TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 21
It's not a problem... 'cause it's not.
RATING - R - maybe bordering on NC-17?
SLASH - Mal and Simon.
Thanks again to wedjateye for beta-ing.
Mal awakes to find the sheet covering him is stuck to his belly. He peels it back, wincing as it rips out a few hairs. Beside him Simon stirs. His eyelashes flutter briefly, before he rolls over onto his side and resumes snoring softly, his lips in a satisfied curve even in sleep.
Boy ain't lily-white an' pasty all over this mornin', Mal thinks guiltily as he traces a finger down a long scratch on his back. Torn an' bruised an' still smilin', gorramit! A flashback to the night before is painfully vivid in Mal's mind. Wo de ma! He still can't quite believe it - even with the evidence before him. He smiles ruefully to himself, surprised by a dull ache in his jaw. Putting a hand to the side of his mouth, he discovers a cut on his lip and a chuckle bubbles up in his throat. No - the Doc never was weak. Knew it the moment he laid eyes on him. Pushed him hard that day an' ever since - testin' the instinct that told him someday that spoilt rich boy would be a man he could trust his ship an' his crew to, if'n he had to. Never thought he'd wind up trustin' his own self to him.
Simon yawns, rubs his eyes and blinks. "Mal? Oh." He blushes and the smile left over from his dreams widens.
Mal hooks a wayward lock of dark hair behind Simon's ear and as he does so is overwhelmed with tenderness for this irritatin', determined and - yes - beautiful young man. Lifting one of Simon's hands to his mouth, he turns it over and kisses the palm.
"I ain't promisin' anythin' an' I still lean towards women ... but, uh, d'you wanna do it again?"
Simon looks at him, considering. "Or-" he runs a hand up the back of Mal's leg "- this time *I*could-"
Mal heads off the unsettlin' suggestion with a kiss. "What part of 'I lean towards women' do you not understand?"
"The part where you have lubricant. Beside your bed."
Mal huffs, not so sure of his ground now. "All that stuff up there - had it in the war. Never got round to throwin' it out."
"Very frugal of you," Simon mock-approves. His eyes sparkle. "So what you're suggesting would be a repeat of last night?"
Mal nods, then grins. "Without the hittin' one another. That suit you?"
Simon's arms snake up around his neck. "Very much."
And for the first time, Simon sees how dazzling Mal's real smile is.
"No doubt about it, gentlemen," Commander Chang reports. "The vessel is definitely also in pursuit of the target and she's faster than us. She'll be upon them within a matter of hours."
Gaunt clasps his hands together behind his back and turns to his colleague. "The time for intervention is upon us. Early was one thing but these ... " he pauses, as if unwilling to say the word - "these women are another entirely. Unpredictable."
Ginger sighs. "Indeed. One knows where one is with simple avarice, even when it's tainted by sadism." He turns to Chang. "We will require your fastest pursuit vessel."
"Your fastest armed pursuit vessel," Gaunt amends.
"Have a bit of a lie-in this morning, Sir?" Zoe asks and even though it's still relatively early, she looks pointedly at her timepiece.
Mal tries to keep his grin within normal parameters. "Somethin' like that. Not that it's any business of yours." He strides over to the coffee pot and pours out two large mugfuls.
"You make any breakfast? We got any eggs left?" he continues, looking around hopefully.
Zoe turns a delicate shade of green.
"Feel like I could eat a horse."
"A whore?" Jayne asks, his attention momentarily diverted from polishing the weapon in his hand until he realizes his mistake. "Oh."
Zoe ignores him. "Certainly have a spring in your step, Sir," she observes coolly. "Must've slept well."
"Yeah, I did at that. The Doc gave me somethin'."
One of Zoe's eyebrows lifts ever so slightly. "Wondered how you got the black eye, Sir."
There's a pause as they exchange a look. Then the comm system crackles into life.
"Mal? Got some information on our tails for you," Wash's disembodied voice announces.
With a sigh of irritation, Mal places the mugs he'd been plannin' on takin' back to his bunk down on the counter an' heads off to the bridge.
