusion by turning back in the direction of the docks. "We're going back to the ship. Now."

"Yes, Doctor."


PART 3 - FALLING - R

In the end, it was Lex's reaction to takeoff that made his time-travel story seem somehow, impossibly, to be the simple truth. He stood in the cockpit in his ridiculous cast-off clothes, gripping the edge of the navigation console, his eyes alight as Serenity left Greenleaf and entered the blackness of space.

"My God," he said, his mouth uncharacteristically slack with wonder.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Wash said conversationally.

"Absolutely incredible. I never--" Lex fell silent. Simon couldn't remember meeting an adult of Lex's economic class who'd never left atmo.

"First time up?" Wash asked over his shoulder.

"Yeah." Lex turned to include Simon, and the expression on his face was one of such intense wonder that it was almost shocking. Simon found the blackness of space oppressive and terrifying himself, but River experienced it as an epiphany, and apparently Lex did too.

Unable to share fully in Lex's powerful reaction, Simon left him gazing out into the starfield with Wash and made his way back to the infirmary.

As a surgeon, Simon had had little use for medical psychology. He understood that patients experienced a riot of emotion when their lives were threatened--or saved--but it was more of a textbook abstraction to him than a reality.

So a little later when Lex entered the infirmary and pulled him into a hard kiss behind the door, in theory he knew he shouldn't have been that surprised. In practice, theory and every other thought flew out of his mind and all he was aware of for several seconds was Lex's lips. And tongue. And hands. And his body, pressing, and was that...? Oh my God. "Whoa, whoa--wait! Stop," he managed to say after pushing Lex away. He staggered a step or two out of reach, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's not...ai ya...I'm sorry if I--"

Lex was looking at him frankly, unperturbed, the hint of a smile in his eyes. He took a step forward.

Simon held up his hand defensively, but Lex only took it in both of his, examining it for a moment before bringing it slowly to his mouth. Every nerve-ending in Simon's body seemed to be focused in the sensitive center of his palm, and--oh God--Lex began tracing small circles there with the tip of his tongue. Simon felt his eyes close and his mouth open. An involuntary reaction of the parasympathetic nervous system to a pleasurable stimulus. He knew that's all it was.

"Please, Lex. Don't." With an effort of will, he pulled his hand away. His own pupils were probably just as dilated as Lex's, and his circulatory system was concentrating blood-flow lower than where he needed it right now for clear thinking. He knew Lex's was too, though he resolutely didn't look for visual confirmation.

"We should talk," Simon finally managed to say, as mortified as he'd been since--well, ever. How could this have gotten so out of hand? His body was betraying things that he wasn't prepared to deal with. "We should sit down and--talk."

Lex didn't move. He just slowly wiped his lower lip with his thumb, his gaze unwavering.

Simon sat in the infirmary's only chair, wondering what to say, knowing only that it had better be something, and coherent, and soon. A dozen things sprang to mind, all wrong. I can't... I don't... I never meant... I shouldn't... His palm was still tingling and damp from Lex's tongue. Simon clenched it into a quick fist. It helped a little.

"That was really...very, um...very--I'll remember that. For a long time. In a good way." He hated himself when he nattered. His own wild confusion made it hard to meet Lex's eye. The hands were back in the pockets, but Lex had otherwise not moved. His expression remained still. Waiting.

"But I'd like to tell you--I need to say--why I think it's not a good idea. Even though it might seem..." Simon cleared his throat. This needed to be said. "I'm your doctor, first of all, and the word 'irresponsible' doesn't begin to cover my actions here. I've let myself..." He took a deep breath and risked another look at Lex, who had stepped back and now leaned against the cabinets. "I should never have..." What? Looked at your lips? Let you stand so close? Given such a convincing impression of attraction that even Kaylee picked it up? Simon wasn't quite sure.

"Go on, Doctor," Lex said, politely interested.

He searched for a different approach, fell back on the standby. "Whether you accept it or not, you've been severely traumatized. I'd like you to consider the possibility that your best judgment isn't--well, really operating right now."

"You may be right."

"And even if you weren't my patient and you hadn't suffered severe stress to your central nervous system, Captain Reynolds will be putting you off this ship on Beaumonde in a week and there's nothing I can do about it. He doesn't change his mind. It's not as if I could go..." God, please stop talking now.

After a long silence, Lex said, "Are you finished?"

So finished, Simon thought miserably. He nodded.

"Good." Lex pushed away from the wall and moved toward him. "You've done an excellent job as my physician, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to relieve you of your duties. The job is done."

Simon put his head in his hands and refused to look up as Lex came to stand in front of him.

"You were going to say that you aren't in a position to go with me next week. And I wouldn't ask you to--though it's a comforting thought. And you'd like to point out that you don't need a complication like me in your life. I understand that too. What I'm looking for isn't that complicated, but I think I know what you mean. I just don't buy it. So, Doctor, what else've you got?"

Simon thought of all the reasons why standing up right now and kissing Lex back, and letting himself feel what he was feeling, and diving in to the deep water, was a bad idea. Good reasons, none of them valid. All he had was this reeling sensation, this riot in his body, this sudden fear, this insecurity and doubt. "What would dissuade you?" he said after a fruitless moment of trying to rein it all in.

"Simple. Tell me you don't want me."

Simon couldn't tell him that. He felt his silence damning him, and couldn't look up.

"Okay. So what are you afraid of, Doctor?"

God. What am I not afraid of? Falling, hurting, shame. Wanting too much, too strongly. The simple truth, never truly faced before.

"Simon, please don't make me come down there. This gunshot wound in my thigh is hurting like a son of a bitch."

In spite of himself, Simon looked up. "Do you need--?"

"Jesus Christ, Simon. Get up here." Lex's hand came around his wrist and pulled. Simon didn't resist. Couldn't. "Come on. What is it really?"

And Simon was standing. Practically in Lex's arms, and reasons not to be were vanishing fast. He shook his head, defeated. "Nothing. Everything. You."

"As long as it's me," Lex said, kissing Simon's neck, "you've got nothing to be afraid of." Simon couldn't repress a groan, whether of defeat or pleasure he couldn't tell. Lex kissed him along his jaw, breathed into his ear, sending a bolt of electricity straight to his groin, and there was no hiding that simple truth. "Keep trusting me, Simon," Lex said, nipping at his earlobe. By the time Lex finally got to Simon's mouth, all the reasons were gone.

"Come with me." And Simon just nodded and followed Lex silently out of the infirmary and up the corridor to his room.


From a pleasantly sated drowse, Lex felt the bed rise a little, and he realized vaguely that Simon was leaving. He came fully awake at the sound of the door sliding open. Simon, shoes and shirt in hand, was looking out into the corridor. Furtively.

"All clear?"

Simon started and turned around. "It's not--" He sighed a little, quick to abandon a pointless denial. "Yes. All clear."

Interesting. Honest. Lex raised himself on one elbow. Typically, he didn't care whether a lover lingered or hurried away, but nothing was typical anymore. He felt--annoyed, he admitted--to see Simon sneaking off. He wanted not to be alone. That was a new one. Lex pushed it down, practiced his impassive face, prepared to be casual.

"You were uncomfortable," Simon said. "I was crowding you. I didn't want to keep you from sleeping."

"I don't know, Simon. You're pretty comfortable."

"Well, no. At the moment I'm quite un. Comfortable."

Lex really didn't need to ask why, but again, the situation wasn't typical. "Why?"

"Oh, let's see. I just had..."

"Sex. Yes." Lex began to feel amused.

"With a patient."

"I fired you, remember?"

"A male patient."

"Not your standard practice, Doctor?" Lex was already pretty sure of the answer. The point of the question was just to keep Simon from going out the door.

"A patient, never. A man, not...lately. Well, sex at all, really. It's been a...a fairly unusual event since the whole becoming a fugitive thing. Actually since I started looking for my sister. It's been, well, awhile."

And had never been as common an occurrence as it should have been, Lex could tell, though he wasn't about to say so. Sweet, serious, incredibly gentle, and absolutely, gorgeously lost when he came, Simon really was as innocent as he seemed. Lex allowed himself to dwell on that disturbingly arousing notion for a moment before saying, in perfect honesty, "It was wonderful."

The light from the corridor caught the quirk of Simon's mouth. "You seem to say the right thing to everyone."

"I generally just say what I mean. So, apart from worrying about your little sister spotting your empty room, do you really have to leave?"

"River already--she, uh--I think she knew before--she's very intuitive." Simon shook his head as if to clear it. "So as unsettling as that is, no, I was actually a little more worried about running into Jayne. I'd never, ever hear the end of it."

Lex considered this. He'd always had a hard time understanding shame--at least, around sex--but maybe embarrassment was a reasonable concern. Life aboard a small spaceship, after all, wasn't something whose finer points he could claim to understand. "You haven't answered my question, Doctor."

"God, Lex, please don't call me that. Not now. It's just...wrong. And to answer your question, yes, I really do have to leave."

Damn. "Well, before you rush off, I have a question." Simon's face took on a slightly hunted look, and Lex enjoyed it. If the good doctor was going to sneak away, at least he could suffer for it a little. "Earlier, you said something--several times, as I recall--in Chinese, and I'd like to know what it was."

Simon looked down, clearly uncomfortable. "You're kidding, right?"

"Hardly ever."

"I don't actually remember my exact words."

"Don't you? I find that most of the time during sex, I say basically the same kinds of things. If you're being original in that situation, your mind is very much in the wrong place." Lex shifted, sat up, aware that the sheet pooling around his hips and covering not much of anything would make Simon even more uncomfortable. "Come on, Simon. Clue me in. What kinds of things do you moan in Mandarin when you're about to come?"

"Do you really need this information right now?"

"Humor me."

"Well, if I was saying anything coherent at all, it was probably just shi a and wo de tian."

"Meaning--?"

"Shi a is just, you know, 'yes.'"

"And the other?"

"Wo de tian is 'Oh my God,' basically," Simon muttered very quickly. "As you say, nothing too original."

"So. 'Oh my God, yes'?" Lex savored that for a moment. "Very appropriate. In any language."

"I'm so relieved. I'm going now."

Interesting. An unexpected tinge of acid there in the midst of all the flustered confusion. Lex thought back through the last hour or so. "What about bao bei? You said that, too."

"I did. I shouldn't have. Good night." Clearly disconcerted, Simon left.

Lex lay back on the bed. The place where Simon had been was still warm. Sneaking off to avoid the discomfort of being caught...what was this, high school? Lex decided that morning would bring the good doctor a whole new experience of discomfort. At breakfast. Preferably with the rest of Serenity's crew present. Especially Jayne.

It crossed Lex's mind that some of the faulty judgment Simon had warned him about was operating in that idea. He ignored the thought. The hollowness he felt was just some residual anxiety, to be expected in his unique situation. He rolled over and pulled one of Kaylee's throw pillows under his chest. He finally fell asleep trying not to think about how much more of Simon he still wanted.


Lex awoke to the artificial morning of Serenity's lights coming up, and the sound of boots clumping along the catwalk. Getting out of the low bed, Lex felt better than he had in--well, a very long time. He washed himself at the rudimentary basin, thinking that of all the things he had probably lost forever, he might miss long, hot showers the most. His skin smelled like sex--like someone else. Like Simon. Just, not enough of him.

Before getting dressed, Lex took stock of his condition. Neither gunshot wound hurt at all today. He could see details of the room quite clearly, and his eyelids no longer felt like sandpaper. The rodent bites were nothing more than thin, invisibly-sutured pink lines on his arm and leg, evidence of Simon's skill. And his caring. Last night's thoughts of trying to embarrass him seemed pretty childish in the daytime.

He eased into his hand-me-down clothes. The flip-flops completed a look that would have been barely acceptable at the tackiest cafe in Smallville. There was something liberating about that.

As he left his quarters, he saw Inara gliding down the stairs toward him. "Good morning, Lex," she said as she approached, giving him an openly appraising glance. "You look as if you're feeling better today."

"I am. Much better. Thank you."

"The doctor is a miracle worker." The twinkle in her eye was unmistakable. And a little unnerving. How the hell did she know? He was starting to understand how that morning-after discomfiture felt. It was a new experience. She patted his arm and hooked it through hers. "Simon's very sweet."

Oh, this was definitely the feeling. He sighed, looked down at his absurd footwear. "Yes. He really is."

She kissed his cheek. "I'm glad," she said, and somehow, that was just...nice. Good to know. Important.

"So--" Lex began.

"Yes?"

"What does bao-bei mean?"

"Bao-bei?" Inara looked puzzled, then startled, then maybe a little worried, Lex thought, before quickly schooling her expression into her customary neutral smile. "It's an intimate term of endearment. Very old-fashioned." She didn't say "Why do you ask?" but the question--and its answer--hung in the air between them as they walked together to the dining room.

Kaylee was in the galley, jostling for coffee and tea with Wash and his beautiful amazon of a wife. The preacher was filling a bowl at the counter. Jayne was just entering from the direction of the bridge. Casual, unaffected greetings of "hey" and "good morning, you two" were offered as he and Inara came in.

Simon, already at the table and eating his breakfast, looked--normal. Comfortable. Unexpectedly at ease. When he saw Lex, he leaned back in his chair, and a slow, lazy smile spread across his face. "Hey. Good morning," he said in languid tones, and some epithet like "lover" hovered there, just barely unsaid. Lex stared at him. No one over the age of sixteen, not even the big mercenary, would mistake Simon for anything other than satisfied. Really satisfied.

The chatter ground to a halt. Shepherd Book said, "Oh!" and there was some throat-clearing. Jayne guffawed and said, "Now that's just..." but at a sharp look from Zoe cut his sentence short. Lex saw Kaylee's wide-eyed glance fly from him to Simon, and then to Inara with an "I told you so" look. She came up behind Simon's chair and put her arms warmly around his shoulders, kissing him on the top of his head. Conversation resumed. Simon flashed him a quick, evil grin, then returned to eating.

"I've gotta hand it to you," Lex said quietly as he lowered himself into the chair opposite. Simon looked ridiculously pleased with himself. "That was a surprise. Bao-bei."

Simon's chopsticks halted halfway to his mouth. The look on his face was better than anything Lex had imagined.


Simon felt pretty good. The moment he'd dreaded was past, and he'd made it happen by himself. So, now just about everyone knew he'd gotten laid last night--by a man--and they seemed to be getting over it. It wasn't nearly as bad as he'd expected. Lex calling him bao-bei, on the other hand--that might take a few minutes longer.

"I owe you an apology," Lex was saying, settling across the table. Simon admired his easy grace, allowed himself a long moment to dwell on those hands...and the arms, and the shoulders in the battered, sleeveless T-shirt...He tried to switch into physician mode, make a few mental notes about Lex's condition, but Lex's foot connected with his under the table and the switch just wasn't working.

Jayne pulled out a chair at the other end of the table and sat down. He began eating noisily--a trait for which Simon had never overcome his disgust--and Simon saw Lex glance over at him. Jayne snorted and shook his head as he chewed, apparently in response to some slow-moving thought that Simon could all too easily imagine.

"What for?" Simon prompted quietly.

"Hm?" Lex dragged his eyes away from the fascinating spectacle of Jayne eating.

"What do you owe me an apology for?"

"Somethin' go wrong last night?" Jayne suggested.

"Jayne!" Kaylee sounded shocked as she joined them. This was Lex's first meal with the big, happy family of misfits who shared Serenity's table. Clearly, Simon thought, he was overestimating their respect for privacy. Lex seemed to figure it out quickly, though. He just shook his head slightly, gave an infinitesimal eyebrow movement in Simon's direction, and applied himself to his own breakfast.

"So, what're you two up to today?" Kaylee asked with a grin. Simon resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"I have homework to do." Lex was completely unaffected by her innuendo. He spoke to her as if no one else were in the room. Attentive, polite, focused. If Simon hadn't been the object of a great deal of that attention himself last night, he thought he might feel a little jealous. The memory of it lifted him right out of the conversation for a moment. He hoped no one was noticing his face.

Lex was saying, "Inara has given me some Mandarin phrases to learn, and I've got lots of reading to do about Beaumonde." Kaylee managed to look impressed and bored at the same time.

"Sure you don't wanna look up some more facts about Earth-That-Was to support that crazy-ass story of yours?" Jayne said. With his mouth full.

Simon was curious to see how Lex responded. Lex turned his focus on Jayne and said, "You're not the only one having trouble with my story. I find it unbelievable myself. But...it's all I've got." Then he stopped. Waited. It was good, Simon admitted. Very good. Lex just finished speaking, shut his mouth, and let the other person fumble. Simon really, really needed to get better at that.

Jayne, nothing to work with, just muttered, "Yeah, well it's a crazy-ass story."

"That it is, Jayne, don't give you cause to be spoilin' the man's breakfast." Mal set a mug on the table and straddled one of the remaining chairs. He looked from Simon to Lex, blinked, looked back at Simon again, and then suppressed a grin by taking a sip of his coffee. Okay. Now the worst of it is over, Simon thought. Everyone knows.

"You get a chance to talk to Lex here about that message?" Mal asked after a moment. Simon winced. The last thing he wanted was for Jayne to hear this.

"I did."

"And?"

Lex spoke up. "We discussed the possibility that I'm an escaped mental patient, something your crew has an understandable reluctance to become involved with." Simon was grateful to him for not saying "again." "I don't know exactly what's happened to me. I could be living out a huge delusion. But as far as I know, I'm telling the simple truth: I was in Smallville, Kansas on June 25, 2004, examining some archaeological artifacts in a cave, and then I was in the salt flats of Pacquin in the middle of a gunfight, watching two moons rise."

"So how would you explain that notice on the Cortex?" Mal asked.

"I can't. Simon showed it to me. He says you saw it, too, so you know it's not an arrest warrant. It was out of date. I see three possibilities: either it's a bizarre coincidence, or someone else came along for the five-hundred-year ride that brought me here, or I'm delusional and someone wants me found and returned."

"Captain, there's no evidence of any brain damage or neurotransmitter imbalance that would account for such an acute state of delusion," Simon interjected.

"Did you answer the message?" Mal asked Lex.

"No. It was tempting, given my situation. If there's someone here who knows me, or who needs me, I have to tell you, Captain, I'd like very much to find them."

Simon swallowed and looked down at his food, his appetite gone.

"But I wouldn't repay your kindness by drawing attention to your business operations--or to Simon and River. Once I get established on Beaumonde, I should be able to follow up on my own, with no connection to you or your ship."

"I'd take it as a favor."

Simon was torn between gratitude to Lex, resentment of Mal, and a general sense of guilt about Lex's situation.

"Inara tells me she's set you up with someone."

"Yes."

This was news to Simon. Lex gave him a look that said they still needed to talk. Later. Simon relaxed a little as Lex spoke of Inara's generosity. At least someone on Serenity who could help Lex was willing to do so.

"She's a fine woman. No question about it." Mal rose from the table. "You start to feel a bit idle, Lex, you let Kaylee here know. She's got plenty of work in the engine room."

Simon was prepared to protest in his capacity as Lex's doctor, however fired, but Kaylee grinned and shook her head. "Engine's fine, Cap'n. Lex and Simon got plenty to do without any help from me." Simon tried not to cringe. The unembarrassed thing had been going so well.

Jayne, his brow furrowed, said, "So, this message. There a reward?"


After breakfast, Lex went to have a Mandarin lesson with Inara, and Simon escaped to his infirmary. Being open and letting everyone know your private business was a good and liberating experience, but he really needed to be alone with his thoughts, doing something closer to his own comfort zone for a while.

He thought a little about previous sexual experiences, as few of them as there were. None of them had been anything like Lex. Not that they'd all been bad. Just off-key, a little clunky, mostly forgettable, and Simon had begun to wonder if he simply wasn't made for greatness in that area of life. But Lex's hands, and his mouth, and his whole body...and his words--God, his specific, mind-melting words, and in that voice ... Simon though maybe he could be tuned after all, and played, and that Lex was like a virtuoso who could bring music out of whatever instrument was in his hands. Maybe he was a better instrument than his experience had led him to believe.

Through the upper window he spotted Mal striding toward the infirmary and hastily pushed the stop button on his replay of last night's events. Mal came through the door.

"Doc."

"Captain. What can I do for you?"

Mal rubbed his chin, looking a little ill-at-ease. "I don't interfere in the lives of my crew." Oh, here it comes. "Well, I do, but only when it seems necessary."

"And does it seem necessary today?"

"You tell me, Doctor. We gonna be losing our medic anytime soon?"

"No. I'm surprised you feel the need to ask." Simon found it unusually easy this morning to let the sudden tension in his shoulders go--to stop armoring himself against Mal's judgment.

"Somehow I just can't help myself, so humor me here. You're a member of my crew. I don't hold much with shipboard romance--causes all manner of complications, as I've had good reason to learn. But I've noticed that makin' rules against it's got no effect."

Simon wondered briefly how amused Lex would have been last night if the phrase "because it's against Mal's rules" had entered the discussion.

"The way you been lookin' at him, I see pain in the making, and I got exactly no resources for dealin' with that once he's gone. He's havin' an impact here. You gonna be fit for work after we leave him on Beaumonde?"

Simon put down the box of syringes he'd been counting and faced the captain directly. "Look, Mal, I have no plans to let regret, or some version of a broken heart, or anger, or whatever it is you're worried about, interfere with my work here. I understand why your decision was necessary and I have accepted it. If you need me to pretend I like it or approve of it, then we may have a problem. Otherwise, there's really nothing more to be said on this subject."

"So's we're clear."

"I think we are."

Mal turned to leave, paused at the door, looked back. "He gonna make it, down there?"

"He's healed. He's strong. He's extremely intelligent. If anyone can adapt, he can."

Mal nodded and walked away.


Simon's back slammed into the wall as Lex, one arm around his waist and the other hand fumbling with the hatch, pushed him through the doorway with his body's weight. "How do you lock this thing?" he asked, biting Simon's ear.

Simon broke away, breathless, and pushed the lever down, locking them inside Shuttle Two.

"Just like that?"

"Yes."

"Good." Lex moved in again, pressing Simon against the cockpit archway with his groin. Then he reached a hand between them and stroked. Hard. Simon had to bite back a whimper. Part of him was amazed that this was happening. Again. So soon.

"Why are we here?" Not that he cared. Here was good. Here was wonderful.

"To have more sex." Lex put his free hand around the back of Simon's head and kissed his mouth. The hungry, devour-me kiss, Simon thought. He was developing a predilection for that one already. Lex broke it too soon, and added, "Because there wasn't nearly enough of it last night." Simon stared at Lex's mouth--at the scar on his upper lip--and went in to explore it with his tongue. "Was there?" Lex demanded, holding back and giving another hard stroke.

"Oh God. No. Not nearly." Simon closed his eyes, forgot for a second about the fascinating scar.

"Besides," Lex went on, his hand leaving off and coming up to Simon's shirt collar, and Simon couldn't help pushing harder against Lex's body to make up for it. Far from mortified now, he wanted Lex to feel, to see, how much he wanted this. Wanted Lex. "--you need to be able--" Lex began unbuttoning Simon's shirt, kissing him under his chin, and the submaxillary triangle was suddenly the second most erogenous zone on his body. Simon felt the rest of his buttons come undone quickly, and Lex's hands on his chest, roughly thumbing his nipples. "Repeat after me, Simon."

"I need to be able..." Simon gasped.

"Yes. You need to be able--" His lips went to Simon's neck, and he tongued the soft pulse-point between the clavicles. Jugular notch, Simon thought vaguely. "--to loosen up."

"I need to be able to loosen...oh." Simon's breath caught as Lex's hands unbuckled his belt, whipped it free, flung it into the cockpit where it landed with a soft clatter among the instruments.

"Express yourself freely." He slid slowly down Simon's body, slicing his belly with a hot tongue. Simon could only surrender, raising his arms over his head, leaning back against the wall. "Say it, Simon."

"Express myself..."

"Make a little noise." Lex looked up at him, his eyes dark, his hands undoing--everything. His mouth--everywhere. Simon let out a loud, inarticulate moan.

"Yeah. Like that," Lex said.

Simon thought vaguely that the heavy steel hatch standing between him and the rest of Serenity looked pretty soundproof. But at the moment, he didn't really care.


Lex sprawled on the shuttle floor and admired Simon's body as he put his clothes back on. He was well-put-together. Nicely muscled, beautifully proportioned. Simon was very good to look at. At the moment, Lex was feeling a little too languid to get up and do more touching, though that was another of Simon's fine attributes--he was nice to touch. Sensitive. Smooth and unmarked except for an interesting scar on one thigh that looked like a bullet wound, and Lex had been too busy discovering it with his tongue to ask actual questions about it. Responsive everywhere to Lex's hands and mouth, Simon was also pretty free with his own. It was surprising how much freer today.

"So, what happened?" Lex asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean what happened between last night and this morning?"

"Apart from my having had sex for the first time in an embarrassingly long time?" Simon was covered up enough now to be comfortable. He was unusually modest for someone with such a great body. Kind of sweet, really.

"No, after that. Last night you were deeply worried about being seen leaving my room. Then this morning you pretty much outed us both to the whole crew. What I want to know is, what happened in between?"

"Oh. That." Simon lowered himself to the floor, just barely near enough to touch. He even smelled good--a little sweaty still, and a little like soap, and a lot like recent sex. "I don't know, really. I was embarrassed--I mean... You may have noticed that this is all very not-private, and I'm not used to having much of any sort of sex life, let alone a public one, so I felt like I just needed to be in my own bed, alone, to think. Then when I got there, I felt--I regretted my embarrassment. I'm sorry."

"Believe it or not, I do understand the desire for privacy. I've just never had the luxury of it. Had to get used to doing without it. My sex life back in Metropolis was the stuff of headlines--I mean actual newspaper headlines, you understand. I'm not just bragging."

Simon shot him a smile that Lex would have had trouble finding a better word for than "shy," and said, "You could also just brag. Quite easily."

So unjaded. "Yeah, but I never do. Very bad form." Lex couldn't remember the last time he'd actually been told he was a good lover. He didn't have doubts on that score, but it was refreshing to be with someone who was willing to say so. Those skills had been acquired through extensive effort and it was nice to have them appreciated.

"Anyway, I don't know...I slept on it, and woke up wishing I wasn't alone, and you were so--it was--"

"Maybe you should get some pointers from Inara in the fine art of talking comfortably about sex."

"Yes. Perhaps. Being with you was--" Simon took a deep breath, and then uttered a long phrase in Chinese.

"Cheater."

"I'm working up to it. Being with you is one of the best things I've ever felt. Last night was..."

"Awesome? I rocked your world? The Earth moved?" Lex rarely enjoyed himself this much after sex. "Oh. No, wait--scratch that last one."

"You know, you're really not helping." And there was that tiny drop of acid again, tempering the sweetness, revealing the solid inner core of him. "It was. Yes. Awesome. That's a good word for it. I was in a certain amount of awe. And I realized that I could either get comfortable with people knowing about it, or pretend it hadn't happened, which might hurt your feelings, and would negate what took place. Between us. And I didn't want to negate it."

Wow, Lex thought. It was a little naive, but sweet as hell, and he could get used to romanticism. If only there was time. He smiled and put a hand on Simon's bare foot, the only part of him within easy reach.

"Besides," Simon continued, "I was really curious to find out how easy it was to embarrass you."

Lex pulled his hand away with a snort. "You're kind of a shithead, aren't you?" Oh yeah. The mixture was damn near perfect. Simon grinned, and Lex realized that he hadn't seen that on Simon nearly enough.

Even now, though, the smile faded again quickly. After a moment, Simon said, "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course." It wasn't as if he had any secrets anymore.

"Who's Clark?"

Now that was unexpected. Lex shifted, sat up, pulled the overalls into his lap. The moment for wantonly-naked lying around had just passed. Lex was pretty sure he had never said that name by mistake. Even--before, he had never let himself say...ever. Not out loud. Not with anyone else, and not alone. Ever.

"What makes you--?" Lex regrouped a little, noting Simon's look of determined indifference. Casual. Just asking. And so wary of what he was going to hear. He deserved an honest answer. "Clark was someone I cared a lot about. I--fell in love with him, I guess." Lex had never really said that out loud before. "He saved my life."

Simon nodded. "The car on the bridge?"

"Yes, exactly. How did you--?"

"Tone of voice."

Oh. Those impressive observational skills. "Clark was young. Too young."

"I see."

Lex doubted that. It was tempting to leave it there. He was sure he'd have left it there with anyone else. But he wanted Simon to understand it a little better than that. "Clark was a bit of a mystery. He had some big secrets. Unknown origins, unusual abilities, that kind of thing. When he wouldn't tell me the truth about himself, I had him investigated." Lex realized what that must sound like. "Anyway, I was too curious--couldn't let it go even when he asked me to. We lied to each other, destroyed our friendship. It ended badly. He disappeared and I was searching for him when I--wound up here."

Simon picked at a thread in the hem of his trousers, didn't look at Lex. After a long moment, he said, "Were you...that is, did you--?"

"Were we lovers? No."

Simon nodded. "His name was the first thing you said to me."

Lex remembered then. Waking up on Serenity, feeling rescued, dazed. Hoping. "Clark is long gone. I regret to think that he hated or resented me the rest of his life. I'd like to imagine that he forgave me--maybe even missed me. I won't tell you I've completely come to terms with it, Simon." Simon was still studying the thread intently, so Lex reached over and nudged his shoulder with a soft fist. "But it's really not on my mind at the moment." And it really wasn't.

That got a small, hidden grin, and Simon finally looked up. "I probably shouldn't have asked. I'm not entirely clear on what's none of my business in this--situation. I trust you'll let me know if I cross the line."

"So far, you're within the bounds of good taste and propriety. As always."

Simon gave him a disgusted look. "So. What was this about owing me an apology?"

"Oh, yes. I do." Lex embraced the change of subject gladly. For this one, he had prepared some remarks. "I importuned you last night. I think that's the right word."

"I think you mean 'seduced,' don't you?"

"No, I think 'importuned' has the right shade of meaning."

"You've given this some thought."

"The best apologies are carefully prepared. So be quiet and listen. Whichever word you prefer, I pressured you into having sex with me, and I overrode both your ethical concerns and your personal ones. You were quite right--my judgment wasn't good, and it probably hasn't improved that much in the last eighteen hours. So I'd like to apologize."