"The larger one's definitely an IAV," a dispirited Wash is telling Book, as the pair scrutinize the radar screens. "And it's locked onto our trajectory. As for the other one - well, your guess is a good as mine."
"Oh, I dare say his guess is a lot better than that, Wash," Mal remarks, joining them on the bridge. "Preachers're famous for their spaceship recognition."
A glance at the Captain's face and Book's benign smile turns knowing.
"What?" Mal demands. "What?"
Wash spins his chair round, looks up at Mal and his mouth falls open.
"You-" Wash gestures vaguely with a hand near his own face "- you got a thing. Well, several actually."
Mal's eyes narrow at his pilot's feeble efforts at lookin' concerned and serious. "So?"
"Nothing," Wash says quickly turning back to the radar screens. "Uh - we've got an IAV making slow but steady progress towards us. And this other thing, moving a lot faster."
Less than an hour ago, Simon was breathless an' shudderin' in Mal's arms. Now it's business as usual.
"What d'you want to do Mal?" Wash asks.
What does Mal want to do? He wants to go back to his bunk an' find Simon there, naked an' waitin' for him. He wants to lose himself in that boy - in that man, Mal corrects himself. Lose himself in his heat an' his strength. That's what Mal wants.
But it ain't about what he wants. Never is.
"Do the job. Get paid. It ain't that far to New Hall - might even make it there an' out again 'fore they catch us."
"And if we don't?" Wash asks with a frown, thinking about his wife and the new life swelling inside her.
Mal's grim expression is not the answer his pilot was looking for.
Simon gives up waiting for Mal to come back to bed. Mal's the Captain. Something requiring his attention must have cropped up. Because otherwise, Simon is sure he'd be here. Well - he's almost sure.
It's only as he finishes dressing that he remembers Mal saying something about Serenity being followed. He smiles to himself. In normal circumstances, news like that would have made him frantic with worry and yet last night Mal managed to distract him so thoroughly, so completely, that Simon forgot about being a fugitive. Forgot about everything. Even his sister.
He's still smiling when he slides the door to her room open.
"You're happy." The way River says it, it sounds almost like an accusation.
Simon blushes and looks down at his feet. "Yes."
"Haven't been happy for years." Her voice is soft, wistful.
It makes Simon feel guilty. "I've been all right. You can't always expect to be happy."
River nods. "Pomegranate seeds."
She throws back the covers and gets out of bed. "Made him happy too." Her bare feet are pale against the steel plating. Like a wraith's. "For now."
Something cold crawls up Simon's spine. No, he isn't going to ask her what she means. In fact he's going to pretend he didn't even hear those last two words. He opens his surgical bag.
"Before - you said you loved him. Do you? Do you love him Simon? Really?" River's questions come at him as fast and pointed as flying blades.
"I - it's - uh -" Simon takes a deep breath. "Yes. Yes, mei-mei, I do."
River snorts. "Love is not in love."
Simon stiffens. "I've brought your medicine," he tells her, syringe in hand.
River tosses her hair back, her eyes boring into his. "Time to wake up."
Mal steps off his ladder, two fresh mugs of coffee in one hand. Hell, if they're all gonna get blown to diyu he's gonna spend at least some of his remainin' hours with Simon.
See? That there explains Mal's policy against shipboard romances in a gorram nutshell! At this precise juncture he oughta be comin' up with a plan, not achin' to be skin on skin with his medic again. For a moment Mal wonders if Simon's ministrations ain't so much fixed him as made him weaker. Mayhap havin' to keep folk at arm's length had somethin' to be said for it after all.
Pushin' the notion firmly to the back of his mind, he asks gruffly "You still snorin'?" but there's no answer.
Mal's bunk is empty. Simon has gone.
Di'n't oughta feel disappointed about it - after all, it ain't like Simon's gone far - an' yet Mal does. Wanted more time with him. More time with him an' nobody else.
The two mugs of coffee get poured untouched down Mal's sink. So much for bein' frugal.