"Nice apology."

"Thank you."

"You know that you couldn't have persuaded me to go anywhere I wasn't already willing to go, right?" Lex felt one small worry evaporate. It was good to know that Simon understood that. "So there's really no need to apologize for anything, but--apology accepted anyway. Thank you."

Simon leaned companionably against his shoulder, and Lex closed his eyes, tried to allow for--tried to feel--Simon's easy intimacy. It was an area Lex felt very unskilled in. "Think we should we be getting back?"

"Yes, I suppose we should." Simon broke the contact as simply as he'd initiated it.

"What are the chances that we can come here again?"

Simon actually blushed. "Reasonable. The shuttle won't be used till we're planetside." He looked around the small, utilitarian space. "It's a little uncomfortable, really."

"Yeah, but Simon, you really open up when you've got enough privacy. I can live with some discomfort to hear you scream like that again."

"I did not scream," he muttered.

"Yell, then."

"Or yell."

"You 'cried out'."

"Okay, maybe that."

"Well, I'm looking forward to hearing it again."


Space travel, as it turned out, was incredibly boring. The crew had little work to do. Wash and Kaylee tinkered with the engines, the navigation controls, the land vehicle they called the mule, and Lex spent some time hanging around with them, learning a little about how the ship worked. Jayne had given him some pointers in knife-sharpening and handgun-cleaning, skills it was possible he'd need on Beaumonde more than he ever had in Metropolis, or even in Smallville.

Inara continued to help him learn Mandarin, correcting his pronunciation as she calmly practiced calligraphy in her shuttle. He passed an agreeable hour with the preacher in the galley, slicing vegetables from Greenleaf, preparing dinner, and discussing the unchanged nature of humankind. Shepherd Book, who clearly had had a life in the world before answering his religious calling, showed an avid and intelligent interest in the business practices of what were, to him, ancient times. He also knew a surprising amount about wine.

River seemed to enter a rough spell a day or so out of Greenleaf. She grew agitated and irrational, especially around Lex, and Simon had his hands full monitoring her medication and her symptoms. Vague ideas of filling the days with Simon's sweet body vanished, and everyone on the ship knew it. There really was no privacy. Lex snatched what moments of Simon's time he could, feeling both right and wrong about taking his mind off River for a bit. Intimacy had arisen so suddenly, become so total, Lex couldn't decide whether it sprang from a deep compatibility, or just the close quarters. He wondered if it was something people from normal families took for granted. It was disturbing how good it felt.

He was sitting in the lounge outside the infirmary, idly leafing through some texts on Simon's encyclopedia. Through the big windows he could see Simon hunched over his sister, worry and fatigue etching his features. Simon tried to give her an injection, which she resisted violently before finally submitting. Lex was fascinated watching Simon work. He tried to go back to his reading, heard the infirmary door slide closed a moment later. Simon was standing there, letting the door frame support him.

"How is she?"

"I don't know."

Simon came and fell into the sofa next to Lex, slumping forward, rubbing his temples, defeat in every line of his body. After a moment, Lex laid the reader aside and put his hands on Simon's bowed neck, massaging the tense shoulders. "I'm sorry. Anything I can do?"

Simon shifted and lay down, his head in Lex's lap, his legs stretched out along the length of the sofa. He toed off his shoes and closed his eyes. "Just stay here for a few minutes. You feel good."

Lex, a little taken aback by his ease, by the sweetness of it, felt an urge to smooth Simon's hair off his forehead. He hesitated, drew his hand away. "It's me, isn't it?"

"Mmm?"

"She's afraid she's losing you."

"I'm all she's got."

"I know."

Simon's face was even more innocent in repose. The lines eased away, his eyelashes a dark fringe, a soft smile appearing on his lips as Lex finally gave in, touched his forehead, his hair. He looked very young. In moments, he was asleep. Lex wondered if he would ever see Simon this way again, and because that seemed unlikely, sat and drank it in until he, too, dozed off.


PART 4 - PARTING - NC-17

Some time later, Lex was awakened by a nudge to his shoulder. Simon was still sound asleep with his head on Lex's lap. Neither of them had moved, and Lex felt a twinge of stiffness in his neck as he opened his eyes. Jayne was looking from him to Simon a little uncomfortably. With a broad, silent gesture he indicated that Lex should get up and come with him into the dining area. Lex, forcing himself fully awake, shifted Simon's head and shoulders. Simon didn't even stir as Lex set a pillow under his head and got up.

At the dining table, Jayne turned to him and pulled a small handgun out of his pocket. "Now, I'm gonna give you this gun, because it's easy to conceal, and it's pretty easy to get ammo for, and it fires real clean, okay?"

Lex, faintly awed, accepted the weapon. "Thank you, Jayne," he said. "I'm honored."

"Yeah, well, I figure you got a better chance of makin' it armed than not."

"I appreciate that."

"Is Jayne having a sentimental moment?" Shepherd Book was at the table with Kaylee and Wash, playing a game involving round cards imprinted with pictures of fruit.

"Aw. No, preacher. I just--"

Kaylee interrupted. "Cap'n told him he had to give Lex a gun, 'cause Cap'n ain't got any to spare, and Jayne's got more than he has room for."

"All the same, I appreciate it," Lex said, forestalling Jayne's scowl. He'd have preferred not to deal with firearms. He knew all too well how badly desperation and bullets went together. Besides, what he had learned of Beaumonde didn't suggest that a gun would be a daily necessity there. But whether he liked it or not, people's goodwill was the most important thing in his new life, and he might as well start with Jayne's. "Let's have a look." He released the clip--it was loaded--and pocketed it. "Nice. Would you check me on disassembly and cleaning?"

Simon wandered in a while later, sleepy and tousled, in his stocking feet, and came to stand behind Lex's chair. "Building guns, are we?"

"Man's gotta have a gun, Doctor," Jayne said, looking a little askance as Simon put an easy, intimate hand on Lex's shoulder. Lex, mostly just to bother Jayne, laid his hand briefly over Simon's.

"Now, that there's the pin and it goes--yup, you got it. You learn pretty quick."

Lex reassembled the weapon and stood to put it in his pocket. "Jayne," he said, holding out his hand. "Thank you. This gun could stand between me and real trouble on Beaumonde. I hope I never have to use it, but if I do, I'll remember your help."

"Aw, well. Well, you're welcome." Jayne shook his hand and shuffled off. Kaylee looked up from her card game. "That was a real nice thing you said, Lex."

"Well, it's a pretty nice gun."

But he could feel it there in his pocket, a heavy weight, and it wasn't reassuring at all. It only reminded him that he would be alone on Beaumonde, in less than two days, in a situation where he could conceivably need it. The day after tomorrow. Lex wondered how the airlock system worked--maybe he could just toss the damned thing out into space.

Simon seemed to get that. "I've, uh, I've got a small bag you could have. For your new gun. And, you know, all that stuff of yours. It's in my room. I'll get it for you."

Kaylee, Wash and Book all studiously attended to their hands of cards as Lex said, "Hang on. I'll come with you."

In Simon's room, which was as neat as the infirmary, Lex watched him rummage for the spare bag inside a larger one that he pulled out from under his bed. "It's just a small--but it's got handles, and you can-- Here it is." Simon came up holding a crumpled black zipper case. He stared at it in his hands for a long moment. "I'm so sorry," he said. "It's not enough."

"For the amount of stuff I have, It's plenty, believe me." Lex knew perfectly well that wasn't what Simon meant, but he needed his gallows humor now more than ever.

"Lex, it's not enough. The thought of you alone on Beaumonde--it's just--I'm sorry. There isn't enough time for--you, and me, and everything we--this is so goddamned wrong."

"You really must be upset. I don't think I've ever heard you swear."

"Lex, I'm serious."

"I know you are, Simon. I just don't know what you need from me right now."

"Tell me that you need something from me. Tell me you feel something. I don't know--just, please, don't joke about it."

Lex felt his jaw clench, and his fists, and his heart, as something rose up through the layers of control and training. He didn't even try to rein it in. "Feel something?" he said, softly. He could hear the shaking in his voice. He took a step toward Simon. "Fucking feel something?" His volume was rising now, and the last time he could remember being this angry he'd been holding a gun to his father's throat. Simon blinked, standing there with his stupid black case.

Lex advanced on him, tore it out of his hands. Wariness registered in Simon's eyes and Lex wanted to hit the look off his face. "I feel like I'm falling down a mine shaft, okay? Everything and everyone I know has been ripped away from me. I have someone else's dirty clothes and Jayne's least-useful handgun and this--" he shook the bag at Simon before throwing it aside, "--and nothing else, and I'm about to hit the bottom, okay?" He realized that his voice was probably carrying all the way into the common area by now. "How to you think I fucking feel?"

There was a piercing scream from the infirmary. Simon closed his eyes for a moment, wearily.

"Go."

Simon touched his arm then and Lex flung his hand off viciously, knowing it was the gesture of an angry twelve-year-old and not caring. "Just fucking go."

Simon hesitated, then turned and hurried to his sister.

Lex, his breathing fast and shallow, and something hateful caught in his throat, left Simon's room and stalked up the corridor to his own. He forced himself to slide the door quietly shut with shaking hands. He turned and faced the ugly little space. Why wasn't there a bottle of scotch here? Why wasn't there anything here? With an inarticulate shout, he kicked the wall. "Shit!" The pain in his bare toes only made him angrier. He didn't even have a fucking pair of shoes. He turned and put his fist through the flimsy-looking door panel, which splintered sharply. Lex staggered back and slid down the wall, clutching his wrist in the other hand. He sat hunched in the corner, staring, as his blood dripped onto the floor.


"River, River, it's me, it's Simon. Can you calm down?" He gently separated the wrists she was trying to hide behind, quivering and muttering.

"It's all crashing and I can't tell what's true and I can't see where I'm falling anymore--"

"Shhh. Shhh." Simon, out of habit now, mentally registered her words as he calmly stroked her hands, quieting her agitated movements. In the first months after he'd taken her out of that place, he had tried to make sense of her ravings as descriptions of her own state. More recently, he'd realized that she no longer distinguished self from other. There were only nine human beings in her life right now, and she could be speaking about--or for--any one of them. He wondered how she would ever live among people again.

"What frightened you, mei-mei?"

Her state shifted, and she began caressing her own upper arm and shoulder slowly, sensually, her head tilting to one side. It wasn't something he especially wanted to see in his younger sister. She smiled and her eyes drifted shut. Her hand moved toward her breast, and Simon pulled it away. "Please, River, stop."

"That's what I said when he kissed me, but I didn't mean it."

"What? Who kissed you, River? River!" he gripped her shoulders, suddenly alarmed. If Jayne, or Mal, or--God, anyone--had so much as disturbed a hair on her head--

"We were sailing together on the lake. Came in too soon, though. Little boat, big lake. Too soon."

"River? You have to tell me, did someone on Serenity try to--touch you?"

She seemed to reorient herself then, looking directly at him. "Nobody touched me, Simon. Nobody does." Oh thank God. She shook herself free of his grasp on her shoulders and looked away, adding, "Only you." And Simon drew his hands back suddenly, couldn't bring himself to think about what an eighteen-year-old girl might begin to need that no one on Serenity could provide--had better not think about providing. Ever.

Then her face broke into a teasing smile. "Found your belt in Shuttle Two," she said. "Something came undone." Simon closed his eyes and swallowed. This was not happening. Let it not be happening. She put a finger over his lips and said, "Shhh. Simon. It's okay. Mom and Dad don't know. I won't tell."

Oddly, it was this River, the River most like the sane and wonderful little sister he remembered, that he least knew how to deal with. He gently put her hand aside. "It's--complicated," he said after a moment. "You don't need to keep secrets for me, though. I'd tell Mom and Dad myself if we were home."

"I'm sorry, Simon. I want to be whole so you can be whole."

"I know, mei-mei."

She began to wind up again, speaking faster. "There's an old crack in the vase where the water leaks out, and now that he's broken it he's bleeding and it's all cracked and it won't hold together anymore because she's broken, and--and--I can't tell if my hand hurts or my heart or...drowning again..."

Simon could barely follow the trail of her words when she got like this. He just hugged her and waited for it--whatever it was--to run its course. After a few minutes she seemed calmer. As always, after these spells, she was tired. In a way, it was a blessing. "Do you want to sleep for a little while?" She nodded, and he walked with her to her quarters.

When she was settled, he looked up the corridor toward Lex's room. Something seemed to be wrong with his door... Simon took a few hurried steps toward it. There was a jagged hole in one of the panels.

"Lex!" He didn't knock or wait for an answer--just flung the door open anxiously and went inside. Lex was crouched in the corner, staring into nothing, his arms clasped around his knees. His left hand was bloody.

"Wo de tian! What happened? What did you do?" Lex didn't answer. Simon knelt by him and pried his hands loose. Lex's tight crouch collapsed a little. On examination, the hand didn't look too bad--abraded skin and a couple of deeper cuts, no apparent muscle or tendon damage. It had already stopped bleeding. Relieved, Simon glanced over the rest of Lex and didn't see any other obvious injuries. "Let's get this cleaned up."

Lex seemed unwilling to move, so Simon went to the door, thinking to get his medkit from the infirmary.

"Stay." It was barely a whisper.

"All right." He went to the basin and dampened a towel. It was hardly sterile, but at least it would wipe away the blood. Simon crouched in front of Lex, gently dabbing at the cuts. After a while, when Lex still didn't move or respond, he said, "You know Kaylee's just going to replace that panel with a piece of sheet metal, don't you?"

Lex, still staring, exhaled a little in a pained laugh. "Yeah. She'll paint flowers on it." He unlocked his gaze then and turned his eyes to Simon. "I do feel, you know."

"I'm really sorry about that." Simon sat down next to him on the floor, leaned against the wall. "I don't want to fight."

"Neither do I, especially. I'm not sure I know what else to do, though. Luthors fight when they're cornered."

Simon considered that for a moment. "God, that's--that's like a really bad motto on one of those made-up family crests."

"Yeah. It'd probably sound better in Latin. I don't think my father realized how trite he was half the time."

Simon was glad to hear the smile in Lex's voice. He had a really good voice, especially when he began to relax.

"My dad's just..." Simon searched for a word. "Righteous."

"How come he's not doing something to help you with your sister?"

"That's the big question, really. I think he's afraid. I think they're holding something over him."

"Something more important than his daughter?" Lex shook his head. "I wish that were harder for me to imagine, but you're talking to the guy whose father had his brain fried and pretended he was doing it out of love."

"I think your story's worse."

"No. No, I think we may be tied. My father was worse than yours is, but what they did to your sister was worse than what they did to me."

"Well, maybe. But then there's the whole I Lost My Planet Five Hundred Years Ago thing."

"True."

Simon felt the fist that had closed around his heart begin to loosen its grip. "Hey. Did I tell you that Mal wants to have a rule against shipboard romance?"

Lex laughed. "Oh, if only I'd known."

"Why? Then you wouldn't have 'importuned' me the other night?"

"Oh hell yes. I'd've importuned you a day sooner, just to piss him off that much longer."

"You weren't fit for importuning a day sooner."

"I'm sure we could have figured something out."

Simon thought the possibilities there might fill his private imaginings for a long time to come.


They never left Lex's room that night. Sleeping and then waking, tangled in each other, soft and hard, sated and still hungry, the night was like some erotic dream where Simon did things and experienced things he'd imagined and been afraid to want, guided by the most appreciative and expert lover.

The only thing that wasn't like a dream was that when Simon woke up in the morning, Lex was right there, warm, solid, deeply asleep, his limbs in some purely Lex-like sprawl that still managed to be polite. Every time Simon had turned in the night, Lex had made room for him, turned with him, kept him close, let him breathe. They slept together well, Simon thought--at least, what time they'd actually spent sleeping. It was kind of a revelation to know that was possible.

Simon lay on his side, his head propped on his hand, and watched Lex sleeping for a long time, breathing in the scent of their combined bodies, running his eyes over and over Lex's face, trying to commit its lines and planes to memory. He was aroused--again--still--always, around Lex--and considered doing something about it, but then wasn't sure he wanted to be caught at--that. The sounds of daily life on the ship filtered in finally and caused Lex to stir. He opened his eyes, smiled. "Doctor Tam! How nice to see you here."

"It's--really incredibly nice to be here."

"Yeah, it is." Lex pulled him down into a kiss, just a sweet good-morning thing, but it set everything on fire again and Simon pushed into Lex's mouth with his tongue and Lex opened to him, moaning a little, his hands exploring. After a moment he broke off. "Hey, how are you feeling?"

"You mean you can't tell?"

Lex lay back again, regarding him. "No, seriously. Are you all right this morning?"

"I'm fine. Really. Maybe a little uncomfortable. But nothing like any previous--attempt--at...I'm really fine. I wanted to experience it. With you. You were very gentle. And patient."

"I was anything but patient, Simon. That's why I'm asking. I got a little carried away. I'm afraid I didn't take all the time I should have with you."

Simon remembered the feeling of Lex being a little carried away and wondered if it was an achievement he could somehow take credit for. "Huh."

"What?"

"Well, if that was impatient, I'm wondering what a long, slow fuck would be like."

Lex laughed, surprised. "Keep talking like that and we won't be getting to long and slow anytime in the near future."

Everything seemed to go a little colder then. All they had was the near future. Very near. "How's the hand?" Simon asked after a moment.

"The--? Oh, well let's see." Lex pulled his left hand out from behind his head. "It's a bloody mess, actually."

Simon examined it. "Yes. It's been bleeding again. You, uh--seem to have disturbed the scabbing process." Spots of blood were visible on Lex's sheets and pillows.

"Imagine that."

"Don't need to. I was there. I'd like to get a weave on that for you this morning, if you don't mind."

"Certainly, Doctor. Right after I'm done using it." Lex pushed the covers down around his thighs and began stroking himself. His eye's never left Simon's.

Simon watched him for a moment, salivating. Actually salivating. Lex was...gorgeous, and right here, right now, real, and there didn't need to be any future. Simon closed his mouth, swallowed, and said, "You know, as your doctor--your former doctor--I have to recommend against using that hand. I wouldn't want to see it reinjured." He pulled his gaze upward with an effort, and caught Lex's half-smile.

"And what would you recommend instead, Doctor?"

Simon put Lex's hand aside. "I think I'd better show you." He slid down the bed. "Just lie back and relax. This won't hurt a bit."

"You've always wanted to say that, haven't you?"

"Uh-huh."

"Oh, Jesus!" Lex said with a loud groan. "God...you learn fast."

"Good teacher," Simon managed to say before speech became impractical. There was only this moment, and this pleasure, and this overwhelming desire to give Lex everything. "Oh, fuck, that's good," Lex moaned softly, and Simon was happy.


They were in space, so it wasn't as if a day could actually grow gloomier, but Lex felt increasingly oppressed as this one wore on. Simon's trust and unexpected boldness last night, that sweet nature and acidic sense of humor, that body--the combination was compelling, addictive, and Lex was keenly aware of how little time he had to experience it. Beaumonde was only a day away. He was so nervous and agitated that he considered asking Simon for a tranquilizer, except that Simon was taking a well-deserved nap.

Lex went to the bridge, hoping that a view of the starfield would be calming, but the blackness of space today was just endless and cold.

Wash was on his back under the main console, fiddling with wires and swearing in Chinese as the screen above him blinked and wavered. When he saw Lex, he slid out and sat up. "Hey, Lex. How's it goin'?"

"All right. Problems?"

"Nah. Not really. Just trying to get a little better picture on that thing. It's something to do." He abandoned the effort, got up, and took the pilot's chair. "We're gonna put down at Bowe's Prairie on Beaumonde in about--" he checked some readings. "--22 hours. Inara's going to shuttle you to that connection of hers in Marais from there."

"Is she? I didn't know. That's very kind of her." Lex felt his agitation subside slightly. One of his immediate concerns had been how he would find this connection of Inara's in a town a hundred miles from the outpost where Mal's business dealings took place.

"Yeah. You know, we all feel for you, Lex. Some of us even believe your crazy story." The pilot turned to him with look of such concern that it might have been comical in different circumstances. "Shepherd Book, and Kaylee, and Inara and I all asked Mal to let you stay."

"You did?" Lex felt genuinely surprised.

"Yeah. Mal was not to be swayed. As he's fond of pointing out, this isn't a democracy. I'm sorry, Lex. I thought you'd like to know that we tried. We like you."

"I'm touched. I really am. Thank you, Wash. It means a lot to me."

"We like Simon, too," Wash added. "You two seem real...well, I'm just sorry it isn't..."

"Meant to be?"

"Well, I was actually gonna say 'happening in a more romantic location,' but I dunno. We get back to Beaumonde from time to time. Who knows?"

The gloom seemed to lift just slightly. Lex looked back out at the stars and they'd regained some of their ability to inspire awe. He could survive this. He would.


"Are you surprised?" Kaylee asked.

"Completely." Lex looked around the table. Everyone, even Mal, was there. There were candles and some kind of potent beverage that Kaylee called "wine." Lex saw small bowls containing what he suspected were the last of the canned fruits and vegetables, sacrificed for the occasion.

Kaylee kissed him on the cheek and made him sit next to Simon, saying, "We wanted you to know that we're going to miss you."

"'Specially Simon," Jayne said, and everyone laughed. Simon just looked down a little sadly, putting a hand lightly on Lex's leg under the table. High on his leg.

"We can all see that," Jayne said.

Simon looked at Jayne, raised an eyebrow, and to Lex's amusement just said, "And?" Supercilious was kind of a good look on him.

"Aw, geez, Mal, we gotta put up with that?"

"It's a party, Jayne. Have a drink."

Kaylee got up and placed a cloth-wrapped parcel in front of Lex. "This is from all of us. We kinda pooled our resources, and, well, it ain't much, but we all thought you oughta have somethin' more'n a gun to start off your new life with."

"Thank you. Thank you all--very much." Lex looked around the table, then at Simon. "Did you know about this?"

"Not even a hint."

"He's been pretty busy lately. Maybe you've noticed," Wash said, drawing another round of laughter.

"Well, you gonna say a few words?" Kaylee asked.

Lex cleared his throat. "Uh, sure. Yes. Of course." He pushed his chair back and Kaylee whispered in his ear, "That's okay. Everyone'd understand if you didn't wanna stand up."

Simon grinned and withdrew his hand. Lex pulled closer to the table again.

"I realize that not everyone here is convinced of my story," he began after a moment. "But whatever you may believe about me, believe this: I am trying--and completely failing--to imagine a scene like this taking place in my former life."

He had everyone's attention--some of it a little wary. "Then, the parties I went to had the best food and liquor money could buy, live music, and people in designer clothes willing to say and do anything to be my friend. Now, I've got canned food, some very young wine--" he raised his cup to Kaylee and took a sip, wincing, which brought chuckles, "and low-brow humor--not to mention Wash's plastic dinosaurs--as the entertainment." A ripple of laughter went around the table and Wash took a mock bow.

"But above all, what I see here that I never experienced in my old life are people who have shown me enough respect not to lie to me." Lex realized how true it was as he said it, felt a surge of gratitude, took a moment to collect himself. "A group of people who care enough to help me--and are generous enough to accept me--even though some of you suspect I belong in an asylum--" a little gentle laughter in acknowledgment, "--and none of you has a thing to gain from it. So, thank you." He raised his cup again, looked around the table, saw nine other mismatched cups and glasses similarly raised, nine pairs of eyes regarding him openly, nothing to hide. No secrets. He'd proposed a few toasts in his time. This one, he felt. "Here's to the crew of Serenity. You saved me. Thank you."

He drank, and everyone around the table followed suit, with a sprinkling of "Hear, hear," and "Cheers."

"Open your present, Lex," Kaylee said.

He unwrapped the box. His eyes widened a little and he began lifting things out. There was a stack of cash, clipped with a clothespin. Jayne grabbed it and River snatched it back from him, merrily replacing it in the box. Next was a soft, brightly-printed shirt that Lex would have called Hawaiian if only Hawaii still existed. He held it up and said, "Thank you, Wash. I was getting really tired of wearing Jayne's."

"I was gettin' a bit tired of seeing my husband wear that one," Zoe said, possibly the most she'd ever spoken to him. Wash looked scandalized, and then laughed. "Enjoy it. It goes well with the overalls."

Below the shirt there was a pocket knife from Mal--he acknowledged Lex's thanks with a nod--and a familiar slim black case that turned out to be Simon's encyclopedia. River said, "That's from me." At Simon's startled gasp, she said, "Be nice, Simon. He needs it more than you do."

The party went on until the bowls of food were emptied and those who were so inclined had drunk varying quantities of Kaylee's moonshine. The crew began drifting away, and River grew restless, as Lex had noticed she did when she was tired or over-excited. Simon took her back to the dorms.

"Let me dry the dishes, Shepherd," Lex said. "It seems like the least I can do."

Book handed him a towel with a smile, and said, "Jayne? What about a couple of hands of Tall Card now that Lex has given me back one of my chore slips?"

"Yeah, all right, Preacher." The two men sat and dealt the cards. Lex quietly put the dishes away, musing on the strangeness of his fate, and how in this moment he was probably closer to "normal" than he'd ever been. Simon came back into the galley just as Lex was finishing, and said, "She wants to talk to you."

"To me? All right." Puzzled, Lex said good-night to Book and Jayne and followed Simon back to River's room.

She was sitting up in bed. "Go away, Simon. I have things to say."

Simon shrugged and gave Lex a wry look as he stepped obediently out of the room. With a conspiratorial grin, River said, "You can tell him later."

"Okay."

"He's my brother, and he's all opened and filling up with something, honey, crushed red berries that stain his mouth and make him happy."

Lex thought he knew what she meant.

"It's going to be a cold winter for him," she went on.

"Yes."

"For you too." River looked at him solemnly. "I don't want to need him but I still do, and I'm sorry because you bring him the berries and the winter is in me." She watched him closely then, looking for comprehension.

Lex said, "You know how much he loves you, right?"

"Loves you, too."

Lex didn't know what to say to that. He supposed it was possible. Didn't suppose that after tomorrow it was going to matter. River added, "We can't help tearing him in half."

"That's not my intention, River."

"You'll be torn too."

He remembered saying to Simon at the beginning that what he wanted wasn't complicated. But Simon had been right. It was complicated. Lex wouldn't trade their time together for a simpler outcome, and he was pretty sure Simon wouldn't either--not tonight anyway. Tomorrow would be soon enough for them both to regret their choices.

River looked sad for a long moment before emotions started to flit past her features in rapid succession. Simon had tried to explain her condition to him, and Lex couldn't imagine what it was like inside her mind. One of the emotions caught and stuck, and she reacted to it with alarm. "And then he'll come, searching for the key, for so long, finding it and breaking it and tearing... tearing...the key, for such a long long time in the water where he flew his ship, and it's very cold in space, because the yellow recedes and the rocks...the rocks..." Her voice was rising to a soft wail. Lex looked anxiously over his shoulder. "Simon--"

He came in instantly and began his nightly task of soothing her. Lex watched him for a moment, admiring his patience, then turned to go, trailing his hand across Simon's shoulders. Simon glanced up at him and nodded. "Give me a few minutes."

"I'm gonna go get us some more wine."


River's ravings were especially strange this evening, but her agitation subsided quickly enough once Lex left the room, and Simon was able to soothe her without drugs. Quelling an impatience he wished he didn't feel, Simon stroked her hand, feeling her pulse slow again, her muscles relax.

"They all went to the festival tonight," she said with a wan smile. "Even Mal. I was there for a few minutes, Simon."

"You were, mei-mei. I saw you there. It was nice. Do you think you can rest now?"

"I'm fine, Simon. Go be with your boyfriend."

He was never going to get used to this. But at least she was lucid. He left her as she dozed off, and went to Lex's room.

Lex was reclining on his bed, still dressed, a cup of Kaylee's wine in his hand.

"You okay?" Lex asked, offering him the drink and picking up a second one for himself.

Simon rubbed the corners of his eyes and sighed. "Yeah. Yes, thanks." He sat down on the bed and took a sip, grimacing. It was awful, but he actually felt the need of alcohol, and this was the only choice. "What about you?"

"To be perfectly honest, I'm a little--anxious--about tomorrow."

Tomorrow. Dread flooded him at the word. "I can get you something if you need it."

"No, thanks. I don't like feeling this tense, but as it turns out, Kaylee's godawful hooch is working just fine."

Simon took another sip. The stuff was getting more tolerable.

"It's tempting, though," Lex went on, "just because I like seeing you give injections."

Simon had to swallow quickly to keep from choking. "You like..." He choked anyway.

"When I was lying there nearly dead in that desert, and you appeared, giving orders, telling me not to worry, that you were going to take care of me, I knew I was going to live. I couldn't even see you, but just the sound of your voice--well, I felt safe. In good hands."

Simon knew he was staring. Lex must be a bit drunk. "That's nice. To hear. I'm glad I could..." Simon blinked. Stared some more and took another drink himself. Lex pulled down the neck of his t-shirt, revealing the almost-invisible scar of his gunshot wound. "I mean, look at this. It's perfect work. It took skill and caring to stitch me up this beautifully. The people you operate on are lucky to have you. You're the best."

"Well, no, actually--"

"I know, I know: it's what you do. But you do it brilliantly. What can I say, Simon? Competence is a huge turn-on. Come on. You must have heard this before."

"Not...not quite like..." Simon frowned. "Injections?"

"You have a very steady hand. A lot of focus. When you do it, it doesn't hurt. Remember, it's just about the only real medical thing I've seen you do--I was unconscious for most of your virtuosity."

"Yes, most people are. You know, fawning really isn't your best thing."

Lex ignored that. "Come on, Simon. What about other doctors? Nurses? Are you saying that people in the operating room weren't hot for you after some amazing feat of surgical prowess?"

Simon felt himself flush. "There was this one time..."

"Yeah?"

"One of the surgical nurses cornered me after a pericardiectomy--I mean, I'd barely gotten my gloves and gown off. Huh." He shook his head a little to clear the uncomfortable memory. "I always just assumed it was some kind of stress release or something."

"What happened?"

Yes, he would ask. "We sort of--screwed each other senseless, I guess. In a supply room. Without ever saying a word. I'd see her at the hospital afterwards, and it was as if nothing had ever happened."