Simon musta gone to check on his sister. With him, River's always gonna come first.
Which is exactly as it should be. Mal's got no quarrel with that.
None at all.
"We'll be within firing range by this evening, Mrs Burgess," the pilot tells his employer.
"Firing range?" Her voluptuous red-haired companion's head snaps round. "We aren't going to be firing on them, hon. That isn't the plan at all."
Belinda Burgess says nothing, just carries on staring out of the viewports at the tiny point of light she imagines to be Serenity.
Saffron's sea-green eyes cloud over with suspicion but quickly clear as she slots the pilot's comment into place. She turns to him and smiles sweetly. "Well, maybe the odd warning shot. Just to show Captain Reynolds we mean business. Good plan, Belinda!"
Belinda Burgess inclines her head but still says nothing.
She's good, Saffron will give her that. Pretty convincing for a woman who hasn't been trained in deception. Sadly for Belinda Burgess, Saffron has and she reads people very well.
She's not surprised. After all, Belinda Burgess' interests and her own were only ever going to coincide up to a certain point. This evening it appears they are destined to diverge.
Saffron smooths the creases out of her skirt, feeling for the reassuring ridge of her concealed holster.
"I'll make us some lunch," she suggests. "I'm a fine cook. Everybody says so."
By lunchtime Jayne has cleaned an' loaded every last one of his favourite guns - an' a few more beside. He leans back in his chair, surveying the gleamin' and polished hardware with satisfaction. The sight settles the churnin' in his gut some. He's got a bad feelin' about this job. Not nothin' he can put his finger on - jus' the gorram certainty that it ain't gonna go smooth.
He picks up Vera an' strokes a hand lovingly down her barrel. The feel of her cold, hard metal is always a comfort.
Footsteps echo down the hallway leadin' to the kitchen, but Jayne don't bother lookin' up. He knows every single one of Serenity's crew by their tread. This here is Kaylee's - light but grounded, even in space. 'Course, no-one else smells quite like the mechanic neither. She smells of engine oil an' fresh mown grass, mixed with somethin' sweet like fruit or maybe honey.
Jayne sits up straighter, squares his shoulders an' puffs out his chest a mite. After all, there ain't no point in him hidin' his light under a bushel. It ain't gonna be long 'fore Kaylee realizes it's a real man she's lookin' for - not some pretty Core boy who's only got eyes for menfolk in general an' one man in particular.
Reassured the kitchen's only occupant in Jayne, Kaylee steps down into the room.
"Hey," she greets the mercenary, but her smile is wary. "You all alone?"
Jayne indicates the guns spread out on the table before him. "Got all my best girls here." He looks up an' gives her a leer. "Leastways, now I do."
But Kaylee is too distracted to even notice the compliment, let alone respond to it. "You seen the Cap'n this mornin'?"
"Was in here earlier."
Kaylee twists a strand of hair between her fingers. "How'd he seem? I mean - last night ... Well, d'you think he's still mad? Is he mad at me at all?"
"Don't think he's mad at anybody today," Jayne tells her, congratulatin' himself on havin' been right about the cause of Mal's foul temper all along. Man jus' needed to get laid.
Kaylee's face brightens noticeably. "That's good. Maybe he let Simon give him somethin'. D'ya think?"
In Jayne's estimation it was most like the other way round. He can't see Mal bottomin' for no-one - but Jayne ain't gonna share his thoughts on that subject with Kaylee. Folks got a habit of blamin' the messenger when it comes to bad news. Nah - if'n Mal an' the Doc are gonna break Kaylee's heart, let 'em do it themselves.
At that very moment Simon and River appear, Simon trying to persuade River that she needs to eat something and River insisting that he doesn't understand the substance of things.
"Here's the Doc now," Jayne points out loudly. "Why don't ya ask him yourself?"
Simon glances nervously at Jayne, then Kaylee. "Ask me what?"