Lex poured a little more wine into Simon's glass. "Would it bother you to know that I just felt a twinge of actual jealousy?"

"Not even slightly." Jealous? Lex? That was just... "In its strange, cold way, it was a fairly noteworthy fuck." He closed his eyes, appalled. "I can't believe I just said that out loud."

"Uh-huh." Lex slid off the bed and knelt, untying Simon's shoes.

"What's going on here, Lex? What are you doing?"

"You seemed uncomfortable. I thought I'd rub your feet. On the other hand, you just used the term 'fuck' in its classic, literal sense for only the second time since I've known you, from which I surmise that you're already pretty comfortable." Lex cast a pointed look at the wine and grinned.

"I must be." Simon carefully set his glass aside. Lex did something with his thumbs in the arch of Simon's foot. "Ow! Oh, God. That--actually, that feels good."

"Good." He did it again.

"Lex, you're not the foot-massage type."

"Shut up, Simon. I'm enjoying myself." Lex started on Simon's other foot. "You know, I was kind of proud of you this evening."

"Prou--what? How so?"

"You've gone from shy self-effacement to public groping in less than a week."

Oh. That. "I just felt--at home. Relaxed. Among friends. I'm sorry. Was it--did I--?"

"Did I feel offended to you, Simon?"

Simon's hand itched with the memory of the hard ridge under the smooth, worn cotton, and when Lex knuckled the tender spot below his ankle, Simon gasped. Lex was looking up at him with his crooked, sardonic grin. Then he crouched low, almost an obeisance, and kissed the ankle, licking where he'd just caused pain. Simon let out a small moan, tried to collect himself. The foot thing was a little--subservient. Being so aroused by it wasn't entirely right.

"Lex, get up." Simon drew him up, till they were both standing, only their hands touching. He searched Lex's face and saw his anxiety, could practically feel the tautness of him, like a stretched wire humming. "What's going on?"

"I need you tonight," Lex said simply.

"I'm already here. You don't have to win me. The foot massage was nice, but--"

Lex let go of Simon's hands and grabbed his head roughly, pulling him up into a crushing kiss, his thumbs pressing under Simon's cheekbones, forcing his mouth open. "God I need you."

Simon didn't resist. Couldn't. If he could devour all of Lex right now, he would. Keep him, forever inside.

"Don't be gentle with me, Simon. Don't be sweet. I need you to be hard. I don't think I can face tomorrow if you're kind to me tonight." Simon didn't understand, but Lex was clutching him, bruising his lips, thrusting with his tongue, and Simon could taste the wine, smell the tension like copper and electricity coming off his skin, and no amount of Lex was enough. Lex was hard against his hardness, breathing raggedly between greedy, voracious kisses. The tip of his tongue flickered into Simon's ear, sending a jolt directly to his groin. His breath hot and damp, Lex whispered, "I don't want to feel anything tonight except you. I need you to fuck me into oblivion." Simon hadn't known it was possible to be this aroused.

He pulled back, breathing hard, and scanned Lex's face. Saw the anxiety, the haunted look that Lex always kept behind a mask. Simon longed to comfort him, but sensed that that was the last thing Lex needed. He broke away. "Take off your clothes, then."

Lex did, watching Simon watch him. He stripped himself carelessly bare, neither modest nor proud, as if being naked were the same as being clothed. Simon thought that Lex undressing at his command might be the most erotic thing he had ever seen.

As if from another room, or in a dream, Simon heard himself say, "I want to see how you touch yourself."

His eyes dark with lust, his face impassive, his unwavering gaze boring into Simon's eyes, Lex wrapped his hand around his own erection, spread the moisture at its head with his thumb, and began to stroke, his eyes fluttering shut for a moment.

"Wait," Simon said, and Lex actually stopped, gasping a little. Simon grabbed Lex's hand away. Pressed the palm to his mouth and licked, smearing wetness everywhere with his lips and tongue, tasting the dark bitterness of him, sliding his tongue between Lex's fingers. His own face was damp from it when he let it go.

"Now I want to see how you touch yourself."

Lex stroked his length, hard, faster, and Simon had to cross his arms hard to keep from touching himself in response. "God, Simon, I don't know how long I'm gonna last here."

"It's all right. I want to see you come." He was saying things he didn't know he knew how to say. Even in fantasy, he'd never imagined... He felt a surge of something like power.

Lex leaned his shoulder against the wall for support. "Come and help, Simon."

A step and Simon was there, beside him, pressing his own achingly hard erection against Lex's hip. He closed his hand around Lex's fist, moving with him.

He breathed into Lex's ear, heard himself say, "I am so hot to be inside you right now. You're so beautiful." Had he ever not talked like this? Was there a part of him left that knew how to talk to Lex any other way? Lex moaned, speeded up. "You're so close. I can tell. Come for me, bao-bao," and Lex came, groaning loudly, spurting onto Simon's hand, into the room, hot and slick and wonderfully messy. "That's it, bao-bao. God, you're beautiful."

Simon kissed Lex's neck and chest as his shudders subsided, their sticky hands entwined. Lex laughed breathlessly, slumping against the wall, wiping his hands on his bare skin, slowly returning. Simon mouthed the high spot of his shoulder, tasted his sweat, wanted desperately to touch his beautiful head, but refrained, afraid of violating something. Kissed him above his ear instead.

Lex turned to him, pulled his hips close. "You amaze me, you know that?"

Simon couldn't think how it was possible to amaze Lex in any sexual situation, but he accepted the words without question, adding truthfully, "I amaze myself sometimes."

"And," Lex said, grinding into his pelvis and making him groan, "you're very hard." Simon wasn't sure how much longer he could wait. He took Lex by the shoulders, turned him around, and directed him toward the bed.

"So lie down."

"Only if you let me take your clothes off first."

Lex, not currently under the influence of extreme need, smoothly undid buttons, buckle, zipper, hanging Simon's clothes neatly on a hook as Simon stood in the middle of the room, naked and throbbing with desire. Lex came back, traced a light pattern with his fingers over Simon's pelvis, touching absolutely nothing that desperately needed to be touched.

Then he stretched out on the bed, one hand behind his head and his legs carelessly splayed, idly wiping his rib cage and then smelling his fingers. Simon had never really considered the beauty of drying semen before.

Conversationally, Lex said, "Have I mentioned that you have a gorgeous cock?"

"Yes. More than once. I think we've established that our admiration in that regard is mutual."

"Well, do you think you could bring yours over here sometime soon?"

Lex reached Inara's elaborate jar from the floor on the far side of the bed, quirking an eyebrow as he opened it. He dipped his fingers in, raised his knees. "You gonna make me do this by myself?" he asked, and Simon had to clench his fists and close his eyes and take a few deep breaths just to stop himself from coming, right there, untouched.

"Let me," he said after a moment. He knelt between Lex's thighs, breathing in the dark fragrance of his body, spent lust and herbs, the metallic undercurrent evaporating with his sweat. Closing his eyes and feeling his way, Simon smoothed the ointment over Lex, searching with his fingers, lubricating everything, remembering how it was done, how it should feel. Concentrating. Lex made a soft sound and thrust toward Simon's slick fingers, already beginning to harden again.

"An jing, bao-bao. I need a minute. I wouldn't last ten seconds inside of you right now."

"It'd be a memorable ten seconds, though."

"I want more than that."

As Lex let himself be touched, time slowed a little and Simon's body backed away from the precipice of orgasm. Lex murmured, "I like the smell of that stuff."

"So do I. Especially now." A sweet sorrow flooded his body, suddenly, out of nowhere--out of tomorrow, out of imminent reality--and Simon thought of rain, and trees, of Earth-That-Was, of loss.

"What is it?"

Simon shook his head. "Nothing, xin ai." He took a little more of the fine ointment on his fingers, coated himself with it, felt himself grow and stiffen again in his hand. He gently pushed a finger inside Lex, and Lex thrust down onto it. "More," he said, taking his own erection in a slick, hard grip. Simon pushed a second finger in. "Oh, fuck, yes," Lex groaned.

Simon stroked him inside, opening him, smoothing, softening the way, then feeling him relax, pressed forward and up and Lex made a loud, inarticulate sound of pleasure and gasped, "Oh, God, Simon. More."

Simon withdrew his fingers and guided himself in gently, steadily, nearly losing consciousness for a second from the intensity of it.

Lex pushed onto him. "Harder," he demanded. "I need it to hurt."

"No." Simon found a rhythm, steady, slow, Lex's hard ring of muscle impossibly tight around him. "No, I'm not going to hurt you, bao-bei."

And Lex turned his face away then as if he'd been shamed or struck, let his hands fall to the sides, stopped moving. Simon didn't understand, only felt. He thrust deep, all the way, held himself there, buried inside Lex's body, every part of him on fire. "Look at me, Lex."

Lex didn't move.

"Lex, look at me."

Finally, slowly, Lex looked back at him. Hopeless eyes stared into Simon's, everything in his strange, beautiful face haunted and lost. Simon felt some huge pressure building behind a dam in his heart, swelling with the magnitude of Lex's loss, with the pain of the broken place in him that that couldn't be healed. Simon felt he would explode from it. "You've been hurt enough, xin ai."

And he had to begin moving again, pulling outward, sliding hotly back in. "You've been hurt enough." Lex locked his arms and then his legs around Simon, and rode with him, clinging, gasping incoherently as Simon's rhythm increased.

"Oh, my God, Lex, I'm not going to hurt you. I love you. I would never hurt you." And when he saw tears on Lex's face, the dam burst inside him, and Lex arched up into Simon's thrusts, breathing "No" and "Yes" and "Simon" and "Yes" and "Yes" and "Yes" as he shattered into orgasm, and Simon came deep inside of him, crying out in some fierce language without words, and fell onto Lex's chest gasping, tears in his own eyes, utterly spent.

Lex collapsed, sprawling, onto the bed, dashing a hand across his eyes, breathing hard. Simon just lay there on his chest, listening to Lex's strong heartbeat as it gradually slowed to normal. For once, Lex seemed to have nothing to say; he just brought his arms around Simon and held him lightly, wordlessly, the catch in his breath easing little by little, smoothing itself away.

After a while, Simon stretched up and kissed his mouth, then turned and put his back against Lex's solid warmth. Lex curved around him. Sleep came at once, and as Simon was drifting off he heard Lex whisper, "Yeah. Me too, Simon."


PART 5 - RISING - NC-17

MARAIS CITY, BEAUMONDE - 16 MONTHS LATER

"Why aren't we buying these in bulk?" Lex examined the small iron hinge in the dusty light filtering in through his office window.

"They're hand-tooled, Lex. They don't come in bulk."

"Jace, I want you to get on the Cortex and find someone, somewhere--preferably on Beaumonde, but anywhere in the sector will do--with a machine shop that can tool up to make these. Who makes them now?

"Old Mr. Baudoin down on the canal."

"He any good?"

"Sure. That's why Madame Tsang buys from him."

"Let me tell you something, Jace. Madame Tsang buys from him because it's a habit. She hired me to make her more money so she can enjoy her golden years. And we're going to do that by changing some habits. So what else does this Mr. Baudoin know how to make?"

"He does some nice decorative work."

"Railings? Window grilles?"

"Yeah, like that."

"Okay, here's what I want you to do: I want you to go down to the canal and buy a couple of Mr. Baudoin's window grilles. Pick out something nice." Lex peeled several notes off a roll from his pocket and handed them to Jace, then scribbled his address on a card. "Have them delivered to my place in the South Quarter. Then I want you to let him know, as nicely as possible, that we're going to buy our hinges elsewhere, but that Madame Tsang will be ordering all the balcony railings for her new house from him. I'll take care of the rest."

"Got it, boss." Jace strode off.

Lex looked at his watch. Madame Tsang appreciated punctuality. He put on his jacket. A short walk through the factory brought him into view of most of the floor workers. He could have left the building more directly, but it was good to be seen. People didn't do their best work when the boss lived in his office all day.

The hot sun of Marais baked the dusty streets. He walked the short distance to Madame Tsang's residence, squinting, wishing he could find some darker sunglasses. Since his near-death experience on Pacquin, Lex had a hatred for glare and heat that he suspected bordered on the pathological. But he refused to wear a hat.

The servant who answered the door bowed and said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Lex. She is expecting you."

"Thanks, Bai Li. I'll go on in." He passed through the ornate, circular red doors into Madame Tsang's office.

"Alexander! How nice to see you!" This was at least his thirtieth Tuesday afternoon meeting with her over tea, yet Madame Tsang always made it seem as if his visit were a charming surprise. She was a tiny woman whose age Lex estimated to be perhaps sixty. Always formally dressed and coiffed in the Sihnon style, she looked more like the Companion she'd been than the businesswoman she was.

She appraised his appearance frankly. "You have a new suit."

"You were right about Fong. He's very talented. Gave me a good deal, too. Thanks."

"A good tailor is essential for success."

"So I've heard." Lex smiled and sat down, accepting the proffered cup of tea.

"Black suits you. That is certainly a great improvement over the tan duster with the bullet hole you were wearing when you first arrived."

"You should have seen it before we got the blood out of it."

Lex had burned it and the dead man's hat on the same day he'd packaged Wash's overalls and Jayne's hideous Blue Sun t-shirt for shipping back to Serenity, more than a year ago now. He'd kept the flip-flops. They were framed and hanging on his office wall.

"Now then, Alexander, what are you doing for Tsang Industries this week?"

They discussed business--production, shipping, marketing, accounts--until their customary thirty minutes were nearly up. When they'd completed their examination of the balance sheets, Madame Tsang said, "I'm afraid I have made an enemy for you with your recent promotion."

"Oh?"

"Calvin Yamamoto wanted your job."

"Yes. I know."

"You will need to let him go, you know. He will foster resentment in the workers."

Lex sighed. Yamamoto was a competent guy, despite his obvious difficulty accepting Lex, the outsider, as his boss. "I was hoping he'd come around."

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

"He'll be gone by tomorrow."

Her face relaxed. If she paid him more than she'd ever paid any manager in the past, it was because he took care of things she didn't want to dirty her hands with. Lex understood that perfectly. "By the way," he said, "you'll be receiving several decorative iron balcony railings for your new house next week from Mr. Baudoin. If you like, I'll speak to your builder about them myself."

"Ah. So you've found a new source for the hinges. I've wanted to retire Baudoin for years, but he is an old friend. You think clearly, Alexander," she said. "And you have a good heart. But not so good that you make foolish mistakes in business. I appreciate that." She patted his hand. "Oh! Before you go, I have some messages which Inara has asked me to convey to you privately." She handed Lex a large flat envelope.

"Thank you, Madame Tsang."

"I hope it is welcome news from good friends."

"That would be nice."

She never asked him about his past, or even his current life. She knew only that after some early successes in business "somewhere in the Core" he had lost everything and was starting over on Beaumonde. Madame Tsang respected his privacy absolutely, and he had never given her any reason to reconsider that position. This comment was as close as she had ever come to showing curiosity.

When he returned to the factory, he put the envelope, still unopened, on a corner of his desk. He was probably over-anticipating its contents, he thought, but it just had the feel of dessert. Something sweet. He sighed and went to find Yamamoto.

When the factory shift finally ended, the workers trooped out, Jace--his remaining foreman--wishing him a cautious good evening. Lex locked the place up and left, heading on foot for his lodgings in the South Quarter, gradually easing the tension out of his neck and shoulders. He hated firing people. He'd never gotten as good at it as his father expected him to be. He only regretted that on days like today. Yamamoto had taken it badly, even with a generous severance and the promise of a good reference.

As he was putting his key in the door of his lodgings, his landlady accosted him about the two large, paper-wrapped iron window grilles that had been delivered to the alley that afternoon. Using all the Mandarin at his command, which wasn't much, he managed to convey to her that they were for his front windows, they would be installed at his expense, and she could keep them when he moved out.

"Uh...Xin...shi shang," he ventured. "Xing...? New fashion? Big trend? No? You wait and see, Mrs. Lai." She shook her head, threw up her hands, scowled.

He resolved to buy the whole building one day, just to piss her off.

Alone in his rooms at last, he poured himself a glass of the excellent whisky Madame Tsang had given him at New Year. He put his feet up and slid the e-sheet out of its envelope.

It contained two written messages--one from Inara, and, yes, the other was from Simon. Lex tried to repress the feeling of pleasure that arose with that information, and didn't entirely succeed. A few images and a sound recording made up the rest of the communication, his first from Serenity in all this time. It wasn't easy to communicate when one person was a fugitive out in the black and the other was--well, busy. Building a new life from scratch, it turned out, was an enormously absorbing pursuit.

The pictures, from Kaylee, were of the crew in various groupings aboard the ship. They looked about the same and Lex smiled to see them--Mal caught scowling over something on the bridge with Zoe while Wash smiled directly at the camera and waved; Shepherd Book and Jayne interrupted in their weight-lifting regimen, River examining what looked like an orange. Inara and Kaylee, arm-in-arm, laughing. And there was a shot of Simon, taken through the infirmary window, as he sutured some kind of wound on Jayne, completely oblivious to the presence of the camera. He looked good. His hair was longer. Lex grinned. Did Kaylee know that he'd liked watching Simon work, or did she just like it herself?

Madame Tsang is thrilled with you, Inara had written. If she ever implies otherwise, don't believe her.

Lex knew that--knew he'd earned his status with his boss through hard work and results. Liberal doses of urbanity hadn't hurt, either. Madame Tsang was starved for sophistication out here. Inara's note continued.

She says I brought her a treasure the day I brought you to her. I hope she's paying you well. I am so happy for your success. You will run all of Marais before long, I'm sure.

Lex thought that was quite possible.

The sound recording was from Kaylee. "Hey, Lex. Kaylee here. Hi." In the background Lex heard Wash say, "Wen hou, Lex."

Lex had almost forgotten what they sounded like. Kaylee continued: "Mal says to thank you for sending him the fare for the Pacquin-to-Beaumonde run. He says you didn't need to pay him extra for the doctorin', because the doctorin' went both ways--" she giggled, and Lex shook his head, recalling the utter lack of privacy aboard the ship. "--but he thanks you just the same. He put it to good use, too--the money. Bought me a buncha new engine parts! We're out around Shadow right now, which is where Mal comes from, and I'll ask Inara to send this from there. We all miss you and we're glad things're goin' so well for you 'n' all...well, that's about it. I took these pictures for you, and everybody says hi. So, bye. Oh wait! I almost forgot. We're headin' back to Beaumonde in a while. Might be a coupla months or so. Well, bye."

Lex set the sheet down and sipped his drink to knock a little of the edge off the feeling that arose with that news. Wasn't sure how he felt about seeing Simon again, but suddenly, it didn't feel right to call their time together "the intense little affair," as he'd been doing lately in his own mind.

Lex activated the letter.

We have more news of you than you do of us, I suspect, because Inara corresponds with your boss and passes on what she learns of you. Everyone reads between the lines and we've constructed a story: you're building an empire to match the one you lost on Earth-That-Was, trading in exotic goods or drugs. You've become quite mythic.

For myself, I listen mostly for hints of your headline-making sex life, and when I don't hear any, I'm sorry to think you may be lonely. Pathetically relieved, but sorry.

Lex smiled. There actually was a sort of gossip column in the local press, and Lex had already figured in it more than once. Some things just seemed to be in his nature.

River has improved. She seems to tolerate her own condition better, and it makes me think she's constructing new neural pathways around some of the damage that was done. I'm more hopeful than I've been in a long time. We had a near-miss with the Alliance a few months after you left, and I'm afraid they're never going to stop looking for her and trying to take her back. So we keep moving. In her less lucid moments, she still frets about you sometimes. When she's her old bratty self, she's been known to say things about you and me that I really wish my younger sister didn't know. Perhaps you can imagine. But don't. It's disturbing.

Imagine instead that I might have the chance to visit you. I don't even know if that's something you want to imagine, but I live on a ship and I do. Mal thinks we may get back to Beaumonde in a couple of months, and if we do, I want to see you. I've never really stopped missing you. I hope you don't mind.

We would all love to hear from you. I would love to hear from you.

Lex set the sheet down. After a moment he realized that he was already imagining what a visit from Simon would be like--already looking forward to it. He picked up a pen and scrawled a few words in reply across a sheet of heavy paper. He would send it the expensive way, as cargo. Tomorrow, first thing.


THREE WEEKS LATER
ABOARD SERENITY

"Hello, Simon." Inara joined him on the sofa outside the infirmary. "Did you enjoy your visit to the station?"

"I did, actually. I hope River didn't give you any trouble."

"Not at all. It was pleasant to spend time with her. We did a little shopping. It's nice to see her doing so much better. And what did the good doctor do with his free afternoon?"

"The good doctor purchased badly-needed first-aid supplies and put them away neatly in the infirmary. The evil doctor, on the other hand, attended the All-Girl Revue and Pool Hall in the station's lower levels."

Inara laughed. "It sounds very relaxing. That must have been after I saw you at the bookshop."

"Ah. You saw that, did you?"

"You looked very absorbed."

"The coffee there was very good."

"Well, I wonder if I could ask you to come and help me open the crate I received from Beaumonde." She gave him a significant look.

"You mean--?"

"I mean."

Simon could have kissed her. Instead, a few minutes later he walked as casually and sedately as he could to her shuttle while carrying a crowbar from Kaylee's toolbox. The only other time they'd heard from Lex was when he'd sent back his borrowed clothes and the fare he'd promised Mal. There had been no note in that package, only a business card with "Thanks" scrawled on the back of it. Simon tried not to hope that his own letter of a few weeks ago might actually have brought a response.

"Oh, how lovely!" Inara exclaimed when he'd pried the lid off the crate. She knelt and put her hands into the packing straw. Simon looked over her shoulder. There were bottles--bottles and bottles--of what looked like Minerva wine. Simon remembered his first real conversation with Lex, but didn't think it was remotely possible that Lex had remembered it too. "This is not the sort of gift one sends to those lower down on one's New Year list," Inara commented.

"No. This is a very nice wine."

"Shall we cast it before the unschooled palates of our shipmates, or keep it all for ourselves?"

"We should share, don't you think?"

"Ah, here's a card. Will you read it?"

Simon opened it, read it, smiled. Lex had remembered. "It says, 'Dear Inara, Captain Reynolds, Shepherd Book, Dr. Tam, Zoe, Kaylee, River, Jayne, and Wash: I understand that this wine is the perfect accompaniment for formed protein. Enjoy it in good health. Except River. Ask your brother first. All the best, Lex.'"

Inara laughed lightly. "He's very kind." She lifted one of the bottles out and dusted off its label. "And generous. This is nearly 30 years old." She regarded the fine label speculatively for a moment. "Do you miss him terribly?"

Simon sat down. "Sometimes. At night. And, you know, during the day."

She put a hand on his knee. "I'm glad he's thinking of you."

"I'm glad he remembers all of us," Simon answered, feeling the need to correct her.

"Simon, this is hardly the gift of a grateful ex-passenger. You do understand, don't you, that I'm an expert in these matters?"

"I do, yes."

"This is a very specific gesture. He honors you."

"What makes you say that?"

She handed him the bottle she was holding and he took a close look at the label. It was a 2490. A little stunned, he handed it back to her. "It could be a coincidence. It just happens that there was a very good vintage on Minerva the year I was born."

She rolled her eyes and began reassembling the crate. "Everyone knows 2492 was better. This is a tribute, Simon. A very romantic one."

"Lex isn't romantic."

"Possibly not. But I imagine he knows that you are."

And that was more information than he was comfortable with Inara being privy to. "I--uh, I prefer to remain skeptical."

"Yes, of course. It's safer that way. I understand perfectly."

"No. Just--"

She rose and gave him a look, brushing some straw from her dress. "Will you help me get this to the galley?"

"Dang ran."

That evening before dinner, as Serenity pulled away from the station, Simon came into the galley to find Jayne rummaging in the wine crate. "Looks like we got us some first-class hooch," he said, the crate's lid in one hand, a bottle in the other. Simon closed his eyes. Sharing had been a stupid idea. Jayne would probably open the bottle by breaking its neck on the counter.

"Where'd we get this from?"

"Inara received it today."

"Heh. One a her admirers, huh?"

"Something like that."

Jayne gave up trying to make sense of the label and set the bottle down, turning his attention to the crate lid. "There's a paper stuck on here. Says, 'I want...to...I--im--imagine. It.'" He looked at Simon, puzzled. "'I want to imagine it.' What's that supposed to mean?"

Simon froze, his hand on the bottle. Turned to Jayne--not too eagerly, he hoped--and grabbed the crate top from his hands. "I'll take that."

"What're you all smilin' about, Doc?" Jayne called after him as he left the galley in the direction of his room. "That some kinda secret code?"

"Yes. Something like that."


MARAIS CITY, BEAUMONDE - TWO MONTHS LATER

Beaumonde had seasons. Cold air settled over Marais and stayed there for a few weeks out of the year, a sort of winter, sometimes bringing the temperature down near freezing. Last year, Lex had gotten through it inelegantly with a sweater stuffed under his only suit jacket. The walk to Madame Tsang's previous winter ball had been a chilly business. This evening a black overcoat, bespoken of Mr. Fong, kept him warm. He had gloves now. A heavy silk scarf, more than one pair of shoes. In Smallville, his wardrobe had occupied a room almost as large as his whole apartment in the South Quarter. These few articles were the source of far more satisfaction.

People in couples and groups nodded or smiled as Lex passed. The less fortunate huddled against the chill, and either stared resentfully at Lex in his expensive coat, or turned away from his apparent authority. He knew many of their faces--the regulars--but there were always more. People on Beaumonde lost jobs and homes all the time. Lex was doing his part by creating a profitable, growing business. But he couldn't explain that to those he passed in the street.

One man seemed to watch him furtively, his face concealed in the shadows, and Lex reached into his overcoat in a gesture that said he was armed. When Lex looked back, the man had gone. Marais was civilized enough for an outer world, but street killings weren't unheard of, and a concealed weapon was a popular fashion accessory. The small handgun Jayne had given him still served as Lex's insurance.

Madame Tsang's new house was ablaze with lights and filled with members of Marais society. She broke away from a conversation with the mayor of Marais and the mayor's husband to greet him when he entered. Faces throughout the large room turned to notice this mark of distinction.

"Welcome, Alexander!"

"Madame Tsang," he said, bending over the hand she extended. He took pleasure in walking the line between formality and scandal--just as he had in his former life. She laughed. "You linger over my hand as if I were a lover."

"Let 'em wonder." He gave her his best confidential smile, aware that half the room was still watching. "If you weren't my boss, you know..."

She swatted his arm with a folded fan. "Enough. Vivian Chen is here."

Lex spotted Vivian standing to one side of the elaborate buffet, near the bar. One of the most hard-nosed businesswomen he'd ever met, she was in her mid-thirties, attractive in a cool, sleek way. Shortly after Lex's first promotion in Madame Tsang's organization--cleaned up a bit, dressed decently, living on his own in the South Quarter--Vivian had come after him. She'd given him one of the best blowjobs he'd ever had, then offered him a management position in her firm. He'd turned her down and she'd laughed. "I'm pretty sure I'd be paying you better than Li-Mei does, and I know I offer better benefits."

"One of the things I like best about working for Madame Tsang," Lex had told her, "Is that she's almost old enough to be my grandmother. I never need to worry about running into her in the South Quarter at night, or explaining my after-hours life to her. She trusts me, and she never shows the slightest interest in my cock. Working for you would be a disaster, Viv. I'd almost certainly take over your company before you're ready to let it go, and then we'd be enemies, and there'd be complications and hard feelings, and I don't want that."

Vivian renewed her offer from time to time, usually at social events. She was dressed tonight in something form-fitting and crimson, with a row of buttons down one side from neck to thigh. Lex wandered toward the bar.

"Lex."

"Vivian. Enjoying the party?"

"It's lovely." She took a sip from her glass and gazed at him over its rim. It was a classic come-on for a reason, Lex thought, and it looked particularly good on her. "Have you seen much of the new house?"

For Vivian, that was amazingly indirect and subtle. He just looked at her.

"Well?"

He shrugged, grabbed a glass of wine from the bar, and followed her out of the room and up the formal staircase, wondering if he would even get the chance to undo the dozens of buttons on her dress.


Simon found his way to the address Inara had given him, no idea what to expect. As he waited in the evening darkness for someone to answer the bell, he noted the solidity of the iron gates, the brightly varnished wood-and-glass door behind them. Warm light spilled from several windows, a couple of which were protected by ornate grillwork. The building, though old and not ostentatious, gave an impression of comfort and substance. It reminded Simon a little of his father's university club in Capital City.

"Ni hao?" A Chinese woman opened the door and Simon mentally switched to Mandarin.

"Good evening. Mr. Luthor, please."

"Mr. Luthor's out this evening. Madame Tsang's winter ball. Come back later."

"I wonder...I just flew in--perhaps I could wait here for him?"

The woman looked him up and down through the gate. He must have met some standard, because she opened it and grudgingly let him in. The winter coat was in better condition than most of his other clothes. He supposed it still let him pass for respectable.

"You can wait here. You a friend of his?"

"Yes." Simon was nervous enough without answering the questions of a nosy concierge.

"You speak good Mandarin. How come he doesn't?"

"I--uh, I believe he grew up where it wasn't spoken."

"He's from the Core. Everyone like him speaks Mandarin there. Even in Londinium."

Simon grew curious. "So, how do you communicate with him?"

"Bad Mandarin, good money. He pays his rent on time."

"I see. Well, if it's no trouble to you, I'll just wait here for him. Does he--do you know how late--?"

"Busy man. Works early. Usually home by midnight."

It was only a little past 9:00. Simon had hoped to arrive earlier in the day, but his schedule was at the mercy of Mal's, and Inara's, and their respective business dealings. He picked up a newspaper that was lying on a side table in the foyer, and prepared to wait.

He read all the Marais news of the previous week--no headlines of Lex, or even small print, though there was a brief article about an expansion of operations at Tsang Industries, and Simon wondered if Lex was involved. He really knew nothing about Lex's work.

He could assess Lex's new surroundings, though. Two or three residents came and went, and he studied them. They were well dressed, the sort of people Simon had been at university with, if not quite the sort whose country-house parties he had frequented. Suddenly aware of how far he was from the Tam estate, how removed from the heaps of money and prestige he'd earned for himself as a surgeon on Osiris--Simon wondered just how much Lex had changed.

God, I don't belong here. He tried to remember what had prompted him to make this ill-advised visit. Oh, that's right. Inara. Inara had encouraged it. Inara the expert. Serenity's schedule had been unusually erratic; by the time they knew they were coming to Beaumonde, they were out of communication range between worlds, and by the time they were in approach to the planet, it seemed simpler to show up than to send an advance wave.

Simpler and safer. Advance notice would have given Lex the chance to ask him not to come. This way, Simon would at least see him. Whatever happened after that, he could live with.

Each time the front door opened, the cold night air swept in and Simon looked up. He paced the small area several times, examined every undistinguished framed print on the walls, and, as the first hour of waiting stretched into a second, grew increasingly unsure of his decision. What if he doesn't come home alone? Or at all? He must have a lover. There was no way Lex didn't have a lover. Simon told himself that that would be all right, that he just wanted to know that Lex was well.

By the time two hours had passed, he wondered if he even remembered Lex's face. Sometimes he couldn't call it to mind, and all he retained were impressions, quick sketches: the flip-flops, the line of his jaw when he turned his head, the sound of his brief, rare laughter at one of Jayne's obnoxious jokes, the way his arms felt in bed at night.

Odd to think that they had spent only four nights like that. They'd known each other for twelve days. Nine and a half, if you discounted the time that Lex had been unconscious.

Simon began counting other things. I did one surgical procedure. Repaired two bullet wounds and three significant sand-rat bites. Serenity took off twice and landed twice in those twelve days. We ate perhaps sixteen meals together with the crew. Quite a few private ones.

He wasn't sure how to count the sex. Number of orgasms seemed better than number of encounters. After careful review, he settled on a figure of twenty--maybe twenty-one--between them, the balance a little in his own favor just because Lex was generous that way. Simon wondered if that would be as phenomenal to anyone else as it seemed to him. He began to feel a little obsessive categorizing the pleasure by how it had been arrived at, and moved quickly on.

Since Lex had left Serenity, nearly eighteen months had passed, during which they had exchanged no more than one letter, one case of wine, and one five-word note. He was insane to be sitting here, practically on the man's doorstep. It was an ambush.

He made up his mind to leave. He would find a room somewhere with what little cash he had, and consider coming back in the morning, in the cold light of day. The nosy concierge would certainly tell Lex he'd had a visitor. Then Lex would have time to prepare, put on whatever mask he needed. It would make everything easier.

Simon rose, went back out into the cold night, and started down the street.

"Been waiting long?"

Simon whipped around, and Lex was there, one hand raised to put his key in the gate. He looked--wonderful. Dressed in black, a gray scarf draped casually around his neck, his nose and cheeks a little red from the cold. Simon just stared.

Lex strode forward smiling, his arms opening, and Simon felt himself embraced, his chin against the sumptuous fabric of Lex's overcoat. He couldn't speak. Relief flooded him, making him a little dizzy. He's alone. Not annoyed to see me. Even happy. This is promising. But the hug could be just fraternal. Maybe Lex hugged everyone.

"It's good to see you, Simon." Lex pulled back--much too soon--and regarded Simon. His face was relaxed, and his eyes lit up with the sardonic smile that Simon had thought of so often. He smelled a little of wine and perfume. "You're looking well."

"Thanks. So are you. Really well."

Lex stepped away then, indicated the gate. "Come in! It's cold out here." Brisk, almost businesslike. Good people skills. Simon felt his anxiety melt into a sort of sweet disappointment. Lex was happy to see him the way he'd be happy to see any old friend. Simon had tried to keep his expectations well below Inara's on this. Lex held the door open and they went inside.

"I've been at a party," Lex said in the foyer. "You'll have to excuse me--I've had a few drinks. Come on up." He indicated the stairs. "My boss throws this huge shindig every year. Hard to believe that this was my second one."

"Yes. Hard to believe." Simon was struggling to put on the casual demeanor he'd brought along in case the situation turned out like this.

There were only two doors in the second-floor corridor. "This is me," Lex said, opening the one on the left and ushering Simon inside. The floor, Simon noticed, was polished. Soft light came from a couple of lamps, and there were two comfortable-looking chairs. A table, a decanter, a desk, some kind of graphic art on one wall. Lex closed the door behind them.

From nothing--from less than nothing--to all this in a year and a half. It was amazing. Simon felt a little silly. He'd been remembering and imagining the wounded, lost Lex who had needed him. This Lex--the real Lex--was clearly doing just fine on his own.

Well, Simon thought, at least we can have a drink, catch up. Then I can go find that room I was planning on anyway, and sink quietly into my own shame till Inara's ready to go back to the ship. He found a smile somewhere and turned to Lex. "Nice pla--" and Lex's mouth was on his, Lex's hands were inside his coat, Lex's body was pressed against him, and he couldn't breathe, and he didn't care.

"Someone was following me," Lex said when he broke at last for breath. "We needed to get inside. God, I've been thinking about this since I got your letter."

"Only since then?"

Lex paused in pushing Simon's coat off his shoulders and laughed into his neck. Then he straightened and eased the coat off more carefully. "I would really like to throw you on the floor right now and make up for some serious lost time," he said sociably, putting the coat away in a closet and removing his own. Simon, through the haze that idea created in his brain, noted the expensive cut of the suit Lex was wearing.

"But...?"

"But let's be civilized. Have a drink. Talk for a while." Lex poured what looked like whisky into two heavy glasses and handed one to Simon, indicating the armchairs. "Are you hungry? I could probably get someone to bring us something."

"I'm fine, thanks." Simon sat, a bit confused about what was happening. Lex went to the window and peered out into the street for a moment before dragging the other chair closer to Simon's and sitting down himself.

"Then let me get this out of the way first. I've just come from what I remember you once describing as 'a fairly noteworthy fuck.'"

"I see." Okay. Confusion cleared. Sort of. This was bad. But his lips were still throbbing from that kiss, so...not entirely bad.

"It was strictly--recreational. I thought you should know."

"I appreciate it. I think."

"She's a business associate. A bit of a shark, really. Vivian Chen. It's been an arrangement of convenience for the past year. We screw at parties, then pretend we don't know each other during the course of business. It's very uncomplicated." Lex sipped his drink. "It does mean, however, that I'm a little worn out."

Simon nodded. The frankness was pretty bracing. He'd forgotten. After a moment, finding no worthwhile comment to make on Vivian Chen, he said, "So, you're being followed?"

"Someone approached me on my way to the party, and I had a feeling someone was dogging my steps all the way back. Could have been the same person, or it could have been my imagination. This isn't the safest part of Marais."

"The building seems secure enough."

"Oh, it is. I've been beefing it up."

"Wait--you own the building?"

"Not yet."

No, Lex really didn't need him at all any more. And yet here, relaxed and powerful in his natural habitat, he was unbelievably attractive. Just looking at him was enjoyable. Simon began to reassemble the parts of himself that knew Lex's world. It had been awhile. "Your concierge-person downstairs wants to know why your Mandarin is so terrible when you have friends whose Mandarin is so perfect."

"That's Mrs. Lai, the current owner of the building. What'd you tell her?"

"That you were raised by demons. English-speaking demons."

Lex laughed. "Well, then she won't be surprised when I magically buy this building out from under her." He shifted down in his chair and threw one leg casually over the arm, dangling his glass by its rim. He looked at Simon for a long, intense moment, and Simon felt his heart rate go up a bit. "I'm really glad you're here. I've missed you."

"I'm happy to hear it. Both parts. I've missed you too."

"How long can you stay?"

"I have several contingencies." Ten-thousand, to be exact, he thought.

"You'll stay with me."

"That was one of them." My favorite one.

Lex stood, loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt, and Simon tried to remain calm. "Then I have something that you are really going to enjoy. Come with me."

Simon followed him into the next room. Which was his bedroom. Simon still tried to be casual, but he couldn't help noting Lex's bed with intense interest. It was large, high, covered with some kind of rich-textured cloth, and it looked very comfortable. But Lex kept going, opened a second door, and revealed a bathroom. A real one. With a shower. After Lex himself, it was the most beautiful thing Simon had seen in two years. It was small, clearly retrofitted. Lex hurriedly snatched a damp towel from the floor and grinned. "Housekeeper comes tomorrow."

He took off his suit jacket and hung it up, offered Simon a spare hanger for his. Sat on the bed to take off his shoes and socks. Stood again and got out of his trousers and the silky boxers underneath. Unbuttoned his shirt, wadded it up, tossed it aside. A tall mirror in the corner reflected his nakedness, two beautiful Lexes. Simon watched silently, wondering how this pleasure had come to be his. This was Lex as he should be. Dressed in--undressing out of--fine clothes in a room of quiet luxury. Even fresh from casual sex with an aggressive businesswoman. That fit, too. Simon realized that he'd known this Lex from their very first conversation. Nothing had really changed except the circumstances.

And this Lex was his, at least for the moment, Simon realized. He could look, and touch, and taste, and smell, and give himself to Lex as freely as he'd ever imagined during the long months since they had parted.

"Would you like to come and help me wash Vivian Chen off my skin?"

Simon nodded and began unbuttoning his own shirt.

The water was hot and plentiful, and as it warmed Lex's body, Simon could smell the woman's perfume on him. Could smell her. Lex pointed to his neck and said, "Here," and Simon wiped it gently with a cloth lathered in herbal soap, noting the bruise she had left and wondering if Lex had liked receiving it.

"Here," Lex said, his hands indicating his chest. Time slowed as Simon washed away her touch and replaced it with his own, lingering over the nipples, first with the cloth, then with his tongue, feeling them harden, feeling himself harden with them. Lex was tired, quiet. Simon raised Lex's arms, draped them over his shoulders, reached around to lather Lex's back, his neck, up and down, holding him close, remembering how he had once bathed Lex's unconscious body, wondering if this--all of this--had started at that moment. Wondering if even then, he had already fallen.

And when his back was clean, Lex pointed at his mouth and said, "Here," and Simon washed his face studiously, the cloth over his fingers, smoothing and then rinsing away the party, the taste of her body. Followed the cloth with kisses, slow and soft and deep, and Lex let him.

"Here," and Lex held his stiffening erection lightly in one hand. Simon knelt and lathered it, and under it, fascinated by it as he had always been. Imagining some woman's mouth around it only made him want it more. He took it into his own mouth, and Lex moaned.

Simon loved the weight of it on his tongue, the sound Lex made when he sucked, and the other sound Lex made when he pulled back and licked the head of it, and he gave his attention for several long, slow moments to drawing these sounds out of Lex. The little groan of disappointment Lex gave when he stopped pleased Simon most of all.

Simon washed Lex's feet then, and his smooth legs, and with the shower running over his head and the warm water dripping off his hair and his eyelashes, he guided Lex to turn around.

"Here?" he asked, sliding the soapy cloth into his cleft, down between his legs, and back up to circle the tight hole.

"She doesn't touch me there."

"I do."

Lex bent and leaned his head on his arms against the wall of the little shower. Simon set the cloth aside and, using his hand to channel hot water down the cleft, plunged into the stream with his tongue, delighted at the quiet, wordless whimper this brought from Lex, barely audible over the water. Simon needed to hear more, did it again. And again. After a while he rose and pressed himself to Lex's back, his palms finding Lex's nipples, his own erection sliding against wet skin.

He reached down to stroke Lex's hard length, kissed his shoulder and the side of his neck, and, feeling free--even daring--said, "God, I want you inside me." When Lex's head went back, his eyes closed in pleasure, Simon tongued his ear and he groaned, nodding. "In a little while."

Then Lex bent to retrieve the soap and the wash cloth, and Simon couldn't imagine anything he'd ever done that merited being bathed in return by Lex. The cloth was slightly rough, the soap rich and fresh-smelling. Lex seemed to understand how long it had been since Simon had felt completely clean, the months on end of bathing from a basin of lukewarm water, living in re-circulated air. Lex lathered his skin in large strokes, everywhere twice, three times, his languid tiredness making him almost--tender. Simon wanted to melt into Lex's hands in pleasure, and had to interrupt Lex's ablutions to kiss his mouth again. He had imagined this reunion a hundred times, a thousand, and had never imagined anything this good.

Lex washed Simon's hair. Pushed it back, streaming, from his face, let him stand under the hot spray and turn, and turn, as months of life on Serenity, life without being touched, flowed down the drain.

They emerged from the shower together. Lex pulled down one of his fine white towels, but Simon took it from his hands and dried him, just to touch him some more. While Lex looked on, he took another towel and dried himself, draping it around his neck when he was done. Lex pulled him close with it, raised it behind his head and blotted the water from his hair, gently rubbing. Lex kissed him. Even smiled.

Simon put the towel aside, took Lex's hand, and led him back into the bedroom and to the side of the high, wide bed. Turned to face it, his back to Lex, pulling him close behind. Simon saw their two bodies reflected in the mirror, lines and curves and planes, his own head dark, Lex's pale and perfect above it, Lex's strong arms encircling his shoulders.

"I don't want to hurt you," Lex murmured.

"You never did. You never have."

"Can you feel how hard I am?" And he guided Simon's hand and Simon felt, and stroked, and pressed himself harder against it and said, "I want that. All of it."

Lex laid him gently over the bed, and Simon turned his face from the mirror, not sure if he could stand the intensity of seeing. Lex's hands moved soothingly along his back, down, relaxing him, spreading his legs and reaching between, caressing. "Are you sure?" Lex asked after a few minutes. Simon nodded. He felt languorous, relaxed by the shower, hard but not urgent.

Lex knelt to the floor behind him. Simon felt his tongue moving up the back of his thigh, and his own breath quickened a little.

"We have time," Lex murmured, kissing, spreading him with his hands. "We have privacy." Lex's hot breath moved upward, his tongue flicking out at the base of Simon's spine, the tender start of his cleft. "I don't feel rushed. Do you?"

"No."

And Lex spread him wider, running his tongue down, and around, and when he pushed the tip of it inside, Simon gasped.

Lex drew back, leaned over him to reach for something. Simon heard the sound of a jar being opened, smelled jing wan hong.

"I wish I could tell you I've been saving this," Lex said, "But I used it all. On myself. Mostly." At the moment, Simon felt he could live with mostly. "I had more made." Lex's fingers slid into him and he groaned. "All right?"

"Yeah. 'Sgood. Good." Simon rested his cheek on the rich coverlet. Lex kissed the small of his back and up his spine while the fingers were working in him. "Oh my God, that's good." Simon felt Lex withdraw his fingers, and before he could feel the loss, they were back, stroking, deeper. And withdrawn again.

He had to look. He turned his face toward the mirror and saw Lex bent over him, his hands working, opening him wider, and he cried out and couldn't stop himself from thrusting up and back.

"Shh. Just let me in easy."

"It's all right, Lex. You aren't going to hurt me."

"It's been a while."

"I trust you, Lex. I always have." Lex was above him, on him, standing between his spread thighs. Simon watched, mesmerized, as Lex slicked himself with the jing wan hong, looking directly at him from the mirror. The sight sent a hard pulse of fire straight to his groin and he let his eyes fall closed with it.

"No. Watch, Simon."

Lex had himself in a hard fist, two or three quick, firm strokes and Simon couldn't look away.

"You've thought about me since I left, haven't you?"

"So often."

"You say things when you imagine me there with you. I know you do."

"I do."

"Say them now. Tell me how you think of me."

Simon didn't have to think. "Wo de tian, bao bao. I want you so much. God, I miss you so much."

Lex penetrated him then, gently, only a little, withdrew again, and Simon couldn't prevent the loud moan that escaped him. "Oh God, Lex. Please. I've waited so long. Don't hold back."

Lex thrust in again, a little more this time, and it was more intense than Simon remembered. "More, xin ai. I need you to bury that beautiful cock of yours inside me. Please, Lex. Fuck me. Hard. Now."

"God, Simon, do you know how hot you are when you talk like that?" And Lex's hands came around his hips, and he pushed into him, and as Simon watched in the mirror, he pulled back out, all the way, and went in again, deeper. "Don't ever talk like that for anyone but me." And all Simon could do was thrust himself back and say, "Oh my God, Lex, sweet, bao-bao, more. Fuck me. Yes. Just like that. Yes."

Driven down onto the bed with each thrust from Lex, Simon could only close his eyes, hang on, and be ridden. The friction from the bedspread heightened his own erection but it was the sound of Lex's voice that brought him close to the edge. "Are you mine?" he panted into Simon's ear. Lex was moving faster now, more urgently, breathing heavily and loudly.

"You know I am."

"Tell me again." Lex was close now, tensing, but still controlled.

"I'm yours, Lex. You own me. I need you, like this, all the time."

"God, Simon, you wanna know how hard I come when I think about you?'

And incoherently Simon understood that Lex had thought of him, and touched himself, and made himself come remembering him, and Simon felt himself suddenly over the edge and cried out, pulsing hot and slick between his belly and the bedspread. "Oh...ji du...Lex," he gasped. "Come for me now, baby. Oh God. Lose it in me."

"Oh fuck, Simon. Oh God, that's it." And his voice went ragged, and on a final, hard thrust he rasped, "Oh God, Simon."

Simon felt him shudder and collapse over his back, heard him breathing hard, gasping with each exhale, his body covering Simon's, pressing it down, heavy and intensely reassuring.

After a few moments, Simon felt him pull out, felt the emptiness as Lex rolled off him, onto the bed on his back, and lay panting, one hand on his chest, the other flung carelessly against Simon. Breathless himself, Simon watched Lex coming back down, a sheen of sweat and the flush of orgasm on his face and chest, more beautiful than he remembered.

"God, you're sweet," Lex groaned after a long moment. "That was--" He waved a hand, let it fall, finding no word.

"Better than Vivian Chen?" Simon prompted.

"Oh hell yes. So much better than Vivian."

And that was all Simon needed to hear. "I liked it too."

Lex gave a breathless chuckle and tapped him with the back of his outflung hand. "I noticed."

Simon got up then and went into the bathroom, wrung hot water through one of the towels, carried it to Lex. Went back and rinsed himself off, and the pleasure of simply cleaning up a little after sex--with hot water--was wonderful.

Lex was under the covers when he got back, the wet towel on the floor. Simon picked it up, feeling a bit sheepish, and took a few swipes at the bedspread.

"Quit fussing and get in here." Lex flung the spread back and onto the floor.

Simon tossed the towel in the general direction of the bathroom. He climbed into the bed and couldn't stop a loud sigh of pleasure. "Even without you in it, this bed would be the best thing on Beaumonde."

"And with me in it?"

"Best thing in the 'verse."

"You sound like Kaylee."

"Can I sleep with you here tonight anyway?"

"I dunno, Simon. What's in it for me?"

"I'll be your love slave forever."

"I thought that's what you were already."

"Well, now I'll be your sleeping love slave." Simon turned so that his back was to Lex, and Lex put an arm around him, pulled closer.

"So how is everybody? I really meant to ask sooner."

Simon laughed a little, sleepy. "Everyone's well. Busy for a change. Lots of cargo. Some of it legitimate. They all send their regards."

"Mm..." Lex was drifting. "Been masterminding any crime yourself?"

"No. But I did perform an emergency appendectomy on the captain of a freighter out past Shadow, and he paid with a hundred cases of stolen chocolate. Did pretty well on that deal."

"Guy got off cheap," Lex muttered, nearly asleep. "Bastard."

"You'd be amazed what chocolate goes for out toward the Rim."

Lex's arm went relaxed and heavy over Simon's body, his breath slowing to a shallow, regular rhythm. Simon smiled, took Lex's hand, kissed his knuckles, held the hand to his heart. Lex's fingers curled instinctively around Simon's and he jerked awake again, muttered, "Sorry, Simon. Really wanted to do more for you. Love making you come... In the morning..." and he was gone again.

"It was wonderful, xin ai," Simon whispered.

He stayed awake for a few moments, listening to Lex sleep, before finally letting himself drift off. At some point, much deeper in the night, he woke just enough to notice that Lex was still there, still touching him, and he sank back into sleep. And later yet, he turned and felt Lex shift with him, pull him close, and he wondered how he had ever done without this. How he'd ever be able to again.

Simon couldn't tell how much later it was when a sound awoke him. He opened his eyes. A man was sitting across the room, staring at him. "Tian xiao de!"

"Mmm..." Lex muttered. "What is it, Simon?"

Never taking his eyes off the intruder, Simon said, "You have a visitor."

Lex came awake behind him, sat up. "What the hell--? Who are you? What do you want?"

"Lex Luthor?" the man said. He rose and came toward the bed. "Are you Lex Luthor?" He was tall, broad, looked strong. Simon was up, a sheet pulled around his waist, no idea of what he planned to do, just a sense that he would stand between this intruder and Lex. Lex was fumbling for the light, and finally got it turned on.

"Oh my God," he breathed. Simon turned to see a look of stunned disbelief on Lex's face as he stared at the man. "Clark?"


PART 6 - WAKING - PG

A chilly day was dawning and Marais was waking up. Simon walked, his hands deep in his coat pockets and an icy weight in his belly. He'd been walking for more than an hour, and he was lost. Lex had barely noticed him leaving. He'd been too engrossed in the intruder. In Clark.

Simon had watched Lex guide Clark to a chair gently, offer him food and water. He'd watched Lex pace, reining in his impatient questions, asking them one at a time. "How did you get here?" was the first. "How did you find me?"

Lex never turned to Simon, not even to introduce him to the famous Clark. The man--not a boy at all, and nothing like what Simon had pictured--was clearly unwell, his skin stretched too tightly across features that were like a caricature of youth, his eyes on fire. Simon had not been able to place his condition. The paper-thin skin and gauntness reminded him of patients in the latter stages of wasting disease. The eyes that couldn't settle anywhere, the burned-out hollowness of him, looked something like drug addiction. The bizarre content of his speech bore more than a passing resemblance to schizophrenia.

Clark rambled in the realm of fable and myth, not much different from the crazy Earth-That-Was stories abounding on the Cortex. He claimed to be an alien. Claimed to be more than five hundred years old. Lex had been absorbed in--seemed to believe--every word of his story, directing that intense, one-pointed focus of his on Clark. Clark, who was supposed to be long dead. Just a sad memory.

Unnoticed by either of them, Simon had watched Lex listening, and had felt the perfect warmth of the night bleed slowly away. An unbearable agitation finally drove him from the apartment. Lex had looked up only long enough to give him a helpless glance as he slipped out the door.

Simon began to be aware of his surroundings. The day was bright and cold. He seemed to have arrived in an industrial district. Workers were trudging toward small factories. A tea vendor was setting up and Simon ordered oolong and bao zi, politely nodding at the vendor's excited talk of some violent crime that had taken place in the neighborhood during the night. The tea scalded Simon's mouth and throat, the cup warmed his hands. He drained it and moved on without speaking. The tension that had carried him this far began to unwind, and every thought he had made him wince.

Clark. The boy Lex had said he loved--had fallen in love with--in his old life. Here. Now. A deranged man telling preposterous stories. It made no sense, tallied with nothing Simon knew or believed about Lex. All Simon could think was that he had believed lies, and he didn't think there was enough derision in the universe to heap on his own gullibility.

Simon eventually spotted a communications point and sent a wave to Inara. "I'm ready to return to Serenity," he said. "I'll wait for you where you dropped me off. No hurry. I'll just be there."

He found the place somehow. There was waiting. Then more waiting. Enough that the whole visit to Beaumonde was starting to seem like nothing but waiting. And all for one moment of happiness that he couldn't think about anymore because it kind of--hurt, now.

"Simon? Honey, what's wrong?" Inara was kneeling in front of him. He seemed to be on a bench in the waiting area. Didn't remember choosing it or sitting. Couldn't quite tell how long he'd been there. She seemed to see something in his face--he had no idea what, because he didn't feel a thing himself--and said, "Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry. Oh, I'm so sorry."


Lex knew he needed to be thinking very clearly--more clearly than an interrupted night of sex and sleep ordinarily allowed. Much more clearly than he could do while dividing his attention between Simon and Clark.

Clark. Jesus. Lex couldn't expect Simon to understand what he didn't understand himself. And it was critical that he come to an understanding of it immediately.

Clark. Sitting right there in his living room, looking as if he'd aged fifteen or twenty years and suffered a serious illness. Clark, claiming not to have been transported through time, but to have lived through it. It was so bizarrely unexpected and--well, impossible--that Lex was still reeling from it, and that was affecting his ability to focus. He was more tense and wound up than he'd been for months.

Simon came out of the bedroom, looking as if he'd dressed in a hurry. He practically tiptoed past them, obviously trying to make himself scarce, which was polite, but unnecessary. He was going into the kitchen, and Lex hoped he'd make some coffee, but couldn't think about that now. One thing at a time--that was the only way to arrive at clarity. Forcing his mind to slow down was adding to his tension.

He hadn't thought of his old research into the mystery of Clark Kent since his awakening into this new life. He needed those memories back now. Think. Clark had been inhumanly strong--there had been plenty of evidence of that. Clear evidence that he could be struck by a fast-moving car and emerge without a scratch. Even that he was bulletproof. That could add up to a sort of immortality. Clark could be five hundred years old. It was no more impossible than Lex's own story.

Lex turned to Clark, drew a breath, and asked the question that, unasked, had turned their friendship to dust. "You're not human at all, are you?"

"No. Of course not, Lex. Humans can't live this long. I'm Kryptonian. I'm the only one left of my kind."

I was right all along, Lex thought in a brief moment of vindication. Then there was bitterness. "You know, Clark, that's a secret that I would have protected with my life. With my life. You never trusted me enough to see that."

Clark's expression became confused. "I'm sorry. I don't remember that. It was before I was remade."

Lex let it go. It didn't really matter anymore.

"You were already gone by the time I came out of the cave," Clark explained. "All I knew was that I was supposed to remember you--your name, and your face. I was supposed to start looking for you after four or five hundred years."

"You mean you knew that I'd been sent forward in time? You knew that I hadn't been killed?"

"Yes. My father sent you here."

"Your father." Lex remembered the voice in the cave speaking about sons and destinies. Clearly Clark was not referring to Jonathan Kent the Kansas farmer.

"Jor-El. My father. He's an artificial intelligence. He sent you away as part of my training. You were always in my future."

"How did he do it?"

"I don't know. I don't have his powers."

In his first days on Beaumonde, straitjacketed by the limitations of his new life and as frustrated as he'd ever felt at Belle Reve, Lex had wished for some way to reverse whatever had brought him here. Gradually, though, he had come to see his old life as the prison, bounded by his father, his name, his past, and even his wealth. This Jor-El, whoever or whatever he was, had set him free.

"So...you were the one who put the notice on the Cortex?"

"Yes. I started posting them about forty or fifty years ago. One every year or two. I can't really remember. I was going to give up in another ten or fifteen years. There were so many false leads. Swindlers and cheaters. Liars everywhere. Humanity never changes."

"So who was it? Who earned the reward?"

"There were two men. They had such similar stories so close together that I knew this time it could be genuine. The first was somebody from a spaceship you were on--a male with a female name. I can't remember now."

Jayne Cobb. Of course. Lex looked around for Simon, wanting to see his reaction to this unsurprising revelation, but Simon had his coat on and was just slipping out the door. He preferred tea--maybe he was going to get some. It was still dark out, but there might be something open. Lex was hungry--hadn't eaten since Madame Tsang's buffet. Couldn't focus on it now.

"And some angry man here on this planet," Clark continued. "Yakamoto? Sakamoto? Something like that."

Yamamoto. Lex hoped that the reward had been substantial. It would be a shame to be sold out for a paltry sum.

"Why did you keep looking for me, Clark?"

"I don't really remember. I think it's a task I needed to complete. Lately, it's just been what I do."

"Well, congratulations. You've accomplished it."

"It doesn't feel finished."

"Some things never do." Lex wondered what more Clark needed--if coming to the end of a quest that had lasted several ordinary lifetimes would be devastating rather than satisyfing. There didn't seem to be much holding Clark together as it was. "What's happened to you, Clark? You don't look well. Are you sick?"

"I--I don't know. I think I might be. I have no way of knowing how long I'm supposed to live. I remember a prophecy that I would outlive everyone I knew. There was a graveyard full of headstones. Every name except yours. You weren't in it. That prophecy came true a long time ago. Maybe it's time for me to be done."

In his old life Lex would have bought a specialist, created one, funded the research--anything to help Clark. All he could do now was acknowledge that perhaps, indeed, there was a time to be done. He shifted away from this unsettling topic.

"You've been alive through the most significant change in human history, Clark. I can't imagine what you've seen. What really happened to the Earth? Nobody here has the whole story."

"It was the kryptonite mutants who started the wars, Lex." And Clark sounded--defensive.

"What wars?"

"The wars that ruined the earth."

Lex had to dig to find his patience. It wasn't a tool he normally used, but Clark was clearly not completely of sound mind. Patience might tease the story out, strand by strand, revealing volumes of knowledge that no one else seemed to have. "And what are kryptonite mutants?"

"The descendants of the people who ate the rocks. The rock-eaters."

"Rock-eaters? What does that mean, Clark?"

"The people who mutated themselves with kryptonite. Meteors, we called them."

Rock-eaters. It was as if Clark had distilled the bizarre reality of life in Smallville to a sort of fairy-tale. "I'm a kryptonite mutant. Do you know that, Clark?"

"Yes. But not on purpose. You weren't a rock-eater. It's different."

Lex wondered if somehow, intention affected the way the meteor rocks worked. Intriguing idea, one that he shoved to the back of his mind to think about later. Clark wasn't going to be much use in that regard: he was having trouble staying on any one topic for more than a few seconds. He shifted again now, saying, "My father said you were different. That you needed to be out of the way. He wanted me to conquer Earth. There wasn't that much stopping me once you were gone."

"Segeeth and Naman." Lex had always appreciated the value of the hero's nemesis, the one who never stopped trying to limit the scope of a being with too much power. Clark looked puzzled. "The legend depicted in the Kawatche caves--do you remember that?"

"I remember the caves. That's where I was remade."