"I was jus' wonderin' if'n the Cap-" the mechanic begins but stop abruptly when she sees the fresh pattern of bruising on Simon's face. "Oh, sweetie!" she exclaims, an' forgettin' all about how he's been leadin' her for gorram months, she crosses the room to lay a comfortin' hand on his arm. "Are you okay?"
At first Simon has no idea what she's talking about. Okay? Of course he's okay! He's better than okay. He spent the night in Mal's bed an' made love with him again - again - on waking. How could he not be okay?
Kaylee touches Simon's face gently.
"Wouldn't have wanted to do it to anyone else," River whispers. Mal should choose his prepositions with more care. Little words mean a lot. The little words people do say and the little words they won't.
Simon pulls away. Kaylee's misplaced kindness is making him uncomfortable. "I'm fine, Kaylee," he assures her, turning back to River. "Don't worry."
Kaylee scowls and plants her hands down on her hips. "The Cap'n did that, di'n't he?" she demands angrily. "Tamade! An' you only tryin' to help him. He can be such a kewu de lao baojun!"
Her back to the door, Kaylee don't realize Mal's approachin' till she hears his jaunty "You talkin' 'bout me, li'l Kaylee?" and receives a quick peck on the cheek as the Captain makes his way over to the food lockers.
She glares at his back through narrowed eyes as he opens a door, takes out a foil sachets an' tears it open with his teeth.
"So, why you cursin' me today? What d'I do this time?" he turns to ask with a grin.
"You hit Si-"
Wo de tian! Kaylee's jaw drops. Cap'n's even more battered than Simon. Least Simon ain't got a black eye.
"Oh," she says in a small, confused voice.
Mal laughs an' risks makin' eye contact with Simon. "No need to look so glum, mei-mei. Me an' Simon are shiny - ain't we, Doc?"
To tell the truth, Mal wou'n't mind hearin' Simon confirm that. He's pretty sure the reason Simon was gone by the time he got back to his bunk was cos he needed to go see to his sis. An' he's almost certain that jus' cos Simon got out of his bed, it don't necessarily mean he won't get back into it. On the other hand, it could mean Simon thinks Mal's all mended now an' don't need doctorin' any more.
Fightin' back a powerful urge to tell Simon that ain't so, Mal contents himself with a wink at his medic.
Despite his best efforts not to, Simon flushes.
Relief floods through Mal's veins an' he can't help but smile broadly when Simon's colour keeps on risin'. Gorramit, but he's damn near irresistible when he's all pink like that. Mal promises himself he'll tell him so as soon as he gets him alone again an' finds a better way of makin' him all hot an' bothered.
"You're a helluva a doctor," River beams at her brother, taking a seat at the dining table.
Mal's eyes widen and Simon hastily puts some food in front of his sister. If her mouth is full, there's less chance of her repeating any of the other things Mal said last night. Simon sits down carefully beside his sister, wincing slightly as he makes contact with the chair.
Wo de ma- he's hurt. Shoulda been gentler with him.
"You okay?" Mal asks anxiously, as Simon shifts in his seat.
"I wish people would stop asking me that," Simon sighs, rolling his eyes and praying that his delight at Mal's concern isn't written all over his face. "Yes, thank you, Captain - I am perfectly all right. Never felt better."
Mal holds his gaze, hopin' his burnin' desire to kiss that perfect mouth is reflected in his eyes.
"He's fine," River declares. "It's just that it's been a long time. A very long time." She digs a playful elbow into her brother's ribs and giggles.
Jayne's eyes flit from Simon to Mal and back again. Knew it!
"A long time since what?" Kaylee asks conversationally, takin' the seat opposite Simon.
No answer. Silence. Except for Simon clearing his throat.
"A long time since what?" Kaylee asks again, kinda puzzled at the others' reactions to the question. Cap'n's lookin' mighty awkward an' Simon's doin' that nervous fiddlin' with his ear. Kaylee follows the movement of his hand and inevitably her attention is drawn to the vivid patch of purple on the pale skin of his neck.
"Oh!" she blinks at Simon.
His obvious embarrassment does nothin' to help persuade her her conclusion is wrong.