Daylight was now brightening the room. Lex noticed that he had a headache--partly a slight hangover, he supposed, and lack of sleep, but mostly the strain of dealing with Clark, so unexpected and so profoundly changed. "Clark, I'm going to need to rearrange my day a little." He'd been planning to anyway, since about three minutes after finding Simon on his doorstep last night. The new reason wasn't what he'd fallen asleep thinking about. "If you'll excuse me for a few minutes, I'll go take care of a few things."

He went to the bedroom and changed from his robe to street clothes. Simon still wasn't back, so he made some coffee. "I have to go place a call, okay? Will you be all right here for a few minutes?"

"We used to have--what were they called? People could always talk to each other."

"Cellphones. Yes. Beaumonde is a little backward that way. I'll be right back." Downstairs, he knocked sharply on Mrs. Lai's door, privately resolving to have the whole damn building Cortex-connected within the month, even if it meant finding the financing to launch his own satellite.

She answered in her robe and began a tirade as soon as she saw him, in which he was pretty sure he could distinguish the word for "early". She finished up with her favorite phrase in English, "Not okay."

"Sorry, Mrs. Lai. Emergency. Important." He pushed past her into her office and stabbed at some symbols on her Cortex screen. She waved her arms and started up again in Mandarin. He turned his back. "Jace? I'm not going to be in right away today. I've got kind of a crisis on my hands here at home. No, no, it's all under control, thanks--just something needing my attention. I'll check back in as soon as I can."

He thought about pushing his luck with Mrs. Lai and placing a second call, to Inara or Serenity, then decided to give Simon a chance to check in on his own. He walked past the indignant landlady and back upstairs.

Clark was still sitting where he'd left him. Lex poured himself some coffee, sank into the other chair, and resumed his questioning.


Simon started to feel better as Inara's shuttle left Marais behind. He stood in the cockpit behind her, watching Beaumonde's terrain unfold in the viewport. By the time they reached Serenity, he felt more like himself again.

"Good to be home," he said. "Thank you for the ride. Will you be staying, or do you have business?"

"My business on Beaumonde is concluded. Shall I walk with you to your quarters? You look--tired. Maybe you'd like to lie down for a bit."

"No. I'm fine." He was a little tired, but lying down this early in the day wasn't...Simon went to the hatch. Couldn't quite figure out the lever. Inara stepped between him and the door, took his arm, led him back inside.

"What--? I'm really fine, Inara. I need to see to River."

"I called ahead and asked Shepherd Book if he would walk out with her for a while."

"Oh. Thank you."

"Here, Simon. Sit down." She guided him to her bed and sat next to him. Turned, took his hands, looked into his face, and he wished she wouldn't. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

He wanted nothing less in this 'verse, but she was going to ask, and guess, and it was probably just easier to say something. "It was all a lie." He forced back the sting of that. "That's the longest version I feel up to reciting at the moment."

She looked genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand. Was Lex not happy to see you?"

"No, he was happy to see me."

"Was there--someone else?"

Something limbered up inside him--the thing that had been holding him in such a cold grip all morning--and he was afraid it was going to hurt a little once it got moving. He took a deep breath and found he could. He nodded. "Someone from his past. The, uh, the person who was looking for him, putting those notices on the Cortex. Apparently the great love of his life."

Inara frowned.

"It was all a lie, Inara. His whole story. I think he's just been waiting for this...this crazy person--Clark. Maybe protecting him. I can't begin to tell you how stupid I feel. Please don't say anything--"

"Shh, Simon. Of course I won't say anything to anyone. But are you sure--? That is, I believed him, too."

"Yes, but you weren't the one who--" He couldn't finish that sentence, even in his mind.

"No, I wasn't. But he cares about you, Simon. I would swear to it."

Memories from last night glinted in his mind like shards of glass. "Maybe. But I don't think it matters."

She put her arms around his shoulders, hugged him. "It always matters, di-di."


"So, these mutants started the wars. When was that?"

"I don't remember. It was after Lois died. There was a long time of darkness. I don't remember dates. It was a bad time."

"Lois?"

"She was my wife."

"I'm sorry, Clark."

"I don't remember anything about her anymore except her name. It was a long time ago."

Disturbing, Lex thought, but interesting, to imagine how much a person might forget in five hundred years. Focus, he reminded himself. "Tell me about the mutant wars."

"We fought against them."

"We?"

"The league. Some of the mutants fought on our side. The kryptonite created powers. Different people, different powers. Some of them joined us. We had a league. I was called Superman for a long time."

Lex remembered Clark puzzling his way through Nietzsche in high school. A band of mutants, fighting the good fight. "'Superman'? It sounds like something from Warrior Angel comics."

At Clark's blank look, Lex moved quickly on. "What happened?"

Clark went into a sort of litany then, his voice taking on a reciting quality. "We fought them on every front. They advanced on the countryside and we fought to keep the farms. They advanced in the city streets, and we fought to save the people and their cultures. They were supplied with weapons by humans on the side of evil, and we had to build stronger weapons. But they had an advantage that we couldn't fight: they could survive in poisoned zones and the real humans couldn't."

It was the language of propaganda, of spin. Lex ought to know--he'd learned it himself from Lionel. He'd also learned, by the age of ten, how to see through it. "So let me get this straight: together, your league and these mutants made the Earth uninhabitable for ordinary humans?"

The question seemed to interrupt Clark's recital. He paused for a long moment, almost visibly scrolling to the next relevant place in whatever text he'd been fed. "The rock-eaters drove us off the planet. We chose to come out here with the humans.

"Where are they now--the others in your league?"

"They're all dead. I'm the only one left. Nobody remembers me anymore."

I remember you, Lex thought, but he doubted that Clark Kent, the beautiful, lying farmboy, was the memory he meant.

"--only the government. I stay away from them, because they'd like me back. It's better out here farther on the Rim."

"Wait a second. The Alliance knows about you?"

"The governments of Earth charged Superman with finding the new homes."

"You mean they charged you."

"Yes. I found this system for them. The planets they call Sihnon, and Londinium. Those were the first. Jor-El says there are records of me. Traces. An institutional memory."

On reflection, Lex could see how an alien super-being at the center of the wars that destroyed the Earth's biosphere might not just vanish from the collective unconscious.


Simon ended up telling Inara everything. She'd always championed him and Lex, and she deserved to know what had happened. Maybe she could help him figure it out himself. Besides, once she started asking questions, it felt good to talk about it. At her prompting, he recounted his long wait and Lex's arrival.

"And he was happy to see you?"

"Yes."

"How happy?"

"Ji-du, Inara. What gauge do you want me to use?"

"As long as there was something to gauge." She gave him a sweet smile. "You're blushing, Simon."

"Are you going to continue to get too personal?" he asked. "Because I'd like to prepare myself."

"Not at all. Forgive me." But she was still grinning. "How did he look? What was he wearing when he arrived?"

"A black winter coat." There had been a time in Simon's life when clothes had mattered. He tried for a little detail. "Cashmere, I think."

"How lovely. I imagine that looked good on him."

"It did."

"Cashmere is so wonderfully soft."

"Yes." It had been. Soft against his face for that brief moment.

"And...what else?"

"Well, he had gloves on."

"Leather gloves?"

Only the faintest quirk of her eyebrow at that, and the image of Lex's hands in those gloves came into vivid focus. Simon could practically smell the leather. "Mm-hm." He cleared his throat.

"And he was well?" Inara asked.

"Great, actually. He has at least one lover of convenience. A woman. Vivian Chen." Simon was curious to know Inara's reaction to this bit of information. She dismissed it with a small shrug, and he was inordinately relieved.

"You didn't mind about her?"

"Not very much, no."

"I'm proud of you, Simon."

"Well, I think it would have been a bit strange if he hadn't been--you know--keeping active...in that way. I mean, he's--he's Lex. And he was very frank about it with me." Simon noticed that Inara wore one of her speculative looks. "The fact that he came home alone was all I was registering at the moment. I really expected him to be with someone."

"That might have been a whole different kind of interesting."

"Inara!"

"I'm just teasing, Simon. Well, mostly. Lex isn't the sort of person anyone wants to share."

Simon really, really didn't want to wonder if everyone--even Inara--found Lex as attractive as he did. Once again, she changed the subject. "So, this fine new apartment. I'm sure you noticed every detail."

"He had chairs."

"Come on, Simon. I'm very interested to know what kind of life Lex has built for himself."

The ice inside was melting away. Inara was asking all the right questions. Simon knew it was somehow related to her profession, this skill, but she was acting more like a big sister. Or a friend. She seemed genuinely curious and interested.

"It's fairly impressive, really, considering how we left him a year and a half ago. He's got a nice place. On the second floor. Big windows. There was, you know, furniture. A rug, I think. Good whisky. Nice glasses, too."

"Simon!"

"Please don't expect details. I wasn't focused on the furniture." Except the bed, Simon thought. He'd noticed a lot of details about the bed.

"Oh, all right. But he's living well."

"Very well. He has a shower."

"Oh, my!" An approving sort of smile spread across her face. "I knew he was a gentleman with his priorities in the right order, but this...well, I may have to call on him myself!"

"You might want to wait a few days. I think we used up a couple of weeks' worth of hot water."

"Ooh. Together?"

"Yes."

"And was it...?"

"Wonderful? Yes."

Simon was realizing just how good the good parts of his visit with Lex had been.

"And then?"

"And then we draw the curtain across this little scene and leave it to your imagination. Only not--right now. Please."

"Of course. But Lex is..." She paused, searching for a word. Simon braced himself, but all she said was, "...considerate?"

After a moment, he realized he'd been staring into space. "Yes. Very. Always."

And there was the speculative look again, and the agitation of the morning was starting to seem very distant and almost...foolish.


By mid-morning, it was clear that Simon wasn't coming back. Lex had been sitting too long. He stood, stretched, found himself wishing to go to work. The housekeeper came and Lex welcomed the interruption. "Clark, Trudy needs to clean the place. We should get out of her way. Why don't you come with me--I need to make some calls and get some food. Are you hungry?"

"I don't eat."

"I see."

Clark followed him out into the chilly streets of Marais. At the closest public comm port, Lex put in a call to Inara's shuttle. There was no answer. Since "running away" was the only explanation he could find for Simon's behavior, he was more disappointed than worried. But that wasn't something he wanted to communicate remotely, and it certainly wasn't something he needed Clark to overhear, so he left a noncommittal message when her link picked up.

By the time he had ordered breakfast at the corner shop, he was feeling more angry at Simon than anything. Screw him if he couldn't handle a complication. Lex ate some eggs and rice while Clark looked on impassively. They didn't speak at all. It bore no resemblance to the companionable silences they had once enjoyed.

Back in the the apartment Lex resumed what began to feel like an interrogation of Clark. Clark volunteered almost nothing, and seemed to drift mentally whenever there was a pause.

"So you had an interstellar ship?"

"Yes."

A conversation came back to him, the story of a crop-duster pilot who'd been flying when the meteorites fell. "That was how you came to earth in the first place, right? It was your ship that people saw flying during the meteor strike."

The old, familiar look of denial on Clark's face made Lex's jaw clench. "It was a different ship. I didn't bring the rocks with me on purpose, Lex."

Meteor rocks...mutants...war... A pattern suddenly emerged, and it stunned Lex out of his momentary anger. He stood up, paced a few steps across the room and back. "So the demise of planet Earth began in Smallville, with the meteor strike. With your arrival." Jesus, I was at ground zero. I was there. Earth started becoming Earth-That-Was literally before my eyes.

That was another thought worth pondering. Later.

"And what finally happened to the Earth?"

"Some of the rock-eaters still live there. But we left them a dead planet." Clark said this as if it were an accomplishment. "My fortress of solitude is still on Earth."

"We had some good conversations there."

"You were never there. Were you?"

"Lots of times."

"I don't remember that."

Lex remembered all too well--the intoxicating seclusion of the hayloft, the night sky through the open window, the excuses he made to himself for visiting there, the brevity of those visits when he could no longer trust his impulses in the presence of a teenage boy.

"It's well-protected. The rock-eaters can't get in." Clark's face filled with disgust. "Lately, they've started coming out here. They're cannibals. Filthy pirates. They believe that eating the flesh of humans preserves their mutations. They pollute everything they touch. They fly their ships with no containment. They raid and rape and kill. They should be destroyed. I do what I can."

Lex wasn't sure what was more disturbing: the cold gleam of self-righteousness in Clark's eyes, or the fact that it was so familiar. Clark had directed exactly the same look at him the last time they'd met.


Inara got up and began making tea, putting out cups and a plate of small bing gan.

"Does he sleep in the nude?"

"Now you're just being nosy."

"Well? Does he?"

"I saw no evidence of pajamas."

"I see!" She looked positively merry.

Simon had never talked about this sort of thing with a woman before. Or with anyone. It had always felt too complicated. Too awkward. "I'm sorry--do women always talk about--like this?"

"We're incorrigible," she said, selecting a rice cracker from the tray. "Tell me about his bed."

Simon wasn't about to enlighten her on that point, but he was lying on hers, so he rocked, bounced a little, pressed the mattress with his hands, and said, "Better than yours." Her eyes widened a little. She set the cracker back down.

"So at what point in this perfectly wonderful evening did you learn of the interloper?"

He felt the iciness again, suddenly. "When I woke up and saw him sitting across the room."

She blinked, but otherwise expressed no surprise or shock, and oddly, didn't pursue the most important part of the whole story. "And just before that?"

"I was asleep."

"Was it warm?"

A little annoyed, Simon said, "Yes. It was warm. I was in bed, with another full sized human being. It was warm."

"And Lex was...?"

"Also warm, I presume. Asleep."

"Close to you?"

"Reasonably close, yes." So close... Simon swallowed. "As mentioned--same bed."

"That must have been nice," she said.

It had been. And Simon was there again, and it was a far better feeling than anything he'd had since.

"Just stay in that moment, Simon. Just be there. It's only you, and Lex, and being warm and asleep together in a very comfortable bed, the nicest feeling there is."

Simon closed his eyes.

"Something unexpected ended that perfect moment. Sometimes that happens. But it doesn't mean the moment wasn't real."

He wanted that to be true.

"So what exactly did Lex do?"

"Started questioning Clark. Made sure he was comfortable, gave him water, and just turned that focus of his on him, you know the way he does, and started in with questions."

"I mean before that."

"Before--? He was asleep, as I said."

"What woke him up?"

"Me shouting, I suppose."

"And what did he do?"

"He sat up, turned on a light, and recognized him."

"Did he seem happy to see him?"

"I don't know."

"You know him pretty well, Simon. Did he seem happy?"

"More just--incredulous, I suppose. Stunned."

"What did he say?"

"He said, 'Clark'." Like a damned bookend. Lex began and ended on that name.

Once again, Inara skipped over the critical part of the story. "So you left the apartment at what time?"

"At a dark time. It was before dawn."

"And when you left, what were Lex and Clark doing?"

"Talking."

"Like old friends, I imagine, making up lost time?"

Simon thought about it. Reviewed it. "No. Not really. Clark's behavior and affect were very strange--I'd have said schizophrenic, almost--and he was clearly not physically well either. Lex--"

"Yes?"

"Well, now that I think about it, Lex really seemed to be completely mystified by him. By his presence. Trying to figure it out. He seemed a bit overwhelmed."

Inara swirled her cup, looking absently into its depths, and said, far too casually, "I once knew a man who was overwhelmed by the sudden presence of a deranged person in his life."

The ringing silence of realization went on for several moments. Simon had to remind himself to close his mouth. "A ya zhou ma!" he said, staring at her. "I've got to get back there."

Inara's shuttle door opened and Mal looked in, noted both occupants, smiled. "Hope you had a wonderful, refreshing visit with your lovers, the two of you. We're leavin'." He turned and shouted down across Serenity's hold, "Zoe! Tell Wash the children are all snug in their beds. Let's fly."


Lex needed a break. It was midday, and he really couldn't afford to stay away from work any longer.

"Clark, I've got to go do my job for a while. Please make yourself at home. I'll be back sometime after dark. Do you--need anything?"

"No, Lex."

Lex immersed himself in Tsang Industries' interests all afternoon. He was in the midst of acquiring a lumber mill, and the negotiations required his full attention. No message came from Simon. He took a moment late in the afternoon, tried putting a call through to Serenity--assuming it was still somewhere on or near the planet--but couldn't get a link. Maybe they'd left already. Maybe they just weren't answering.

It was dark before he headed through the streets of Marais toward home again. He was dreading the prospect. He could find no strategy for dealing with Clark Kent.

"Hey, Lex. How about a coupla credits? I could use a meal." The voice startled him out of his thoughts as he rounded a street corner.

"Evening, Wilkie." He handed the guy a note. Lex budgeted for panhandlers--there was an amazing amount of information in the streets of Marais. "Sure you wouldn't like a bottle of booze instead?"

"Well, after what I seen last night, I wouldn't mind that either," Wilkie replied.

"Yeah? What was that?"

"Saw a guy get killed."

Lex was half-interested. It had been happening more often lately--was starting to look like a pattern.

"Yeah, he was just walkin' down the street. You know, maybe a little too close to some toff in a fancy suit, and then wham! All the sudden this big guy just come outta nowhere and slammed 'im into the wall, right over there! Moved so fast, I never even seen the guy, hardly. And this guy just slid down the wall, stone dead. Right over there--I mean, you could see the bloodstain. Looks like they've already washed it off."

"That's quite a story, Wilkie."

"True story. Just like I told it. Hand to God."

Lex didn't doubt that there was some truth in it, but he had bigger problems as to think about as he arrived home. He knew Simon wasn't going to be there, but the thought had crossed his mind during the afternoon, a tiny flash of hope that maybe Simon would redeem himself by showing up. When he came through his door to find Clark, he felt his body tense. The headache he'd held at bay all afternoon blossomed.

"This isn't a safe place for you, Lex."

"What do you mean?" Lex took off his gloves, threw his coat over the back of a chair. Clark was standing in the darkest corner of the room, his arms folded over his chest, his legs apart, as if he were guarding something important. His clothes were too brightly colored for Marais. Lex remembered that Clark had always favored unsophisticated shades of red and blue. He'd thought it was just Martha's influence, but it seemed the preference was more basic to Clark's nature. He remembered finding it charming once.

"I used to be called Clark." He didn't move from the corner. Held his head high and a little to the side, as if listening for some distant sound or feeling the wind on his face. It was unsettling. "You used to call me that. My name is Kal-El. Superman."

"Well, Kal-El, what do you mean, this place isn't safe for me?" Lex had an unpleasant feeling--more unpleasant than the headache, and almost as unpleasant as the one he wasn't currently dealing with regarding Simon--that he already knew the answer.

"Humans and their crimes. Everywhere."

"You killed a man last night, didn't you Clark?"

"I stopped him from killing a man."

"How long have you been in Marais?"

"I don't know. I lose track. A day or two. Maybe a week."

"Have you killed other people?"

"I stop crime, Lex. I save people. I have to deal with their enemies. This isn't a safe place for you."

Lex sat down, appalled. The last couple of shots of Madame Tsang's whisky looked pretty good, but the decanter was just beyond his fingertips, and he found he didn't have the will to reach for it.

"So you're--what? Making it safer? A better place to live and raise a family?"

"There are bad seeds, Lex. Humans don't change. They are what they are. The weak need to be protected."

Lex recognized echoes of Jonathan Kent and the narrowminded platitudes that had passed as fatherly wisdom.

"I'm human, Clark. I'm not exactly a saint. How long before you decide to kill me?"

"No, Lex. You're special. You're the only one. That's why Jor-El sent you away. I remember that. I always knew that." Clark broke his bizarre pose then and stepped into the light, toward Lex. He put out a fascinated hand as if to touch Lex's head.

Lex flinched, disgusted. He hated people touching his head. He got up out of the chair to move away. "Clark, you killed a man last night. Someone saw you throw him against a wall and kill him. You can't just--you don't do things like that."

"First it was the rock-eaters. If they couldn't join us, they had to be put aside."

"'Put aside'? Is that what you call killing a man, Clark? 'Putting aside'? Because I killed a man once and he wasn't 'put aside.' He was dead. It was wrong, and nothing would have made it right."

"Justice for the weak has to come from the strong, Lex."

A half-crazed vigilante with no apparent physical limits...the whisky was suddenly worth the effort. Lex stood and picked up the decanter. He really was tired of this conversation. He'd learned what he needed to know.

"Your father was Lionel."

"That's right. What about it?"

"I remember him."

"Apparently so do the history books."

"He helped arm the rock-eaters."

So, the old bastard had gotten out of prison after all. Proof that justice was a very flexible concept. "That sounds like his style. What about it, Clark?"

"You're like him."

Surprising, really, that those words still had the power to make him angry. He had to force himself not to slam the decanter back down on its tray. "No. My father was a coldhearted son of a bitch, and that's not who I am." He looked at Clark, wanted to see that he was really listening. "You wanna know how I know that? Because you cared about me once. You cared about me, and I cared what you thought of me, so I knew I wasn't destined to become my father."

"People don't change, Lex."

Anger mounted. Memories Lex had buried were pouring in, and with them a torrent of words, things he hadn't been able to say to anyone since beginning his new life. "Do you know Pacquin? Harsh place. That was where your father sent me. And your little five-hundred year quest very nearly came to nothing. I was probably within minutes of death when the Serenity crew rescued me.

"So I've changed, Clark. I changed the day I woke up in Simon Tam's infirmary with two bullet holes in me, lucky to have both arms and legs still attached. That was the day I stopped relying on you for my self-definition. I believed you were centuries dead, and I changed. I had no secrets anymore, and nobody kept any from me. People helped me without question or reward. I changed, right then, and I've been changing ever since. Being taken away from you was the best thing that could have happened to me."

Sometimes you don't know the truth till you hear it come out of your own mouth, Lex reflected, a little stunned. He felt he deserved that whisky now, and poured it.

Clark looked puzzled, his forehead creasing. "Did I love you?"

"What the--? God, Clark. I don't know. You could answer that question better than I can." The big-brotherly dating advice, the gifts he'd given Clark and his friends, the times he'd bailed the Kents out financially, legally, even medically. The small business he'd bought for a pretty teenage girl because Clark had asked him to. The pattern all seemed perfectly clear from a distance. "I certainly tried to buy your love."

"Why?"

"You saved my life. Do you remember that?"

Clark blinked several times. "I've saved a lot of lives, Lex. I think I remember water. And a car. So many people drove, and drowned, and crashed. Were you one of them?"

"I was."

"You were the first, weren't you?"

"Probably. You were only fifteen years old at the time."

"I remember loving people," Clark said. "There was Lois. But she died so quickly. The rock-eaters killed her. I remember grieving. I couldn't love people anymore after a while. They died too fast. Did we sleep together?"

"You and I? No."

Clark nodded. "The man who was here last night. Who was he?"

"Simon. A lover. Why?"

"Do you love him?"

Lex rose. This was enough. "I'm going to sleep, Clark. There's a fold-down bed in the extra room. Help yourself."

"I don't sleep. I'll go out for a while."

Lex nodded, weary. He went to his room, undressed, heard the front door closing as he got into bed. It would be comforting to pretend that this stranger bore no resemblance to the Clark Kent who had so captured his imagination in Smallville. But he did. Lex could easily trace a straight line from the secretive boy in the barn loft to the unbalanced being who was probably out in the streets of Marais right now, dispensing justice and safety.

The housekeeper had changed the sheets, and no scent of Simon remained. You gave up too easily, Simon, Lex thought as sleep came. Should've trusted me.


Simon stared at Inara for a moment, nonplussed. "What are the chances of stopping him?"

"Close to zero, I'd say."

Simon got up and dashed out of Inara's shuttle. Mal was already down in the cargo bay, securing some crates with Jayne's help. "Captain, can I have a word with you?"

"What's on your mind, Doc?"

Jayne was looking him up and down with a sneer, and for the first time all day Simon realized that he probably looked a little disheveled. Lex would dishevel anyone. Simon wondered if he still looked like he'd been thoroughly laid, or if an unpleasant shock followed by the realization that you've been a complete idiot pretty much just left you looking worn out.

The absurdity of his position came home to him: he had been about to ask Captain Reynolds to power down an entire ship and jeopardize whatever business these crates represented, all so that Simon could go make up with his boyfriend. He changed tactics as sharply as he could, which, it quickly became apparent, wasn't very sharply at all.

"Uh, River--are we sure she's back on board?"

Jayne's sneer turned to contempt and Mal just looked at him.

Simon nodded and made his way to the passenger area as unobtrusively as possible, and saw River there, quietly sketching, Shepherd Book reading nearby. A snippet of the conversation between Lex and Clark came floating back to him: It was Jayne who had answered the notice and collected the reward. Vaguely non-Hippocratic thoughts flashed across Simon's mind and he spent a moment cataloguing several surgical and pharmaceutical forms of revenge. It really was too bad about the oath.

Simon went straight back to Inara's shuttle.

"Simon! He left you a message. I'm sorry--I turned off the link while we were talking. It must have come in then. Here--" she went to her console and activated the link.

"Inara, it's Lex Luthor. If you get this message before you leave Beaumonde, could you please let me know if you've heard from Simon? He's--something unexpected came up, and he went off before we had a chance to discuss it. It was very early this morning and he hasn't been back. I'm concerned. Please, contact me through Madame Tsang or at Tsang Industries."

He sounded terse and businesslike, and Simon wondered how angry--or worse, disappointed--he was. Indicating the link, he said, "May I--?"

"Of course." Inara withdrew to the far side of her shuttle, which wasn't very far away, but he appreciated the gesture toward privacy.

He sat down, thought a minute, and put the call through. He was routed to a message buffer. "Lex, it's Simon. God, I'm sorry. My reaction was--I overreacted. I was back on Serenity and we were in the air before I actually re-engaged my brain. You probably could have used my help with Clark, and if I hadn't gone temporarily insane, I'd be there to offer it. We'll be out of range shortly, so if you're still even speaking to me, send me a wave--" he turned to her and she nodded consent. "--through Inara. We should be back to Beaumonde in a few weeks. Please, accept my apology and let me hear from you." Simon almost disconnected, paused, and added in a lower voice. "Last night was...amazing."

He cut the link, wondering if he would ever spend another night with Lex.

"Well, I'd certainly answer that," Inara said quietly from the corner of her settee.

"Really? Thank you, Inara. For everything."

"You're welcome, di-di. I want to see you happy."

"You should've seen me last night."


Lex arose the next morning to find the apartment empty. Relieved, he showered quickly and left, indulging for a moment in the fantasy that Clark might simply disappear.

He opened the factory doors an hour before the shift normally started. There was a message from Simon on his office link, apologizing, saying he'd be back on Beaumonde soon, but out of reach again, in the black, flying with the band of small-time criminals and misfits who called Serenity home. Lex put Simon--and Clark--resolutely out of his mind and began the business day.


PART 7 - FLYING - R
ROWENA, BOROS - TWO WEEKS LATER

Simon came out into the daylight of Boros to find River at the edge of the cargo ramp, wearing a delighted smile. "We're going shooting, Simon!"

"What? Shooting?" He glanced from his sister to Kaylee, who was bouncing on the balls of her feet, grinning, an incongruous pink purse in her hands.

"There's an arcade just down the street. We're gonna go play some games. Way she shoots, we'll come back with one of those giant teddy bears!"

Before he could express his habitual worry, Wash ambled down the ramp. "I'm goin' with 'em, Simon. Some of the fellas hangin' out around here probably haven't seen a pretty girl in awhile--least not one that ain't for sale. Let alone two. I can keep an eye on your sis for a couple of hours. I don't mind."

Kaylee scowled. "We don't need a babysitter."

Wash held up his hands in a defensive gesture. "No. No, you absolutely do not need a babysitter. You are grown women, capable of womanly self-defense. But I wanna play the games." He gave a pleading look. "Let me come along. Please?"

"Oh, all right."

River looked pointedly at Simon. "So I'm going."

His sister was an adult now. Simon could devote his life to protecting her and still not always be with her, especially if she wanted a little freedom. "Thank you, Wash. You'll bring her back to the ship if--"

"At the first sign of trouble. Which there won't be."

"You wanna come along?" Kaylee asked.

Since his aborted visit with Lex, Simon hadn't been feeling very sociable. "I--uh, I thought I'd do a little sightseeing, actually. You guys have fun. Don't eat too much candy, River."

"You just can't help yourself, can you?" She rolled her eyes and walked away laughing with Kaylee and Wash. It was good to see her like this. Except for the brattiness.

The city of Rowena had an air of bustling prosperity, but it was still enough of an outpost to draw little attention from the Alliance. Simon had been thinking about where he and River might land if they could ever stop running, and Rowena seemed like a good candidate. He wanted to look around.

Marais had been his first choice until a couple of weeks ago, but Simon didn't think he could bear to live in the same city--maybe not even on the same planet--with an indifferent Lex.

He couldn't count the number of times he'd replayed the pivotal morning in his mind, altering his actions and creating a different outcome. His solitary walk through Rowena's busy streets prompted yet another iteration. In this version, as in every other one, he stayed. He stood his ground, held his place as Lex's present, and refused to yield that position to Clark.

Lex was a constant presence in Simon's imagination, and no amount of logic--or work, or exercise--could make it stop. Alcohol only made Lex more vivid, and even mild narcotics, apparently, couldn't stop it--Simon had tried. Lex was walking with him now, noting Rowena's business potential, disparaging the pedestrian realism of that bronze statue in the park. Lex was with him, and Clark was--somewhere, far away, maybe receiving the care he needed. Or dead--Simon hated to admit this version to himself--and Simon had stood by Lex in his grief and helped him move on. Had been what he moved on to.

Simon left the park and continued along a busy commercial street. A haberdasher's shop caught his eye, and he stopped to look through its window, remembering the enviable black suit Lex had been wearing. And Lex was still with him, approving of a dress shirt, quietly making fun of several tie choices, then recommending his own superior tailor. And Lex would come along for a fitting, and tailors' fitting rooms with all the mirrors could be kind of--interesting, and how fast and furtively Simon could utterly ruin and then restore the proper drape of Lex's trousers became a point of several moments' intense consideration.

It took awhile for Simon to notice that someone was watching him. A man across the street, reflected in the window, had stopped and was staring in his direction.

No need to get alarmed. Yet. Simon slowly straightened, trying to get a clearer view. The man looked familiar. Simon turned in surprise. "Professor?"


"How sure are you of this guy, Doc?"

"As sure as I can be of anyone. Dr. Dimashqi was one of my professors at Xin Da Xue on Osiris. He goes by the name of Shareef now."

Everyone was sitting or standing around the table. It had been a while since Serenity's last really lucrative job, and they were listening closely. "He was instrumental in helping me find River. It was something of a crusade with him. Shortly after I got her out of the Academy, I heard he'd been betrayed to the Alliance. He didn't precisely say this afternoon, but I believe it might have been my own father. He had to flee, and wound up here on Boros. He lost everything, Captain, including his wife and family. He's barely surviving here. He can't teach, or use his credentials in any way--" Simon looked around the table at the assembled crew. "I've been very lucky compared to him. Partly because of him. I feel we can trust him."

"And this cargo he wants us to move?"

"He was a noted collector of antiquities. He managed to get away with his best small objects, but he can't unload them."

"How few? How small?" Jayne asked. "I hope we ain't plannin' to risk our lives for a handfulla old trinkets."

"These are Earth-That-Was artifacts. I think you know how much those tend to be worth."

"Yeah," Mal said, "and we also know how hard it is to sell 'em."

"I mentioned that point to him. These artifacts are nothing like the Lassiter. They're not famous. They aren't that glamorous. They're of interest to wealthy individuals with specialized private collections. According to him, there's a dealer out of Beaumonde who would give a fair price and ask no questions."

Kaylee looked dubious. "What would our cut be, Simon?"

"Hell, he sounds like a desperate man. I'd say we could take whatever cut we want."

Simon looked at Jayne. "Did you hear the part where he was instrumental in saving River's life?"

Mal said, "Jayne's got a point, Doc."

Simon folded his arms over his chest. "We agree to deal with him fairly or the conversation stops here."

"Okay." Mal held up a hand to make peace. "You're the boss on this one. What's he offerin'?"

"Thirty percent. It's more than generous."

"Well, that depends," Jayne said. "What's thirty percent of a box of bitty little Earth artifacts amount to?"

Simon told them. There was a long moment of silence around the table. Simon saw no dissent. He'd expected none for this kind of money. Even Inara looked impressed.

"All right. Here's what we would have to do..."

The planning went on through much of the night. Simon's surgical training, he'd discovered, came in handy for clandestine dealings. Calm, concentration, careful study of the situation, contingency plans, attention to every detail--that steady focus that Lex had admired--all turned out to be necessary skills on the shady side of the law.

They made the pickup in a series of personal visits to Shareef's squalid lodgings over the next two days. Two-hundred small Earth-That-Was artifacts, astonishingly worth more than a million and a half credits, made their way back to Serenity in Kaylee's purse and toolbag, Jayne's leather grip, Zoe's and Mal's coat pockets, Simon's medical satchels, even in a greasy take-out food carton carried by River.

Shareef gave Simon a detailed listing with the approximate values on the last trip. "If anything, the prices have gone up since I was able to check. He's a sharp dealer, Simon. Don't let him skin you. You hold to these numbers."

"I will." Simon had no idea if he would be able to negotiate a good deal, and had already spent some time wondering how Lex would do it. "Let me say again how sorry I am about your family. I was never able to thank you for your help in finding River. I know you paid a high price."

"I'm glad your sister is safe. There are dozens of other boys and girls like her still in there. I haven't given up on helping them escape as well. River was just the first."

"We'll do our best for you, Professor. Your trust is not misplaced."

"I believe you. And besides, what have I got to lose? I'll see you when you come back, and perhaps we'll all see better days, eh?"


"Feelin' pretty proud of yourself, ain't ya, Simon?" Kaylee bounced down the stairs with a smile.

"I am, yes."

"Well, ya should be. This job don't go haywire on us, we're all gonna be rich!" She glanced in a bit of awe at the container Book was packing. "'Course, it goes badly, I sure don't wanna be the one to face your poor professor."

"No, nor do I. Best that it not go badly then, I'd say."

She gave him a sly grin. "Lex would be proud of you, too."

Simon hadn't felt like enlightening her--or anyone besides Inara--about the status of things between him and Lex, and she hadn't stopped trying to find out. "That thought might have crossed my mind," he conceded.

"It's kinda sweet, really. You know, you makin' a lot of money on stuff from Earth-That-Was. Wouldn't it be funny if some of it came from--you know, Lex's old life? Like a sort of connection between the two of you."

It was just barely possible that that thought, too, had crossed Simon's mind. But he wasn't about to admit it. "Shepherd?" he said, turning from Kaylee. "How does it look?"

Book came around the crate, Shareef's list in his hand. "We're not one hundred percent. I wasn't able to verify this item--" he pointed to "Gold finger ring with faceted stone, 3 cm diameter" in the list. "Could be we left something behind."

"It could be that someone on the streets of Boros now owns a very old, very large ring." Simon weighed the cost of delays against the value of the item. "Let's let it go. We're close enough."

Book nodded in approval.

"I'll close up the crate. Shepherd, would you please let Mal know that we're ready to go?"


Clark remained absent for a week, and Lex began to relax, let his place be his own again. Two weeks, and he began to hope that somehow Clark would never be back. The new mill would show profit for Tsang Industries within a year, and Lex made a brief trip to the forested part of Beaumonde to inspect the new holding.

Halfway through the third week, he returned home to find Clark waiting for him.

"I've been back to Earth," he said without preamble as Lex came through the door. He'd almost stopped looking into the corner every time he came home. Almost.

"Back to Earth."

"Yes. I needed to be near a yellow star for a while. It gives me strength."

"I see." Lex set down his suitcase, took off his jacket, poured himself a drink. Clark didn't look strengthened. If anything, he looked more burnt-out than before. Lex sighed and sat down at his desk, situated as far from Clark's preferred corner as the room allowed. Apart from their impossibility, he had no reason to disbelieve Clark's stories. It no longer made any difference to him at all whether the stories were true.

"There's something wrong with the fortress. The interface is malfunctioning. I couldn't fix it. I could hardly hear my father. I understand things better now. I remember some things."

"Such as?"

"I was in love with you."

Lex closed his eyes wearily. "No, Clark, you weren't. You saved my life. You might have been infatuated."

"It's the only reason Jor-El didn't kill you. He knew he'd lose me if he did."

"Well, be sure to express my gratitude when he comes back online." Lex felt an edgy boredom with the conversation. "Look, Clark, what do you want from me? Because I'm trying to figure it out, and I'm coming up blank. You've found me. I'm alive. I'm doing reasonably well for myself. You can consider your mission fulfilled."

Clark stepped toward him. In the deepening shadows of the apartment, Lex saw the sharply defined planes of his face, the shifting gaze that he remembered from the first time he'd ever seen Clark. For a brief instant as he approached, Lex saw the beautiful youth with the plaid shirts and the lying eyes and the impossibly sensual mouth that Lex had imagined so many times...

Lex found himself staring, and looked away. "If you have some idea about rekindling a romance that died in--what? 2003? 2004?--I advise you to take up a different plan."

Clark's burning eyes and the hollowness of his expression were more apparent as he came into the pool of light from Lex's desk lamp. "I remember you. I think I remember you looking at me, touching me."

"I never touched you, Clark. Not that way."

"But you wanted to."

Lex laughed. "Half of Smallville wanted to. Maybe you were too busy covering up evidence of your secrets to notice."

"I remember seeing you do things by yourself in your car. You'd drive away from the farm where I lived, hoping I didn't notice how aroused you were, and you had no idea how fast I could run or that I could see through solid objects, and you'd pull off to the side of the road and--"

"Just stop, Clark." Jesus. This was becoming disturbing. "Just stop, okay? I was twenty-one and hot for an underaged boy. It took a hell of a lot of will to drive off at all. I make no apologies for what I did privately. I didn't harm you with it and I didn't take it out on anyone else."

"You had a father too."

"What? Yes, we've established that. Lionel was my father. Jor-El was yours. What are you getting at, Clark?"

"Your father is dead. Mine's still alive after five hundred years. I don't think he can die."

"I'm sorry for you, Clark. Is there a point?"

Clark was standing over him now. "My father is always in me, splitting me in two."

"Yeah, well, you've just summed up the Oedipal conflict. Welcome to the human race, Clark."

"When you came to the cave to find me, I could see you. I could see you when he sent you away. I could see it while it was happening and I couldn't stop it, and he made me watch..." Clark's expression was distant, troubled. "I thought he was killing you, and he kept telling me that you loved me, that no one would ever love me that way again, and if I did exactly what he told me to do, someday I might be worthy of your love. But I was too weak. He told me over and over again."

Lex stood up, moved back a few steps. "We both had sick bastards for fathers. I know it's hard to break with your father. But you have to try, Clark. You never stop trying."

"I always wanted to be worthy of you, Lex," Clark said, his head tilted down, glancing from under heavy brows, seductive. Lex was reminded of an afternoon long ago when Clark, dressed in a coat that he couldn't possibly have afforded, had dropped by the mansion and suggested they run off to Metropolis together. That was as close as Lex had ever come to losing his self-control completely around Clark. This evening the same look was just--disturbing. "Jor-El was right," Clark said with a half-smile and a sideways glance like some caricature of shyness--of flirtation. "I had to learn from you. I was weak for a long time. I didn't want to kill my enemies. You wouldn't hesitate to kill your enemies."

"I don't kill my enemies, Clark."

"You do, Lex. I've seen you." And he said it encouragingly, as if to reassure Lex that his modesty was unwarranted. He put a hand out and touched Lex's forearm. Lex had to steel himself not to flinch away.

"I shot Roger Nixon to save your father's life." That was the story Lex had told the authorities. He'd told it to himself over the years as well. Now it seemed imperative to clear that up. "No. You know what? You're absolutely right. The simple truth is that Nixon was my enemy, and I killed him in cold blood, and I got away with it because he was conveniently threatening your father's life at the time."

Lex felt no weight lift from him as a result of confessing the truth. There was no absolution.

He went on. "It wasn't right, Clark. The only problem it solved was one that simple honesty could have solved better, without robbing some family of its husband, or son, or father. I've regretted it every day of my life."

"And the others?"

"There were no others, Clark. Murdering one man was more than enough for a lifetime."

"I saw you. There was a car, and you had a gun, and the beads of kryptonite--"

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Clark."

"There was a--a gangster. I can't remember his name. He was your father's friend. They took you away to the asylum after that."

The words hit Lex like a blow to the stomach. Had he committed a second murder during those lost seven weeks?

Clark was too close now, standing right inside Lex's space, using his significant height and breadth to hem Lex in against the wall. Lex was disgusted to realize that he felt a little indimidated. A little breathless.

"You've only had two years to get over me, Lex. Remember how you used to think about me?"

And it was right there. He remembered the longing, the desire, all the substitutes he had bought or seduced or allowed himself to be seduced by--dark-haired beauties with full lips and the sort of innocence you could pay for. And though this Clark was a different being altogether from that boy in the barn loft, he still had the hands, and the mouth, and the green-eyed glances that had stirred Lex so deeply. "I remember." Lex swallowed. Only half of him wanted to step away.

Clark moved in and mouthed the line of Lex's jaw. Lex closed his eyes, expecting a flood of arousal, and it was a moment before he realized that Clark's breath was cool and his body radiated no heat, no smell. Had it always been like that? Lex would have sworn he remembered warmth, a particular scent. His fantasy jarred against the bizarre reality and Lex began finding the dispassionate half of himself.

"You can't resist me, Lex," Clark said, pushing him against the wall with an unyielding body that was as cool as his breath, and Lex wondered if that was literally true. He hated being told what he couldn't do. He put both hands against Clark's chest and pushed. Nothing. Clark gathered his wrists in one large hand and held them between their two bodies. His grip was like steel. He continued to plant open-mouthed kisses down Lex's neck.

The edgy feeling returned. Awkward, obligatory sex, putting up with someone's clumsiness because he was bored or wanted an advantage, fucking without finesse--he'd left all that behind in prep school, for Christ's sake.

"Okay, just--stop, Clark."

Clark continued, and if there had been any warmth, any of the hot sweetness that Lex remembered from Smallville, Lex thought he might have gone with it. Curiosity, nostalgia, even the simple fact of not having had sex since Simon's visit, might have been reason enough. But it felt dry, mechanical, and utterly one-sided. Lex had never liked being on the receiving end of sexual coercion.

He twisted his head aside, trying vainly to move out of Clark's range while pinned against the wall. "Clark, let's not go down this road right now. I'm not feeling it and I can't possibly be living up to a five-hundred-year fantasy of yours either." In response, Clark's grip tightened and Lex had to bite back a gasp of pain. "Clark, you're gonna break my wrists."

Clark didn't let go, but stopped adding pressure. He raised his head. Something apologetic--even remorseful--crossed his face before he continued his exploration of Lex's jaw and neck. Lex realized that he wasn't even noticeably breathing, let alone breathing hard. Lex thought he remembered breathlessness--but again, fantasy and memory were jangling harshly against current reality and he couldn't be sure.

"I've been waiting for you for five hundred years," Clark said, as if that trumped everything, excused anything. He pulled Lex's wrists up, out of the way, high enough to be uncomfortable, and leaned in again.

"Clark, did you hear me? I don't want to do this. And I know you--you don't want to do it either, not like this."

Clark just mouthed a cool trail up over Lex's jaw and ear and onto his scalp, his free hand groping downward, as crass and urgent as a fifteen-year-old boy, but with the strength of something entirely inhuman. "I can do whatever I want, Lex. Nobody can stop me. Nobody ever could. I'm sorry, Lex."

Lex could remember his father lecturing him after a particularly bad scene at Excelsior Prep. "Have your fun, son, however you like. I don't care who you fuck. But you're a Luthor, son. You should care who's fucking you. You don't let anyone, ever, take from you. Do you understand me, Lex? No one takes from a Luthor."

"You're right, Clark. I can't stop you. I see that. But I'm asking you to stop." It had no effect, and Lex's bored annoyance was giving way to anger. "Let go of my hands." Clark ignored him. Outside the pool of lamplight the room was dark. Sounds filtered up from the street, a normal night in Marais City. Lex twisted, tried to get out of Clark's grip, and only succeeded in straining his wrists. Clark's other hand went around the small of Lex's back and pulled him tight against his body.

Locked in an unwanted embrace, Clark's arousal evident against his belly, Lex felt his anger take on an edge of something akin to panic. The wall behind him, Clark's immovable bulk in front of him, his hands bound--it was like Belle Reve again, this trapped, powerless feeling, and he wanted to scream. He gritted his teeth against it. "God damn it, Clark, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Clark's hand found its way under his shirt and was groping his lower back, reaching below his waistband. The hand, like the lips, was cool and dry. Lex felt it, but felt nothing. Clark swung him around, practically lifting him off his feet, and there was some space behind him again, and he could breathe.

"Clark. Let go of my hands."

"Why? Do you want to touch me?"

"Not very much, at the moment. I'd just like the use of my hands back."

Clark shrugged and let him go. Lex reached behind himself, felt his jacket, groped for the gun, and suddenly his hands were back over his head in the grip of steel, and Clark was crushing Jayne's handgun in his fist as if it were made of paper. The lump of metal hit the wood floor with a dull thud.

"You really shouldn't have done that, Lex. I could never trust you." Lex felt the grip on his wrists tighten, felt himself pushed downward, pressed to his knees by an arm that might as well have been a ton of iron. "You know what I want you to do, Lex?"

Never let anyone take from you. "No, Clark. I'm not going to do that." A bone snapped in his wrist.

Before the cry of shock and pain was out of his mouth his hands were released and there was a blur around him, and his wrist was bound tightly with one of his silk neckties. He could feel the blood draining from his face with the pain, and with the realization of just how fast Clark truly was.

This was fucking insane. Lex broke away and made for the door. Clark was suddenly in front of him, barring the way, grinning a little as if he'd just revealed a quirky personal secret and wanted Lex to share the moment. His eyes were red, almost feral.

Lex tried to duck around him, knowing it was useless, and Clark grabbed his upper arm with one hand, nearly dislocating his shoulder. Lex was feeling something close to real fear now. "You just broke my fucking wrist, Clark. Let me go."

"You heal fast. I gave you that." Clark--this madman in the shell of Clark's body--picked him up as if he weighed nothing and dragged him toward the bedroom. Lex exerted everything to struggle against him, with no discernible effect. "Don't make this hard. I don't want to hurt you."

As soon as Clark laid him on the bed and let go, Lex sprang to his feet and made for the door, ignoring the agony every movement caused his broken wrist. His rational mind told him that there was no point, but everything in his body insisted that he try. The fact that he got all the way back into the living room before Clark blocked him again let him know that he was being toyed with. The reddened eyes looked amused, now almost predatory in their intensity. "I said I don't want to hurt you," Clark repeated, and carried him back into the bedroom, holding him in both hands as if he were a toy.

Clark stuffed a handkerchief into Lex's mouth and tied a second necktie over it, working fast but at something like human speed. Severe childhood asthma, the terror of not being able to draw breath, made Lex more afraid of the gag than of anything else. He struggled against it, ashamed of his own sudden, wild fear.

Clark gazed into his eyes. "I think I earned your love a long time ago, Lex," he said with a tender smile, leaning over him and pinning his body to the bed. "I think my father lied to me. But he's failing at last. We can be together now."

And all Lex had left in the universe was the will to still his terror and gaze back as steadily as he could. "I don't want to hurt you any more. Don't make this hard. Don't run away again."

He ran his hands down Lex's legs, pushing off his shoes and socks, caressing first one foot, then the other. He closed his hand around the instep, and Lex arched up off the bed, screaming in agony behind the gag as he felt the bone break.

Through the nauseous haze of pain, Lex realized that there were no good choices left. Make the one you can live with, son. He let himself go limp, dead weight, and didn't flinch when Clark's hand came toward him and began caressing his head.


"Here's to Simon!" Kaylee said, cracking open a bottle of beer and raising it.

"Here's to bein' rich!" Jayne amended. He handed Simon a bottle. "That was a good plan you had, Doc."

Zoe was sitting on Wash's lap, laughing. Even Mal wore a smile. Simon was a little amazed at how well the job had gone. Negotiating with the buyer was easy. There had been a careless but unmistakable gleam of collectors' lust in the man's eyes when he'd begun inspecting the professor's collection, and that had given Simon the confidence to drive hard for the best possible price. Imagining what Lex would do in the situation hadn't hurt either. Simon had needed a crate to carry the cash back to Serenity.

Simon couldn't remember if he had ever seen this much smiling aboard Serenity. Shepherd Book was partaking of the beer, and even Inara had poured herself a small glass.

The only thing detracting from the celebration was River's agitation. It had been increasing all afternoon, and Simon had first thought it was in response to his own tense anticipation of the job at hand. But the job was done and she remained nervous and unsettled, unable to relax or to smile for more than a fleeting second at a time. Simon set his beer bottle on the table and took her out into the corridor.

"What is it, mei-mei? Do you want a smoother?"

"No! No! Please, Simon, no smoothers. No sedatives. I promise, I'll try to be calm, but no drugs." She gripped his arm, was so earnest and apparently lucid that he abandoned the idea. "No, all right. Not if you don't need it." She sagged in relief. "But what's bothering you? Can you tell me?"

"Everyone's too happy. They think they're safe and they're not."

"What do you mean?"

She went distant and quiet then. "He's coming."

"Who's comin', little sis?" Jayne came out, a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. He must be feeling pretty mellow, Simon thought, to come willingly near River. She was one of the few things that actually frightened the man.

River shook her head, her lips moving. Jayne looked at Simon for guidance.

"River. Mei-mei. It's all right to say."

"His thoughts, so old, so cold. So old. So cold."

Jayne shrugged and started to leave. "No, wait! Get Vera." He turned back, looked at her speculatively for a moment, then shrugged and left.

Simon returned to the celebration feeling subdued. River's bad spells didn't disturb him the way they once had, but he had learned not to ignore what she said, and her words this evening left him with a sense of foreboding that drained some of the life out of the party. Apparently, they'd had a similar effect on Jayne, because when he returned to the galley a few minutes later, he had one of his large firearms.

Mal gave him an appraising look. "Feelin' protective of our large supply of money, Jayne?"

Jayne grinned nervously, glanced over his shoulder, caught Simon's eye. "Well, I ain't worried about your share."

Mal nodded, turned to Simon. "River say something to him?"

"She's...nervous. Seems to feel that someone's coming."

On hearing this, everyone turned to Wash. He held up his hands. "No, no one's coming. After that bounty-hunter, Kaylee and I rigged up an alarm. A personal sport ship couldn't hide in our heat wake without triggering a very loud noise."

Mal looked steadily at him.

"Okay, okay, I'll go check." He got up, grabbed his beer, and headed for the bridge. Zoe followed. Though she was rarely what Simon would have called relaxed, she seemed particularly wary and alert now.

Kaylee set down her bottle, clearly disturbed by the reminder of the bounty hunter, her eyes a little too wide. Simon had an ugly scar on his thigh to remind him of that encounter. Kaylee's scar was invisible, he knew, and went much deeper. Before he could move to try and comfort her, he was faintly amazed to see Jayne plunk himself down in the chair next to hers, put a burly arm around her shoulder, and pat the big gun holstered on his hip. She laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. A tear leaked down her cheek.

Mal studied his drink for a long moment, a muscle in his jaw working. When the sympathetic silence threatened to stretch into discomfort, Inara spoke up. "It was your turn, Simon."

"Hm?"

Kaylee sniffed, rubbed her nose, looked up. "Yeah, Simon," she said, making an effort to be cheerful. "What're you gonna do with your share of the money?"

Simon had an idea, not fully fleshed out yet, about the cost of new identities for himself and River, a place to live. A clinic or a hospital. Nothing he was prepared to talk about. "I could certainly use some new clothes."

"Ooh, me too!" Kaylee said, perking up. "'Nara, will you help me find somethin' pretty?"

"With pleasure, mei-mei."

"Hell, I'll buy ya a pretty dress!"

Mal, Inara, and Book all looked at Jayne in astonishment. Simon was a little surprised himself. Kaylee just smiled. Wash came back into the room. "Pretty dresses?" He turned to Zoe, who was a few steps behind him, slightly more at ease than she'd been a few minutes earlier. "I'll buy you something slinky."

"I might just wear it for you, husband."

Wash rubbed his hands together in anticipation, making a comical face while Zoe wore an impassive smile. Simon had wondered more than once how that marriage worked.

"The alarms are all working just fine, Mal. There's nothing in our wake. Nothing in the vicinity."

"Could be Little Sister's just nuts, as usual."

"Jayne!" Kaylee punched him in the shoulder.

Mal slowly rose from his chair. "No, I don't think so," he said, drawing his pistol. Jayne's chair clattered backward as he leapt up defensively, his own gun out in a heartbeat. Simon, confused, heard the cocking of Zoe's gun, and finally looked to see what Mal was aiming at. It wasn't Jayne. Behind him, coming through the door...

Before Simon could fully register what he was seeing, he felt a rush of air and found himself immobilized. The three guns were now swinging around, pointing at him, and something--someone--was pinning his arms behind him, a heavy and icy-cold arm around his shoulders, and more solid ice at his back. Mal, Zoe and Jayne looked as confused as he felt. Kaylee screamed and ducked behind Jayne, practically rolling under the table. Inara and Book backed slowly away, astonishment plain on their faces. Wash was in a half-crouch, looking from Zoe to whoever it was that had Simon in this impossible, freezing lock.

And Simon knew. He already knew, and could make no sense of it.

"Clark."

"You're a doctor."

"Yes."

"He needs you."

A blunt stab of dread with those words. Simon's heart went cold.

"Just a gorram minute!" Mal strode forward, his gun aimed over Simon's head. "Now, I don't know how you got on my ship, or who you are, but I'm armed and you ain't. I got a clear shot at your head and I'm beginnin' to be pissed off, and that's not a situation you want to be in, son. So I suggest you let the doctor go."

For less than a second, Simon felt his arms freed, the cold bulk behind him disappear, a movement of air. And then his arms were pinned again and the cold was back, but somehow, Mal was unconscious on the floor. Simon struggled to break free. "What did you do to him?"

"He'll come around in a few minutes," Clark said. "Lex needs you. We have to go."

A shot, a ringing of metal on metal, Zoe's gun still recoiling, and Simon felt the bullet fly past his cheek in the wrong direction, and--had it just ricocheted off Clark?

"Hold your fire!" he shouted. "I don't think you can hurt him. He's...I don't think he's human."

Zoe lowered her weapon, nodding. She knew she had just shot the intruder in the head, and could plainly see that he was unharmed. A practical mind. Jayne was taking a little longer.

"I'm going to take your doctor with me," Clark said. "Where are the space suits?"

"What? No!" Not spacesuits. Simon struggled again to get away. It was useless.

"You can waste all your bullets on me if you want, but Lex needs him, and if you hurt him by accident I'll be angry."

"Clark. Don't hurt anyone else. I'll go with you. All right? I'll go with you. Zoe! Let us go. Just...look after River."

Zoe nodded, lowered her weapon. Jayne still held his position, and Zoe didn't order him to stand down.

"The space suits. Where are they?"

"Below, in the cargo bay." Simon opened his mouth to ask where Clark's ship was, but before he could speak they were already in the cargo bay, in front of the row of pressure suits, air settling around them as if it had been displaced. Some of what Clark had told Lex that awful morning was coming back to him: ancient, invulnerable, alien. Fast. Very, very fast.

"I knew."

With a sinking feeling, Simon turned to see River emerging from between two cargo containers, and then he felt the hold on his arms loosen.

"River! Get away! Go upstairs now!"

She was holding her hand out in front of her, advancing, and Clark was buckling. Simon broke free of his failing grip. Clark was on his knees, his hands out defensively. "Where did you get that?" he gasped.

"Found it in my fortune cookie. Good luck for us. Bad luck for you."

Simon looked at her again, noticed that she was holding an ugly, heavy, man's signet ring set with a bright green stone. Clark was looking at it as if it could kill him. Simon judged from his apparent state that it might. "Gold finger ring," River said, a guilty grin flashing briefly. "Faceted stone, three centimeters in diameter."

There was a clatter of footsteps overhead, and Simon realized that the others were catching up.

"River, step aside." Zoe was taking careful aim from the catwalk. Jayne positioned himself on the walkway to her left. Each had a clear shot at Clark. Mal staggered forward, apparently sensible enough not to raise a weapon in his disoriented state. Simon was relieved to see him on his feet.

Clark fell back onto the floor as River moved in with the ring. "Go away," she said. "Don't come back." He seemed incapable of rising. Simon held up a hand to the crew on the catwalk.

"Wait, don't shoot. He's not going to hurt anyone." Simon knelt next to him, and Clark reached a weak hand out to pull him closer.

"You have to get to Lex. He's--it's bad. He needs you."

"What happened?"

"Please. Let me take you to him. It's the fastest way."

"No, Simon!" River screamed. She pressed the ring into Clark's chest and he moaned in pain. "Go away," she repeated. "Don't come back."

"Listen to me, please." Clark could barely speak at all. Simon pushed River's hand aside and he breathed a little easier. "I know the Alliance wants you back. They want me back, too. Do you know how much more they want me than they want your sister? Can you imagine?"

"Simon, step away from him," Zoe said in a low voice. Simon ignored her.

"You're saying if I go with you, you'll cut a deal with the Feds? You for my sister?"

He nodded weakly.

"Why should I trust you?"

"Make up your mind. Lex needs you. Now."

Zoe took her shot and missed. River flinched, startled, sending the huge ring flying off her finger. It rolled away between two containers, and Clark was on his feet suddenly, as strong as ever. Once again there was a rush of air and a nauseating blur of motion, and Simon was inside the cargo airlock with Clark, the door sealed. Clark held out a pressure suit as if it weighed nothing. "There's no time," he said.

Simon nodded. Only one door stood between him and the vacuum of space. Terror lanced through him. He got into the suit as quickly as he could. Clark checked the seals, the helmet, the air supply. Then Clark picked him up--effortlessly--and punched the airlock override. The atmo rushing out into space tugged at Simon's suit, but they didn't move. Clark stood, immobile and unaffected, as the bay opened. When it was wide enough, he seemed to flex his knees a little and jump, and they were in space, hurtling away from the ship, and Simon had never been so terrified in his life. The speed at which Serenity receded behind them was incomprehensible. One apparently-human arm in an ordinary red shirtsleeve stretched out before them, a bare hand fisted; the other holding Simon tightly. It was impossible. Simon closed his eyes and concentrated on fighting the nausea of freefall.

When he opened them, a planet was looming ahead, coming up rapidly. Serenity was two days out of Beaumonde and farther from everything else, so the planet, too, was impossible, but Simon was so far beyond fear and disbelief now that he had nothing left to be astonished with. Clearly, it was Beaumonde. Clark skimmed into the atmosphere, slowing, and there began to be gravity, a definite sense of "down." With diffused light and air around him again, Simon felt his terror ebbing slightly. The planet's surface was rising fast, but nothing was impossible and Clark could fly through space at incomprehensible speeds, and Simon trusted that he could also stop before they hit. It wasn't as if he could do anything about it anyway.

The curve of the horizon flattened as the surface filled Simon's whole view. They turned and flew into the advancing line of night, a map of a vast prairie unfolding beneath them, a town lit up in its midst. They slowed and with a degree of accuracy Simon couldn't even imagine, came down gently in the heart of the town and landed in deepening shadows on the roof of a building.

He was breathing real evening air before he could begin to assess what had just happened. His helmet had been removed--he saw it sitting on the coping of the rooftop before another blur of motion took him through a door and down a flight of stairs, and he found himself in a corridor he recognized--he was standing in front of Lex's apartment. Clark was nowhere to be seen. Simon went to the door, dread returning sharply as he saw that it was broken. The trauma unit at Capital City Medical Center had prepared him for anything, he told himself. He took a deep breath and went in.

Lex was on his bed. He was curled in a fetal position, partly dressed, his clothes torn. There was something tied around his face. There was blood on the white sheets, blood on Lex. "Wo de tian bu!" Simon said, hurrying forward. The bedspread and blankets were strewn on the floor and he tripped and nearly fell, awkward in the pressure suit.

Simon shut out all feeling and allowed his training to kick in. First check the scene for hazards, he recited to himself. You will be of no use to the casualty if you become injured yourself.

He quickly tore off the heavy pressure suit gloves and unsealed the suit, kicking the bedclothes out of the way.

Never approach the casualty from behind. Always approach so that the casualty can see you clearly.

Simon came around to the end of the bed, placed himself where Lex could see him. If he was alive. It was a silk necktie, a gag, and Simon's horror nearly made him sick. He noted significant facial bruising, already well-developed. A laceration over his upper lip had bled onto the pillows, and there was a lot more blood, oh Christ, it was in the center of the bed, and it wasn't a gunshot wound, and oh sweet mother of God what had the bastard done to Lex? Simon swallowed hard on a wave of rage that momentarily blinded him.

Make yourself known to the casualty and tell the casualty that you are a doctor. "Lex? It's Simon. I'm here to help you, all right? I want you to hold still and not move."

The blood appeared to have dried. Simon bent over Lex, saw respiration, and wanted to collapse in relief. A ya run tse de fo zu. Focus, he reminded himself. Breathe. Do your job. Skin temp a little cool, radial pulse rapid but fairly strong. Residual shock. Lex had been here for at least several hours.

"Lex? I'm going to untie this in a few seconds, but I need to check your head and neck first, okay? Just hold still. That's it. Can you feel this?" Simon went to touch his hand and saw that it, too, was bound in a silk tie, under which livid bruising and swelling extended from the wrist out to the fingers. Simon felt it like a knife to his own heart. He touched Lex's upper arm instead. Lex's eyes fluttered open, a look of panic above the gag.

"It's me, Lex. I'm right here to help you. Stay with me. Can you feel this?" He went to test feeling in the lower extremity, saw more bruising and swelling there, recognized it. Touched the other foot instead, and Lex gave a bare nod.

"That's good, Lex. You're doing fine. I'm going to take this off you now, okay?" Simon gently untied the gag, and as soon as it was clear he flung it away in horrified disgust. He pulled the wadded handkerchief out of Lex's mouth.

Lex closed his eyes again, his battered face seeming to crumple. He took a deep, shuddering breath and moaned painfully. Simon noted it, continued with the protocol. He was split into two people, the star trauma surgeon from Cap City Medical and this all-too-familiar man--this brother, this lover, this helpless child shattering in the face of so much pain. Simon gathered his courage. Right now, Lex needed Doctor Tam.

"I'm right here, Lex," he said. Simon examined Lex's head, saw no signs of trauma to the skull. Nothing at Cap City had prepared Simon to find him this way. He was amazed that his hands weren't shaking. Everything else in him was. "Can you see me, Lex?"

Lex didn't open his eyes. Wouldn't. "No concussion, Doc," he whispered, and then something Simon couldn't make out.

"What?" Simon leaned closer.

"He didn't hurt my head."

Simon didn't realize that he was crying until he saw a tear splash onto Lex's face.


Simon wasn't sure what to expect of the medical facilities in Marais, but the air ambulance that came within a few minutes of his call was a good sign. Mrs. Lai came right into the apartment with the paramedics, having listened to his call to emergency. She obviously understood more English than she let on. Simon had to propel her forcibly out the door. "Thank you, Mrs. Lai. Everything will be fine. I'm a doctor. Please, go back to your dinner. Everything's under control here."

"Who's going to clean that mess?"

Simon closed the door in her face. The paramedics were working fast and quietly over Lex, passing terse orders and information back and forth.

"Sir, what can you tell us?"

"His name is Lex Luthor. He's twenty-six years old, works for Tsang Industries. He was--assaulted--probably several hours ago. There's a fracture of the left wrist and another to the left foot, I think the medial cuneiform. There's at least one fractured rib. There's no evidence of brain or spinal injury. There may be internal bleeding--there's been blunt trauma to the spleen. The--uh, the rectal bleeding seems to have stopped but the tearing seems significant."

The paramedics, a man and a woman, exchanged glances as they prepared to shift Lex to a gurney. "You a doctor?" the woman asked.

"Yes."

"You a friend of his?"

"Yes."

"Any idea who did this to him, Doctor?"

"Yes."

Lex stirred. "Simon?"

Simon hurried to his side, took his uninjured hand.

"You're coming with me, right?"

"Of course. I'll be right here."

The paramedics lifted the gurney. "Okay, doc, let's go." They rushed Lex expertly and smoothly down the stairs and into the ambulance waiting in the street. A small crowd had gathered and Simon wanted to shield Lex's recognizable face from their view. He climbed in after the gurney, and they took off.

They landed at the hospital barely five minutes later, and Lex was passed quickly into the care of a waiting trauma team, with brief, succinct information from the paramedics.

"You gonna operate on me, Simon?" Lex asked as Simon hurried alongside the gurney.

"It's not clear that you're going to need surgery."

"It's pretty clear to me."

"I can't, bao-bei. I'll be right there, though, right outside the O.R."

"Make 'em be competent."

"I will."

"No stress release afterwards."

"I promise."


PART 8 - STANDING - NC-17

The chair next to Lex's bed was no place for sleep, but Simon had been sleeping there on and off for two nights now anyway. He was dreaming, and in the dream River was saying, "I told you he was fine," and then he woke with a start when he realized that someone was shaking his shoulder.

"Simon, di-di. I'm sorry to wake you."

"Inara! You're here."

"Me too. Hey, Simon." Kaylee waved from the doorway, looking a little uncertain, speaking very quietly. "And look who we brought with us." River stepped out from behind her.

"River! My God. I am so glad to see you!" He got up stiffly from the chair, looking from one to the other of them, three of the most welcome faces in the universe. "All of you. I'm so sorry, mei-mei! I didn't want to leave you."

"You had no choice, Simon." She hugged him tightly. "I told them you weren't dead!"

"She did," Kaylee said. "That's how come we're here." Simon shook off sleep and tried to come into the present. He joined them at the door, indicated that they should step out of the room.

"How did you find me?" he asked them once they were in the hall.

"We went to Lex's address first," Inara said quietly. "We spoke with his landlady. She told us what she knew." Inara looked at him steadily, asking the question without a word. Simon nodded. She closed her eyes for a second, took a deep breath, visibly collected herself. "Was it--Clark?"

"Yes, I think so."

"So old. So cold," River muttered. She tugged at something around her neck--a cord holding the ugly ring that had had such a powerful effect on Clark.

"How is he?" Inara asked.

"Physically? Recovering. Stable. They were able to repair--" Simon stopped, tried to find his voice again.

Kaylee took him into a fierce, warm embrace. "We're here to help, sweetie." Simon nodded, his chin on her shoulder, still unable to speak.

"Some of the others are waiting down the hall," Inara told him. "May I explain to them what's happened?"

Simon looked back through the door at Lex, deeply sedated, sound asleep. Serenity's crew was the closest thing to family that Lex had. "Yes. I think they need to know. I'd appreciate not having to--that is..." He halted, saw complete understanding in her eyes. "Thank you, Inara."

She nodded, pressed his hand and left, gliding down the hall gracefully toward a task that Simon felt sure she would handle better than he could. He turned to Kaylee, who gave him an encouraging smile, her arm still around him. River went quietly back into the room to sit next to Lex's bed, murmuring, "Remember the red berries and the honey, Lex." Simon didn't know what she meant, but it sounded nice.

It wasn't long before Inara returned with Shepherd Book. "Inara told us, son. I'm so sorry." He, too, gave Simon a brief hug. His face was dark with anger and sorrow. "You go and get some rest. Doesn't seem like there's too much more you can do here right now. So why don't you let me take a watch. River? I'll have that ring now, sweetheart, just in case."

River pulled the cord from around her neck and handed the strange green-stone ring to Book. He nodded, satisfied. "You go on. I believe these ladies have arranged everything."

It turned out that Inara, Kaylee and River had already taken rooms at a hotel. All three of them--even his little sister--just seemed to know why he hadn't been able to go back to Lex's apartment or leave his side. They didn't ask him a single question about it.

Simon washed away more than two days' worth of grime and terror and anxiety in the bathroom of a very expensive hotel room, and when he got out of the shower he was amazed to see some of his own clean clothes hanging inside the door. He dressed and came out to find all three of them sitting comfortably in armchairs, talking quietly, looking refreshed and calm. All of them were wearing pretty dresses, even Kaylee. It was almost as if they were attending a ceremony, and that mark of respect--of seriousness--was comforting in a way that Simon couldn't quite identify. There were three or four silver covers set out on a table in the middle of the room.

"We ordered room service," Kaylee said. She looked around at everyone with a rueful smile. "I always wanted to order room service." Inara patted her hand. "Come and eat, Simon. We're havin' fish, and peas, and some little teeny carrots...and there's this nice bread. You gotta eat, Simon. Look--it's all fresh."

"Thank you all, very much--for thinking to bring my clothes. And for being here. It means a lot to me. Thank you."

"Don't thank us, Simon," River said. "We brought you your share from the job. It's huge. You're paying." Kaylee gave a short laugh. Inara caught his eye and shook her head very slightly.

Simon had almost forgotten about the antiquities job. "Did Dr. Di--Mr. Shareef--get his money?"

"We ain't had time to go back to Boros yet, Simon. We came straight after you. We'll get there though, don't you worry. Mal's itchin' to get all that money outta Jayne's way real soon."

"I believe he plans to leave for Boros in the next day or two." Inara lifted one of the covers, and delicious smells rose, making Simon aware that he hadn't eaten in more than a day.

Kaylee said, "The nurse at the hospital told us you've been here two days. How's that possible, Simon? You only left Serenity two days ago."

"I don't know. Clark--he's very, very fast. When he put me down on the roof of Lex's building I don't think I'd used half the air in the tanks. I can't explain it. It happened so suddenly."

"We were certain you were dead within moments of going out that airlock," Inara said. "It was River's insistence that finally swayed Mal to turn around and come back to Beaumonde after you."

"He's so stubborn," River said, her attention focused on eating peas with chopsticks.

"It was her knowin' about that ring that made Mal listen to her about you." Kaylee looked at River in awe. "She had that thing in a takeout box under her bed."

"How did you know about it, mei-mei?"

"It was obvious. I just knew. Old and cold. He was always coming toward Lex."

"You tried to tell us, didn't you?"

"Simon," she sighed, a replica of their mother. "I'm always trying to tell you something."

"What I want to know," Kaylee said, "is, how'd you know about that--that Clark?" She invested the name with disgust. "You recognized him when he came on board the ship."

"Clark?" Simon looked at Inara, realized that of course she had never said a word to anyone. "I--uh, I met him when I was here before--when I came to visit Lex a few weeks ago. Apparently he and Lex go back about five hundred years."

"You mean he came here the same way Lex did?"

"It's my understanding that he simply--lived. That long. And waited for Lex to show up."

Kaylee's eyes narrowed. "Wonder what would happen if we made a big bullet outta that green rock." She didn't look as if she were kidding even a little.

River glanced up from playing with the peas and said, "We need him alive."

"Yeah? Well he should be dead."

"Oh, don't worry about that. Where he's going they have things worse than death." The pleasant look that River gave Kaylee chilled Simon's heart.

When the dinner things were cleared away, River turned to him and said, "We need to talk to you about rape and violation. We all agreed."

"What?" Simon looked from his sister to Inara, suddenly feeling a bit frantic.

"I think what River means is that there may be some things about Lex's situation that we can shed some light on, if you like. Things that may help you be of more help to him."

"All right. I think." He was surrounded by women, all looking at him solemnly, and he was beginning to understand the dresses, and the seriousness. They were going to Have A Talk with him. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so--young.

"You're breaking when you don't have to," River said. "Lex is the one who's been hurt. He's lost part of himself. The valence electrons that form the metal bond have been knocked out of orbit, but the element is still gold."

"I'm sorry, mei-mei. Inorganic chemistry was a long time ago..."

She sighed. "You don't have to break up into your component parts just because Lex has been hurt. You need to be whole to help him come back together."

Kaylee reached across the table and put her hand over his. "See, the thing is...well, after that bounty hunter--" Kaylee hesitated. "Well, I know he didn't actually--do--what he said he was gonna, but anyway, after that I wanted to die. For days after. Just curl up and die. And everyone was real nice to me, and Mal bein' all guilty about it just made it worse."

Simon remembered those difficult days and wondered if he, too, had unknowingly made it worse for Kaylee.

"You know what helped me the most? You won't believe this, but it was Jayne. He got to tellin' me dirty stories one afternoon. Just, you know, stupid stuff, jokes and the like, about a whorehouse he went to once. Made me laugh, made me feel like I wasn't made of glass. Like all that whole part of life--you know--was still real. For me. See, Jayne was the only one didn't regard me as broken right after...afterward."

The idea that there was any real comparison between her experience and Lex's seemed ridiculous. Simon swallowed, nodded, knew better than to say a word.

"Lex will need similar reassurances," Inara said. "Kindness and compassion are your finest qualities, di-di, but too much kindness stings the violated heart. As his lover you have a special responsibility to bring him back into his body, into the pleasures of it, as soon as he's physically healed."

This conversation was moving beyond the boundary of what River should be exposed to--or of what he should be exposed to with her in the room, anyway. He risked a glance at her.

"Just pay attention, Simon."

"Um...yes. All right."

Kaylee picked up the thread again. "I know what happened to me ain't the same as what happened to Lex. I ain't pretendin' it is. I'm just sayin' that I think we might have a lot of the same feelings, is all--how come I wasn't stronger, why wasn't I braver..." she trailed off, clearly remembering, then seemed to re-focus, and went on. "Why would a man do that, say those things? What good am I to anyone if someone can do that to me?"

She paused and looked down. After a moment, she took a deep breath and seemed to gather herself. "Lex, well he coulda been beat up in a fight, or a wreck, and you'd just get him fixed up and move right on. You're treatin' him different 'cause of how he got hurt, and Mal treated me different 'cause of how I got scared. Jayne--he doesn't think that much, just figured I might like to get right with the idea of men and such again, you know? Lex is gonna need the same thing." She smiled. "I bet you never dreamed anyone would tell you to be more like Jayne Cobb."

Simon just shook his head.

River leaned forward over the table next to Simon, turned her head to one side, and looked up into his face, a childhood gesture. She regarded him from that angle for a long moment, searching. "I started getting better when you let me."

Simon blinked, recognition dawning. Had he tried too hard? All the drugs, all the tests, all because he couldn't bear her pain. He'd never thought to ask if she could. He reached out a hand to touch her cheek. "God, mei-mei. My God. I'm so sorry! I didn't realize..."

She came back upright, drew away with a teasing smile. "See? Should've said, 'Saved your life. Kiss my ass.'"

"River!" Simon was shocked at her language, confused and disheartened by her words. Inara said "Could it be that River has been spending a little too much time with Jayne herself?"

"Small ship."

Inara turned to Simon, a look of concern on her face. "River may have put it a little more baldly than I would, but she makes her point: you aren't responsible for Lex's pain any more than you were responsible for River's. You have saved both their lives, and you have nothing to atone for. Your suffering is needless. Do you understand what we're telling you?"

"I think I do, yes. I'm completely mortified, but I think I understand."

"Oh, Simon, don't be! Your actions have all been driven by love. By empathy. Kindness and compassion are the best possible soil in which to plant a relationship."

"I wouldn't be here, Simon," River murmured. "I'd still be...there."

"That's right, Simon. And for Lex, I don't believe love could have taken root in any lesser ground. But right now he needs your other qualities more."

"Make him laugh," Kaylee said. "I know it don't seem possible, but it is. Let him know that he's still--you know, a man. A whole person. That you don't see him as broken. 'Cause he ain't. Not deep down."

River nodded solemnly.

"I--uh, I don't think I have any whorehouse stories--at least none that are funny."

"Oh, you'll think of somethin'." Kaylee grinned at him. "I know you, Simon. You're funny. And I know you make Lex smile." Then she stood, stretched, kissed him on the cheek. "Well, you look pretty tired. Come on, River. Let's let Simon get some sleep."

"I think we should go to our room and order cake. We've earned it. 'Night, Simon."

"Good night, mei-mei. Thank you both."

Inara smiled after them as they left. "I've taken a room here as well. I'm looking forward to it. I hope we haven't accosted you too stridently tonight."

"Not at all. Well, maybe a little." He scrubbed the back of his head, once again very tired. "I suppose I should be grateful to you for not getting any more detailed in front of my little sister."

"Simon! I would never do such a thing. Though River is certainly old enough to understand something about your relationship with Lex. I would, however, be happy to discuss technicalities with you privately at any time. And I mean that." She delicately suppressed a yawn, then stood to leave. Simon rose, wondering at just what point Inara's knowledge of the human body and its needs departed from his own medical understanding. It was possible that he might want to ask her a few things. If he could bring himself to. Later.

"Good night, di-di," she said. "Yan mian. Lex is in good hands. And he's very fortunate to have you."


Lex woke to a darkened room and noticed at once that Simon wasn't in the chair. He'd been there constantly for what seemed like days, a troubling presence, a demand that Lex couldn't meet. It wasn't as though Simon could protect him if Clark decided to come back. It wasn't like Simon could do a single fucking thing that the hospital staff wasn't already doing. All Simon could do was be there, looking sad and exhausted, and Lex didn't think he could cope with more of it.

There was someone else in the room, though. Lex felt a momentary panic before recognition dawned. "Zoe? Is that you?"

"It is." She walked into view.

"What are you doing here?"

"Takin' my turn."

"Your turn." Lex considered that for a moment. "Is Serenity back on Beaumonde?"

"Uh-huh."

Lex wondered if they had come on his account, hoped to God they hadn't, didn't feel like asking. The last thing he wanted was a lot of people involved his business. Especially this business. Bad enough that Simon had had to find out. "Was Book in here earlier?"

"He was."

"I thought I heard some praying."

"Man can't help himself. Means well. How are you feelin'?"

"I've been worse."

"That so?"

And the way she said it made him wonder. He honestly didn't think he'd ever been worse than in the hours after Clark had...before Simon had found him. He was much better than that now. But there was still a black hole in the middle of his mind, made of pain, and horror, and shame, and it was sucking most good things into itself. So it would just be best if no good things were offered. He was glad Simon had finally gone away.

Lex looked at Zoe, impassive in the darkness, the stillness of her face easy to mistake for peace. A shaft of light slanted in across her body, catching a green glint of some gemstone hanging from a cord around her neck. It reminded Lex of Smallville, and Clark, and he shoved that thought away before it could take shape.

"Simon's sleeping--got some fancy hotel room up the street."

"Glad to hear it. He was overdoing the whole vigil thing."

"Too much kindness. Doesn't always sit well."

Exactly.

"I sent Wash to supervise at your place. Cleanup and such."

So they knew. A flash of torn sheets, and broken furniture, and blood, and Lex wanted to cringe away from it but it was inside his head and there was nowhere to go, and it was going to replay itself over, and over.

Before it could, Zoe went on. "I know you ain't gonna want to go back there, and there'll be a lot of things you're gonna feel like are changed forever. But they're not. You're strong. You got folks who care about you. You can face anything if you let 'em help you. You gotta let 'em help you."

She fell silent, never having turned to look at him.

Lex didn't want to depend on people. But he had to admit that Zoe's presence here was comforting. Only the drugs had been keeping him from panic every time the door opened or a shadow moved. Now a soldier--a warrior--was right here in his room, and some of the tension was draining from his body, and the black hole in the corner of his mind seemed to shrink just a little.

"Thank you, Zoe."

She nodded, put a hand to the gun on her hip, and went back to standing at the door.


The next voices Lex heard were those of the two nurses who'd been attending him. It was daylight again. He didn't open his eyes. The emotions he'd seen in the faces of his caregivers ranged from sorrow to anger, from sympathy to barely-veiled contempt, and he wanted none of them. No one was neutral about what had happened to him.

"They were here all night," one nurse was saying to the other. "First one then the next, two hours at a stretch."

Lex listened, interested.

"Didn't someone explain about visiting hours?"

"Lakshmi said she tried, but they all just ignored her. They had guns! Except the shepherd, but she said he scared her bad enough just the same. Then the next fella was bigger than Dr. Morton!"

They had to be talking about Jayne. The idea of Jayne standing guard over him was a little unsettling. The idea of Jayne knowing why was--basically unthinkable.

"And I guess the next one never said a single word, just smiled at her, cold as a stone, and sat here till that tall woman came." Lex wondered what had persuaded Mal to commit Serenity's entire warrior contingent to the care of an ex-passenger. He wondered if maybe it was a crew thing. A "family" thing. Could hardly imagine it. More to do with Simon, he supposed, than with himself.

As the nurses left the room, Lex heard one of them say, "Good morning" to someone, and Simon's voice replying. For Simon, Lex supposed he could open his eyes.

He came into the room looking clean and rested. "Hey. How are you feeling?"

"Zoe seems to think I've never been worse, but I'm not doing too badly, really."

"I wouldn't have left your side for any less formidable a guard."

"You've been here way too much, Simon."

"Yes. I realize that I probably wasn't helping. My own sister had to point it out to me, though."

"River's here?"

"Everyone's been here. Inara, Kaylee..." He pulled up the chair and sat. "I met your boss."

"Madame Tsang was here too?" Jesus. "Does she know--" He had to pause and regroup a little, wondering how soon he could get back to work, and what it would be like when he did. "Does she know what happened?"

"Inara spoke to her. I'm sure she said exactly what needed to be said. You can count on her that way."

It was true, Lex reflected. He'd never met anyone as discreet as Inara unless it was Madame Tsang herself.

Simon, who had spent two days holding his hand and two nights sleeping in that miserable-looking chair, was now regarding him pleasantly. Lex was puzzled. He didn't want Simon's heartbroken look of sympathy. He really didn't. It was a relief not to see it. Just kind of unexpected.

"Madame Tsang certainly thinks highly of you. It seems that your foreman--Jace, is it?--is not able to fill your shoes. I suspect she would cover your hospital bill herself and give you three weeks' paid vacation on Ariel if it would speed up your return to work."

"Think three weeks would be enough?"

"More than enough, I'd say. Your healing, as usual, astonishes medical professionals everywhere. I expect you'll be able to use your left hand again within a week or so." Simon gave him a look of studied blandness. "Between now and then, I'm here to do anything for you that you can't do for yourself with that hand out of commission." He didn't look like he was joking, but sometimes it was hard to tell with him.

Lex felt a little angry. Maybe more than a little. What the hell did he think he was doing, making sexual innuendo in this situation, of all situations? Was he that naive? "You offering to jerk me off, Simon?"

Simon shook his head with the ghost of a smile. "Not...particularly. It might have crossed my mind. I just know how very left-handed you are. In any case, your wrist is healing fast, and so is your foot. You'll probably be walking in a couple of weeks. Tests indicate that your spleen is nearly back to full function. And your other injuries seem to be healing at similar rates. Three weeks should easily see you back to most normal activity."

"So, what? You're counting the days till I'm well enough to be fucked again?"

Simon didn't even flinch. He should have flinched at that. "Actually, I was counting the days till you're well enough that I can be fucked again, because that's almost certainly going to be sooner, and I'm looking forward to it. But the other, too. Someday. Whenever you're ready."

The arrogant bastard. "What if that's not what I want anymore? Did you think of that?"

"Yes. I thought about that for two days, and I've decided that it's an unacceptable outcome. I'm here to see that you do want it again. That's my job right now. It's the one nobody else can do."

"Oh, bullshit, Simon. Do you think that because we've fucked a few times, you can magically make me all better now, after what's happened? Trust me, you're not that special."

Lex wanted a goddamned reaction, but Simon wasn't reacting. He was choosing this moment to stick to the point, just looking at Lex for a long moment, searchingly. "What has happened, Lex? You were assaulted by some--some insane machine--in a human shape that no one has the power to stop. Zoe shot him in the head and he wasn't even scratched. He brought me to you through space with no ship. I don't know what he is, but we both know he's not human. I don't understand how he could even be an organic life-form. You couldn't have stopped him. He appears to have only one weakness--this--" Simon held out a large, ornate ring set with a green stone "--and you didn't have it." Lex recognized it as the pendant Zoe had been wearing last night. Knew it for meteor rock. Kryptonite. He could barely stand the sight of it.

"I'll never know what you went through--not really," Simon went on, putting the ring away in his pocket. "But I've dealt with some trauma--you may recall that I did that for a living before I joined the Fugitives and Criminal Masterminds Union--and here's what I know: people heal." He covered Lex's undamaged hand with his own. "You heal."

Lex pulled his hand away. "So you're just ignoring all the implications of--all this?" God, he hated mincing words. He tried again. "You're just ignoring the fact that I'm here not because I fell down the stairs or wrecked my car, but because I was fucking raped? By an old friend? Who broke my foot with his bare hand when I tried to get away? Broke my wrist when I wouldn't blow him, and then made me do it anyway?"

Simon was looking a little pale. Good.

"Well, it wasn't a bar fight that tore up my ass and broke two of my ribs, Simon--it was him, fucking me, too hard, for too long, out of control, and I tried to relax and let it happen but that didn't prevent a goddamn thing--" Lex broke off, his chest locked up, short of breath. Tried to inhale deeply, couldn't. "It was sexual assault, okay? It was rape, and if you think I want to think about sex, with you or anyone else, think again."

Simon should have been a mess by this time. He should have been kneeling beside the bed, holding Lex in his arms and fucking well weeping. But he wasn't. He was still pale, clearly shaken, but he was looking steadily at Lex and thinking. Biting his lip and thinking. After a moment he stood and took a step or two away, then back. Pacing.

"What if there's no such thing as 'emotional damage'?"

"What the hell are you talking about? Believe me, Simon. There is."

"No wait. Hear me out, because this is important. What if it's all just very subtle physical damage at the cellular level? Cellular biochemistry wasn't my specialty at Medacad, but I did study it, and I mean, think about it: emotions are a real experience, but where else do you experience them--what else is there to experience them with--except your body?"

He came right to the bedside then, sat back down, pulled the chair in closer, avid. "You heal from everything else, Lex. You have none of the characteristics of trauma syndrome from the abuse your father inflicted on you--you healed from that. I was amazed, back when we first met, at how much emotional shock you seemed able to absorb without lasting damage. You healed from all of it. My God, you've built a complete life for yourself in circumstances that would have reduced an ordinary person--me, for instance--to a gibbering basket case. You healed from being moved five hundred years across time and learning that your whole planet was gone. So why wouldn't you heal just as readily from this?"

Lex looked at him. He was serious. He really believed what he was saying. It sparked a tiny hope--that maybe that black hole of horror and shame would keep diminishing, just the way his lacerations did...that it might someday actually be gone. Hope warred with belief. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that idea today."

"That's all right. There's no hurry. We've got lots of time."

"'We'?"

And Simon finally looked taken aback. Angry, even. "Oh. I'm sorry. Were you hoping to tough this one out by yourself?"

Lex met his gaze for a long moment, feeling uncomfortably like a schoolboy, and nobody had that power. Nobody. Lex needed control back. "You're out of your mind if you think I want to share this."

"Then don't," Simon said dismissively. Lex felt his jaw clench. "No one's asking you to talk about what happened, or expose yourself to shame, or express your feelings, or weep and moan, all right?"

"And of course, tearing of hair is completely out."

Simon gave him a level look. "When did the 'poor mutant me' gambit last work for you? With your nanny?"

"Fuck you."

"Yes, as we discussed. As soon as you feel up to it. And in the meantime, you're going to heal, and I'm going to help you, and so is everyone else, and you need to accept that. Let Inara deal with Madame Tsang, and let Wash supervise the repairs in your apartment. Let Book say his prayers. God, let Jayne sit here half the night with his gun looking mean and scaring the nurses. Let us do what we can."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"What are you going to do?"

"I thought I made that clear."

"You made it clear that you want to have sex with me again."

"Yeah, well sex is a lot of who you are. Because of you, it's a lot of who I am now, too. Somebody used it against you, and I'm not going to let that part of you die."

"So you're--what? You're gonna act as my sex therapist?"

"No! Ni ta ma de tian ben dan! God, Lex, I'm the one who loves you. I'm the one who's going to stay with you until you make me leave. When are you going to get that? I don't care about the people you've fucked at cocktail parties or whoever you used up our jing wan hong on. This is for me to do. Not them, and not anyone else. Because I am exactly that special. When you're better, if you decide you don't want me around, we'll discuss it. But it won't be because you were raped, and it won't be because I treated you like some fragile, breakable thing. And it won't because we never had sex again. All right?"

Lex was stunned by the tirade. "Yeah, all right, Simon. Damn."

"Good. I'm taking you home today. Dr. Wong has released you."

"I think I liked you better when you were sleeping in the chair."

Simon's intense frown eased. "No you didn't. And I know I didn't. I was overwhelmed by your pain, and it didn't do either of us any good. I'm sorry I wasn't stronger for you." Sweetness, Lex noticed, was making its overdue appearance. "I know that everything I just said was a little harsh."

A little? "I expect to recover from shock eventually."

"I'm not going to beg your forgiveness for it."

Never less than honest--that was Simon. "You could beg a little."

"Yes, but my sister informs me--reliably, I think--that at this point I should remind you that I once saved your life, so you can kiss my ass."

Lex tried. He really tried to get back some of the anger. But in the face of Simon using a phrase like "kiss my ass," he just couldn't. Instead, a small laugh almost bubbled up from somewhere. "I'm not that easy, Tam."

"That's not what I heard."

"Well, take me home and maybe you'll find out." The black hole was still there, but if it was possible to smile, then anything was possible.

Simon stood, brushing his hands down his thighs as if he'd just completed some ordeal. "I'll go and see about a wheelchair and a transport home."

Lex grabbed his arm. "Simon, it really may be a long time before I want--"

"I know, xin ai. It's all right."


The first week wasn't too bad. Lex still needed a lot of help with the basics, and when he wasn't bored, he was frustrated. For the first two or three days at home, he couldn't comfortably sit, or stand, or lie on his left side. Simon played chess with him, and go, the game board between them on the bed. And they talked, but not about what had happened. Lex spoke of his childhood, the trauma that had taken all his hair in exchange for his enhanced immune system, the loss of an infant brother and the death of his mother--he seemed to be trying to place his assault into a continuum of pain in his life, and when Simon tried to ask him about happier moments, Lex spoke of Smallville. Simon understood that those memories were now tainted, maybe irredeemably.

Simon brought him newspapers, got food, ran errands, made calls, did everything he could except actual medical care. For that, he paid a nurse from the hospital to come in. Lex had said, only once, on the way home in the taxi, "You won't be my doctor, Simon, not for this," and Simon had understood.

After a few days at home, Lex insisted on going down the stairs and out into the street using the one crutch he could manage, and Simon had to half-carry him back up when the effort took more of a toll than Lex was prepared to admit. Lex slept a lot, and every half-day brought visible improvements in his condition.

Simon volunteered to sleep in the spare bedroom, but Lex wanted him closer. There was a new bed to replace the one Clark had broken--Madame Tsang, apparently, had sent over the most beautiful one the factory made--and there were fine new linens courtesy of Inara, and they slept there together, but apart. Lex's sleep was disturbed by dreams, and Simon's by the agitated sounds and movements that the dreams caused.

The fact that Lex never wore the green ring or carried it was a constant source of worry to Simon. He hoped that Lex was simply taking a stand against living in fear. He couldn't bring himself to ask.

Simon did most of the legwork involved in connecting Mrs. Lai's old building to the Cortex and bringing a dedicated source box into the apartment, really not that complicated a matter when there was money to spend on it. As soon as it was in, Lex's boredom and frustration were replaced by work. He dressed himself in fine but casual clothes that didn't require too much buttoning, hobbled into the second bedroom--now the office--and alternately sat, stood, and paced in front of the link, running his foreman Jace ragged with demands for documents, notes, figures, reports.

Madame Tsang herself came to the apartment a few days later. A handsome and dangerous-looking attendant in traditional Sihnon garb was two steps behind her.

"Hello, Dr. Tam," she said, dismissing the guard with a barely-visible gesture. He turned and took a station outside in the corridor. "Alexander and I always meet on Tuesday afternoons. I thought we might resume this practice while he convalesces."

"I don't see why not." Simon ushered her inside, mentally cataloguing Lex's strengths and limitations as of the moment, and decided that a short visit would probably do him good.

"Thank you, Doctor."

"Please, Madame Tsang, call me Simon. I'm not a doctor here."

"Very well. I will." She glanced around the living room, noted the two chairs, looked back at him. "I trust our meeting here will not cause any inconvenience to you."

It took Simon a moment to recognize that she had just dismissed him, too. If he wasn't mistaken, he had just been treated as if he were merely...the wife, and that idea was too uncomfortable to contemplate even briefly. As politely as he could, he saw Madame Tsang seated, resisting his bred-in-the-bone impulse to offer her the hospitality of tea. He went into the office and said, "Your boss is here. For your weekly meeting." A surprised, almost eager expression brightened Lex's face, and Simon added, "I'm going out for an hour." He did not say, "Do you need anything?"

Simon left the apartment, needing to move, as he always did when the internal climate changed. He walked through the town and found himself before long in front of the small hospital where Lex had been treated. He sat on a low wall for several minutes, observing as people came and went. An ambulance pulled up and discharged paramedics and a patient in a flurry of the familiar, disciplined chaos that was trauma and emergency work. As they disappeared into the hospital, Simon noticed that he was leaning avidly forward, watching and listening.


The second week was worse. Simon became more unnecessary as Lex recovered. Lex's sleep had calmed considerably, the dreams diminishing. He even touched Simon sometimes at night, allowed a hand or a leg to come into contact, a pale shadow of the intimacy Simon wanted more than anything, but a hopeful sign of Lex's healing.

And it was clear from that, and from the calm focus and drive Lex brought to his work in the little office, that Lex was healing emotionally as well as physically, just as Simon had predicted he would. Simon could see no place for himself in Lex's life when that recovery was complete. He could see no place for himself anywhere. Serenity...Simon wasn't sure he could go back there--all they really needed was a competent paramedic, and he didn't think he could stand to feel marginal and adrift for much longer.

In order not to drive Lex crazy with unwanted help or attention, Simon spent more and more time out of the apartment. He had money for the first time in a couple of years, and used some of it to buy gifts for River and Inara and Mal's crew. He walked a lot, saw every sight there was to see in Marais City, spent a lot of time in restaurants, and even a little in bars. Thought about going to Lex's tailor and ordering a suit, but that little fantasy felt wrong in reality, and he ended up buying a couple of ready-made things instead. He wound up in front of the hospital a couple of times, and one afternoon at shift's end he recognized the woman paramedic who had helped take Lex in. He waved.

"Hey, Doc," she said, walking over to him with a friendly smile. "I heard your friend went home. How's he faring?"

"Very well. I never got the chance to thank you for your help."

She brushed that away, sat with him on the wall. "We were callin' you 'the man from outer space' because of that pressure suit we saw lyin' on the floor. Don't believe we've ever seen one of them on a call before."

"It's a long and weird story."

"Yup--and don't worry. I ain't askin'. Just glad to know your friend's gonna be okay."

Like most paramedics Simon had met, this one was tough, cynical, competent--and near burnout. He'd never met one who didn't desperately need to change jobs, convinced that no other work was really possible. They liked being indispensable. Before the conversation was over, she had given Simon the name of her sister-in-law, the hospital's chief of surgery, and Simon had given her the name of the captain of Serenity.


The news that changed everything came at the end of the third week. Lex went back to the factory for the first time and Simon was in the apartment alone when the door buzzer sounded. Lex's new security monitor showed an unknown woman at the building entrance, dressed in black. Not a uniform, exactly, but the sort of suit worn by mid-level government officials. Simon hesitated for a long moment before pressing the intercom. "Yes?"

"I'm looking for Dr. Simon Tam."

Over his sudden stab of panic, he answered as calmly as he could. "I'm sorry. There's no one here by that name."

"Then I beg your pardon. I was instructed to deliver a message to Dr. Simon Tam. In person. At this address--the residence of Lex Luthor. The message is from Clark Kent."

Hearing that name was even worse than hearing his own name pronounced by a Fed. He wanted everything about this moment to disappear, just vanish forever and never have happened. For a frantic second he tried to see how this could be a ploy.

Do you know how much more they want me than they want your sister? Was it possible that Clark had actually done what he said he would do?

"Wait there." A few moments later, Simon was in the foyer, holding his breath. The woman simply looked at him, consulted a photograph on her pocket link--Simon recognized it as the one used on his arrest warrants--and handed him a chip. "No one was here. You never spoke to anyone," was all she said before turning away. "Good luck." She walked quickly down the street and out of sight.

Simon breathed again. A Fed had identified him and walked away. He was still free. Not bound by law. It was a miracle in its own way.

Back upstairs, Simon inserted the chip into the source box. A document came onto the screen, an official bulletin from the Security Ministry, dated about a week earlier and entitled "Rescind Order: For Immediate Distribution, All Points." Simon read it in growing amazement. The bulletin, in four languages, informed all cruisers and planetary security stations that the arrest warrant profiles for Simon and River Tam had been removed from the central database, their citizenship and accounts restored. It advised all branches of Security to consider the case closed and to cease any search efforts.

Simon stared at the document for a long time, hardly breathing. He'd never even considered the possibility that Clark would fulfill his side of the bargain--had never given it a second thought.

It took a while for the truth to sink in. He and River were no longer wanted by the Alliance. No longer fugitives. River could finally go home to the Core, get the expert help she needed, and he could...

He didn't know what he could do now. He'd been running for more than two years, and now everything was open to him again. He was free to practice surgery. Free to open accounts and have records and credentials transferred, free to use his name and return to the work he loved. He didn't need a new identity. He could--conceivably--contact his parents, go back to the Core, pick up the pieces of his life. Or he could build something entirely new.

He sent a message to Serenity--could send one now, freely, addressed to River Tam, and even if it were intercepted it would trigger no Alliance cruiser, no bounty hunter. "I have good news, mei-mei..." he began, and then had to pause and let the catch in his voice ease a moment before continuing.

He was just finishing the message and attaching the rescind order to it as proof, when he heard Lex come through the front door. Filled with his news, uncertain about how Lex would receive it, Simon barely had a chance to hit send and stand to go greet him before Lex was in the room, bearing down on him, pushing him against the wall, devouring him with one of his demanding, hungry kisses.

Simon didn't realize how much he had missed the taste of Lex in his mouth until he was filled with it again. Every thought winked out, and he was only aware of Lex's lips and tongue and hands and heartbeat, and the smell of him, a little sweaty from the afternoon heat, his shirt hot and damp under his jacket. Lex was hard against him and Simon was helplessly drowning in the desire that he'd held back for weeks. Lex wedged a knee between Simon's legs and Simon wanted to ride it.

"I'm feeling much better," Lex murmured between kisses.

"So I see."

Lex pulled one of Simon's hands down to the front of his trousers. "Feel it."

Simon did, and moaned. The shape of Lex's hard cock under his hand, under layers of clothes, was something Simon had imagined over and over again during the long restless nights of Lex's recuperation; had imagined unzipping the elegant trousers and bringing that cock out, and he only hesitated now because nothing was certain anymore. He'd imagined a gradual return to this, and instead Lex was all but pulling the buttons off his shirt, sudden, urgent, and Simon dimly told himself that what was normal for Lex probably had nothing to do with other people's normal.

"I was thinking about you at work today. Finally just had to leave and come home." Lex grabbed both of Simon's wrists and pulled them up over Simon's head, pinning him to the wall, the knee again pressing between Simon's thighs. "You never really could resist me, could you?"

No. Never. Simon shook his head, his knees threatening to give, just a little.

"Don't start today." Lex kissed him again, fast and hard, still holding his wrists. His grip there was firm. Maybe a little too firm. "I want you to suck my cock, Simon."

And Simon wanted to, had been wanting to for weeks, and months, and his whole life, and felt absolutely no need for the coercive pressure Lex was exerting on his wrists, pushing him downward.

"I don't know what you've been waiting for," Lex said, with a hard downward shove.

Simon knelt voluntarily, awkwardly, in front of Lex, undercutting Lex's force in order to ease the pressure on his hands, remembering the things Lex had said about Clark's assault. Broke my wrist...made me do it anyway.

Simon looked up, scanned Lex's face. "Whatever he did to you, Lex, you had no choice."

The grip tightened, a confirmation of Simon's guess.

"Are you going to tie me up? Because unlike Clark, you probably can't just break my wrist with your bare hand." Simon was on dangerous ground and he knew it. He sat back on his heels. "If you want to handicap me, go ahead. Your tie should do. Around my wrists once, then a loop between them and a nice square knot--you know I'm not going to risk damaging my hands by fighting silk restraints."

Lex was breathing fast. With a sound that was more feral than human he shoved Simon's hands back, hard, against the wall, as if he really would break them if he could. His face was dark with rage, his teeth bared in a snarl, his pulse pounding in the veins standing out on his scalp and neck. Simon knew his hands were in danger, and that his surgical career could vanish in the next single, violent moment. He let it go. Never took his eyes off Lex's.

He wasn't afraid. He was cutting. Someone's life, someone's second chance at wholeness, was in his hands and every single time you wield the scalpel you have to risk losing everything--yours and the patient's--and there was absolutely no room for fear.

Lex stared down at him savagely for a heartbeat that seemed to stretch forever. Then with an inarticulate shout he gave Simon's wrists a last, bruising shove against the wall, wheeled, and stalked out of the room. Simon sagged to the floor, flexing his fingers, finally breathing. There was a crash of breaking glass in the living room--the decanter, from the sound of it--followed by another wordless shout from Lex, a couple of loud thuds, and the apartment door slamming.

Simon got up unsteadily after a moment. He went to the window in time to see Lex moving down the street, limping slightly, and people stepping back as he passed, small creatures from the path of a wounded predatory animal.

The mess wasn't too bad. Simon righted the chairs and surveyed the floor. The decanter was shattered--glass and whisky everywhere--but nothing else seemed to have succumbed to Lex's rage. He spent some time gingerly picking up shards of glass. He used a bathroom towel to wipe the floor and the brass tray--had no idea of how this sort of cleaning was supposed to be done--and because it seemed irremediably threaded with glass slivers, he threw it, reeking of whisky, into the garbage.

Then he took a moment to assess the rest of the damage. Some bruising was developing around his wrists, not serious, but nothing he would want, say, a chief of surgery to notice during a preliminary interview.

He held his wrists under cold water for a while in the bathroom basin, and it felt good but had no effect on the purplish marks. He came out into the bedroom and was just pulling on his best white shirt to see if its cuffs were long enough to cover the bruises, when he heard the sound of a key, and the front door opening. He paused and listened warily. The door was closed quietly, the footsteps slow and soft. The storm must be over. Simon considered buttoning the shirt up, or taking it off, and finally just left it open, the cufflinks unfastened, and thought that half-undone was as good a representation of his feelings as anything. He went to the bedroom doorway.

Lex ignored him, carefully positioning a new, unopened bottle of whisky on the table between the armchairs. He bent and fished two fresh glasses from the shelf below and set them, just so, alongside the bottle. Finally he straightened and looked at Simon. His face was still. Somber. A little wary. "Could I offer you a drink?"

Simon knew it for an apology, as close as Lex could get to one when he didn't control the circumstances. No prepared speech, no carefully-chosen words. It was good enough.

"You could. And I'd accept." Simon stayed in the doorway.

Lex's face lightened a little then, and he almost smiled. His whole body seemed to relax, its strings suddenly loosened, and it was just possible, Simon thought, that Lex had doubted the outcome of that moment.

He looked Simon over appreciatively as he broke the seal on the bottle. He splashed whisky into the glasses, glanced up again. "You look really good like that."

"Yes. It was accidental."

Lex came across the room and handed Simon a glass, sipped from his own, and the smoky taste of whisky on his tongue when he took Simon into a deep, searching kiss was intoxicating all by itself. Simon felt his own glass slipping from his hand, and Lex laughed when it fell.

"God, I've missed you," Simon breathed before returning to his exploration of Lex's mouth, yielding and rich and warm. "So much." He wasn't familiar yet with this kiss. It wasn't in Lex's normal repertoire. Simon thought perhaps it was in his.

Lex's hands were exploring under the open shirt, his head back as Simon kissed his neck, and under his ear, and it was time, and past time, and Simon had waited long enough. "Let me go down on you, bao bei," he said. "I want you in my mouth."

Lex nodded, and Simon pushed him gently against the doorframe, slid down his body, knelt, ignoring the liquor splashed on the floor. He undid Lex's fly, pushed his trousers off his hips and let them pool around his feet. The dark boxers were already damp and Simon mouthed the hard shape of him through the fabric, the fragrance of Lex's arousal making him ravenous, the heat wafting off him making him lightheaded.

When he pulled the thin silk down and Lex's beautiful cock was free, he took its weeping head into his mouth, plunging as deep as he could take it all at once, and Lex gasped in surprise and bucked involuntarily. Simon felt a hand on the back of his head and Lex moaned what might have been an affirmative in some language.

Simon stopped, pulled back, looked up at Lex and said, "Shh. No talking." Then he applied himself to every detail of Lex's pleasure, everything he could give with his lips and tongue and hands. He'd thought a lot about this moment and he gathered all those thoughts now, and all Lex had taught him and done for him, and the times he'd done this for Lex before and how much better he wanted it to be now, and he was able to do it, take him all the way, swallow him. Lex thrust into him, groaning without words, and Simon felt something like triumph as he swallowed again and ran his hands up the backs of Lex's thighs, to his perfect ass, restraining his movement.

"Oh God, Simon. Christ! Let me fuck your sweet mouth forever."

Simon loved the sound of Lex's voice, loved the searing things he said, but he stopped again, withdrawing his mouth slowly along the hard, wet length of Lex's straining erection. "No talking," he repeated, and before he took Lex back into his mouth he moistened a finger with his tongue, ran it tentatively along Lex's cleft, down, gently circling the opening there that was physically healed but so wounded. "Am I hurting you?"

Lex shook his head. Simon pressed his fingertip inside, only a little. "Now?" And Lex shook his head, but with a grimace of something not completely made of pleasure, and Simon took his finger away, put his hands firmly on Lex's narrow hips, went back to what he'd been doing. Lex started to speak, but remembered and let out only a wordless, wild sound.

Lex's cock was beautiful, and his balls were beautiful, and his thighs, the muscles straining forward, and Simon couldn't get close enough. He wanted to merge completely into Lex's body, be merged with, chaotic and hot like the colliding of two galaxies, the beginning of some entirely new universe, where Lex was his and only his. Simon came close to orgasm just from the pleasure of pleasing Lex this much--from the noises Lex was making and the overwhelming fullness of his mouth, his throat, his hands. His own arousal was submerged, secondary, snatched into the orbit of Lex's white-hot need, a binary star.

The hand came around the back of Simon's head again, twined in his hair, and Lex was moving rhythmically now, faster. The sounds coming from him built in intensity as Simon swallowed again, sucking hard, gripping the last inch of him between two fingers, harder than his lips could be, and Lex roared out, uncontrolled, as he came, a hot torrent surging down Simon's throat.

Simon hung on as long as he could, feeling Lex soften and recede in his mouth, then licked his way clear, swaying back, wiping his mouth with the cuff of his best shirt, his lips swollen and tingling. Lex was slumping against the door frame. The glass of whisky was still in his left hand. His eyes were closed, his forgotten garments pooled around his feet, his shirttails parted wantonly. His breath came in gasps, his chest still heaving. His upper lip and forehead were beaded with sweat.

Simon rose, satisfied and yet still aching with his own need. He took the glass from Lex's hand and tossed back its contents, Lex with a whisky chaser. He pressed a kiss to Lex's temple, dared to caress his perfect head for the first time, and Lex leaned into his hand almost imperceptibly. "You're back," Simon said, and thought with wonder, I brought you back. Lex nodded, his eyes closed, still not talking. Whether he simply couldn't yet, or was following the rules for a moment longer wasn't clear. Either way was good.

Lex settled into the present slowly. "I hurt you," was the first thing he said, looking at Simon's wrist.

"A little. Please don't do it again."

"No." Lex sighed, pulled Simon's palm to his lips and kissed it. "I'm sorry."

"I know."

Lex toed his shoes off, unbuttoned his shirt and added it to the pile of clothes on the floor. Completely naked, he went into the bedroom. "I think," he said over his shoulder, "that between us we're short about one blowjob."

Simon followed him into the room and shut the door.


At some point, when the afternoon had turned to evening, Lex let Simon fall asleep on his chest, sated and happy. That closeness meant a lot to Simon, Lex knew. He didn't really mind it himself--it just still felt a bit foreign.

He'd spent whole afternoons and evenings in the past, any number of times, demonstrating prowess, pursuing arousal and release, playing endless and artistic variations on a simple theme--fucking, basically. This had been different. Fewer edges, more deep places. Somehow quieter--though there had been plenty of sounds--and hotter, and darker, as if all he'd ever done in the past was play with flames and pretend it was dangerous; this, whatever it was, had lain at the heart of some forge. Lex wasn't ready to dwell on its implications at the moment.

"Hey," he said quietly, nudging Simon's arm. "You there. Paging Dr. Tam."

"Hmm?"

"Dinner?"

"Nothing to eat in the house, bao bei--" Simon smiled, still half asleep, and nuzzled Lex's chest lazily. "...least, not food."

It was too juvenile for words and Lex vainly fought an answering grin. "Come on, Simon. Dinner. Out. I'm starving."

Simon groaned, opened his eyes, raised himself a little. His hair was a mess, his lips were swollen, his cheeks were flushed with his brief sleep, and there were hand-marks on his back and the creased imprints of the sheets on the delicate skin over his ribs. Freshly fucked looked better on him than on anyone Lex had ever known. Lex considered it possible that his judgment was a little partial. Yawning, Simon added, "Couldn't we just send out for something?"

"Nah. I have this urge to go out. Be seen. Show off."

"With me?"

"The showing off would make more sense that way, I think." He slapped Simon's ass under the sheets. "Get up. Shower. Clothes."

"Oh, all right." Simon sat up, stretched, and put a hand through the back of his hair, making it, impossibly, even sexier. "But you're buying."

"Wait a minute! You're the rich pirate-surgeon."

"Nope. You're buying. Tycoon."

They ended up at a small, dark place with what Simon called "pretensions of being Londinium-style." The server gave them a knowing smile as she seated them, and beamed at them all the way through her recitation of the menu.

"We seem to make her happy," Simon commented as she left with their order.

"Yeah, well, all the world loves a lover." And that brought one of Simon's small, hidden smiles. As always, it faded too soon.

"I--uh, there's something I need to tell you--would have told you sooner, except..." Lex wouldn't have thought Simon could still blush over sex, but apparently he could. "Anyway, it seems I'm a free man."

"What?" Lex was momentarily confused.

"Yes, word came today. Some Fed, or maybe ex-Fed, brought a document to the apartment this afternoon while you were at work. It was a system-wide rescind order on River's and my arrest warrants."

Lex blinked. That was a pretty major news item to defer till dinnertime. Then he recalled the very first part of the afternoon with a twinge of extreme discomfort, and understood how the news might have slipped Simon's mind. "Do you believe it? Is it valid?"

"Yes. I'm pretty sure it is." Then, unexpectedly, Simon looked away and down. It was a furtive look, the sign of a lie, and Lex knew it well, and hated it all the more because he'd never seen it from Simon.

But before Lex could close off a part of himself in response, Simon took a deep breath and looked at him again, directly and steadily. "When Clark was aboard Serenity, he told River and me that he would turn himself over to the Alliance in exchange for our freedom, if I would come to help you."

Something like stone coalesced instantly in the middle of Lex's chest. He could hear the chill in his own voice as he said, "And you didn't think that was worth mentioning sooner?"

"Well, no," Simon answered, looking puzzled. "I didn't put any stock in his promise at the time--I thought he was only saying it to get River to back off with the ring. And what he did to you didn't make him seem any more trustworthy later. I honestly never thought about it again till today."

The server brought their wine and Simon fell silent. Lex waited, increasingly cold, as she poured. Any interest he'd had in the wine, or the meal, was gone. When he didn't taste the wine, Simon took the glass and did it for him, nodding an apologetic approval to the server. Lex just willed her away. As soon as she'd gone, Simon said, "I'm sorry, Lex. It never crossed my mind to mention it until this document came today. I've had other concerns. So have you."

That was too much. "Don't ever decide what my concerns are." Lex knew his tone was cold and threatening, and part of him acknowledged that it might be a little over-dramatic. Simon seemed to think so too, because he just poured wine into the other glass, handed it to Lex, and said, "Well, someone had to."

"Damn it, Simon--" and Lex found himself at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

"Look, Lex, I don't pretend to understand the connection between you and Clark. I just notice that you don't keep the ring with you, and I wonder if part of you wants him to come back."

Lex cringed a little at that. He had once wanted what Clark had finally forced on him so violently. Maybe he had never really stopped wanting it. Maybe he had deserved it...two murders... Lex wondered if he'd fought hard enough. Wondered if maybe hating Clark wasn't that clear-cut a choice. He looked at Simon, feeling suddenly bleak. "What if part of me does want him to come back?"

I'd walk away in a heartbeat.

I'd return to Serenity tomorrow and leave you to your fate.

I'd go home to Osiris and surround myself with people who deserve me.

Simon didn't say any of those things. He shrugged. "Well, you loved him."

And Lex wondered for the first time if that had ever been true. "God, Simon, I don't have the slightest clue what love actually feels like." The words were out before Lex realized how cruel they probably were.

Oddly, Simon showed no signs of having just been stabbed in the heart. He leaned back, looking at Lex for a long moment, an unreadable expression gradually giving way to a faint smile. Then he reached out and took a couple of Lex's fingers casually. "Yes. You do."

For someone so ridiculously sweet--so fucking tender-hearted--Simon was amazingly resilient. In his way, he was harder to hurt than Lex was himself. Lex realized that he might as well quit trying. The old adage about choosing your battles came to mind.

"I guess I could have the stone re-set in something less hideous," Lex offered after a moment. He couldn't imagine wearing a stone that gaudy in any setting, and he absolutely didn't need Simon's approval, but it was a relief when Simon shook his head.

"No. It'd still be ugly. Make you look like a gangster."

"Maybe as a cufflink?"

"A particularly tasteless gangster. Besides, if it gives off radiation that affects Clark, how healthy could it be for you? Isn't it the same stuff that made you lose all your hair?"

"Good point. We could have it tested, I guess. It must have some specific chemical properties that make it do what it does--obviously a long half-life. We could find out how to counter it. Even how to replicate the effect." Lex warmed to the subject, ideas flowing. "There are almost certainly medical uses, if my own history is any indication. How are you with medical research? Think you could run an experimental lab?"

Simon laughed. "Whoa. Wait. No, I'd be terrible. At least, I think I would be. Besides, as soon as I get my license reinstated, I'm going to talk to the chief of surgery about a job at your small and semi-rustic hospital."

There was a world of implication in that little plan, and Lex wasn't about to ignore it. But when he looked for something to say, all he could find was, "So...you're thinking of staying around awhile?"

Simon just looked at him.

"Yeah, okay." It was weird, sometimes, to realize which battles you just weren't going to win. They'd need a bigger place. Maybe it was time to buy the building--there were ways to get Mrs. Lai to sell--then they could take over the whole top floor, knock out a few walls...Madame Tsang's builder was pretty good...

Lex didn't realize that his mind was wandering again, planning, until the server came with their first course. She grinned as he let go of Simon's hand to make room for the dishes.

It wasn't La Tour d'Argent, but it was the best food Lex had tasted in weeks. He was very hungry. Simon seemed to have worked up an appetite too, and Lex enjoyed watching him eat, his exquisite table manners giving way here and there to an apparently ravenous hunger. Between favorable comments on the food and wine, Simon talked about returning to surgery, his ideas for getting River the help she needed, the possibility of contacting his parents. The second and third courses came and they spoke about Serenity, what transport work Lex might throw Mal's way, Tsang Industries' expansion into the mill business.

When the dishes were finally cleared, Lex divided the last of the wine between their two glasses. He sat back, full and satisfied on every physical level. He needed to return to the important subject they'd skirted earlier. "So, do you think he actually turned himself in to the Alliance?"

"Clark? I do. They wouldn't have let River go, I don't think, for much less." Simon looked into the bread basket, selected something with seeds in it. "I don't see how they can hold him against his will, though, do you?"

"Not without kryptonite. Most of which must still be on Earth. So he's probably out there somewhere."

"It certainly seems possible."

Thoughts of Clark's strength and invulnerability weren't going to be comfortable for a long time. "And if he comes back again?"

Simon dipped the bread into his wine and put it in his mouth, licking his finger and thumb, apparently unaware that that was sort of...hot. Or maybe he knew perfectly well. It was hard to tell with him. "I didn't have a lot of chance to observe him, but his action in coming to get me did seem to be motivated by some version of love. And remorse. I guess I would expect that to keep him away from you, at least for the present."

"You may be right." Lex admitted to himself that he was both glad and sorry about that, and decided that it didn't need saying.

"What I don't understand," Simon went on, "is why he came to me after--after what he did to you. I mean, setting aside how he even located us out there in the black, why me?"

Lex realized that he knew the answer to that one, and wasn't sure he wanted to tell it. "Well, he did find us in bed together."

"So?"

Yeah, fair enough. "Later, after you'd left that day, he asked me about you." Lex hesitated, corrected. "He asked me if I loved you."

"What'd you tell him?" Simon was swirling a crust in his wineglass.

"What do you think?"

Casually, Simon tipped his head back and dropped the bread, dripping with wine, into his mouth, and there was no way that was accidental. "I think you didn't answer him at all."

"Well, okay, but it was an eloquent silence."

Simon raised his eyebrows with a faint, knowing smile, and Lex wondered how the hell he was ever going to get used to this much acceptance. When the silence stretched on to an uncomfortable point, Lex said, "So...would you like some dessert?"

"Yes. I would." Simon drained his wineglass and hooked his foot around Lex's ankle under the table. "Just not here."

"What're you saying, Doctor? That you put out on the first date?"

Simon dabbed wine from his lips with the white napkin. "I might make an exception in this case."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Oh, I don't know. You're kind of attractive. I heard you were a great lay."

Lex almost laughed. "Well, I warned you about my reputation."

"Yes. Newspaper headlines, I believe you said."

"Yes, exactly." Lex remembered something that he'd been meaning to say to Simon since about two minutes after their first kiss. It was finally important enough to mention, and suddenly he felt more serious. "You know, Simon, there's a lot about me you don't know yet. Things about my past, things I've done. You have to realize that I'm not a nice person."

Simon's eyebrow went up again. "Were you--uh, were you looking for a shocked reaction? Because you won't get one from me. I know what you are. What I don't know about your past I can guess."

"And?"

"And you'll observe me not really giving a damn." Simon smiled a little. "As long as we're making confessions, here's mine: I am a nice person." He gave a mock sigh, raised his hands placatingly. "I know. I know, it's boring, but there it is. I'm a nice person--I'm a good guy. I wear white at work, and I save people's lives, and everything. If it hasn't changed by now, it's probably not going to."

"Damn. And here I was taking credit for having thoroughly corrupted you."

"Well, I think 'debauched' might be a better word. But I'm still nice. You might as well get used to it."

Lex felt a laugh rising from some half-amused, half-hysterical place inside where starting life on a new planet in a new time was easy compared to this--compared to accepting the huge, unasked-for gift in front of him. It was going to be strange. But it would be interesting. Maybe for quite a while.

He fished out his wallet and threw a pile of cash on the table that probably amounted to dinner plus a one-hundred-percent tip. Might as well make a splash--obviously, this was going to be their restaurant. "Shall we get out of here?"

Simon rose and placed his folded napkin just so amid the debris on the table. He shrugged into his jacket, smoothed the lapels, buttoned it up neatly and adjusted his cuffs. Lex caught himself tapping an impatient finger on the back of his chair and stopped, but not before Simon noticed.

Simon gave a slow, wicked, triumphant smile, full of the promise of losing battles, and unending annoyance, and sweetness to come. "Yes," he said. "Let's go home."

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Title:  The Things I Cannot Change
Author:  Dark Emerald   [email]
Details:  Standalone  |  NC-17  |  *slash*  |  355k  |  11/01/04
Characters:  Simon, Other - Lex
Pairings:  Simon/Lex
Crossover with: Smallville
Summary:  Something unexpected happens to Lex Luthor in the Kawatche Caves. And as a result, something *really* unexpected happens to Simon Tam aboard Serenity.

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