"Oh," she repeats quietly. Her eyes feel hot an' dry an' her throat's gone tight. "Oh."
She stands up, sniffs back the tear that's threatenin' an' hurries out of the room 'fore she makes a complete fool of herself.
Simon an' the Cap'n. The Cap'n an' Simon. Of course. Kaylee bets she's the last to know. Cos it's kinda obvious now she thinks about it. The both of 'em're so shuai an' so nice an' ... The next tear needs gulpin' down. Stupid tears!
Kaylee's glad for Simon, glad for the Cap'n. Really. She is. Jus' gonna need a bit of time to get used to the idea is all.
Back in the kitchen, River is sculpting her reconstituted protein into a pyramid whilst Mal and Simon stare at one another in horror.
"Nice goin', dumbasses!" Jayne grunts.
"I should go after her," Simon says, getting to his feet.
Mal stops him with a hand on his shoulder. "No, Simon. I should."
"Didn't mean to hurt her, Simon," River tells her brother earnestly once the Captain has gone.. "Had to be done. Everyone has to move forward."
Simon gives her a grateful smile, glad she understands.
She smiles indulgently back because she doesn't except him to. At least, not yet.
Zoe allows Wash to draw her onto his lap and together they stare at the ominous outlines on the radar screens.
"They ain't hailed us," Zoe muses. "Could be they ain't interested in us."
"Could be they're not interested in negotiating," Wash points out.
Zoe sighs and rests her head against her husband's shoulder, turning her gaze towards the viewports where a zillion stars light up the Black.
"You okay, lambie-toes?"
"Shiny, baobei," Zoe murmurs. "You ever wonder what the chances of us findin' each other were?"
"I'm not a betting man - well, only playing Tall Card and only then if Simon's playing cos he's even worse than I am - but if I were a betting man, I'd say evens," Wash replies with complete confidence. "The 'verse has a way of making sure people find the people they're meant to be with."
Zoe laughs. "You been talkin' to the Preacher, husband?"
He shakes his head. "Not the Preacher - River. She explained it to me. How it really is all down to chemistry. According to our resident genius, we've all got these broken shells spinning round us, some with too many holes and some with not enough. When you meet the person whose shell complements yours - bingo. Two imperfect shells make one perfect bond."
"Perfect? You mean the sort that lasts forever?"
"She didn't say."
"I'm not talking to you, Captain," Kaylee sulks at Mal, crossin' her arms and turnin' her back on him. This is too soon. She needed more time.
"Tha's good," Mal says, hunkerin' down beside her near the engine. "Gives me chance to get a word in."
"Hoetze de pigu," she mutters, but her tone is already softenin'.
"Can't be me you're insultin'," Mal smiles. "Cos you're not talking to me."
She slaps his forearm cos he ain't takin' this nowhere near serious enough.
"I'm sorry, mei-mei. Honest, I am."
"Why di'n't one of you tell me before now?" she sniffs.
"Because there wa'n't nothing to tell," Mal insists. "Last night was the first time. An' I really wa'n't expectin' it."
Kaylee laughs sadly. "You ain't the only one. I only found out about Simon bein' sly yesterday. Same day he hops into bed with you."
"It wa'n't like that-"
"I know." Kaylee sighs deeply but she doesn't object when Mal puts an arm round her. "Guess it wa'n't just a one-night stand then?"
Mal shrugs and smooths her hair back from her face. "Not rightly sure."
Kaylee looks down at her hands, twistin' in her lap. "I thought you liked 'Nara."
Mal swallows. "I do. Did. But-"
"I miss her."
Out in the hallway, River knows it's true. Knows Mal will always miss Inara. She was his dream. A new dream that meshed with his old ones. The ones from before the nightmares came.
River is sitting on a counter top in the infirmary, idly swinging her legs and drumming her heels against the cupboard door beneath her and for the first time in his life, Simon really wishes his sister were elsewhere. He needs to think - wants to think - about Mal. About whether last night means they've just started a relationship or just ended one.
What he doesn't want is to feel his sister inside his head, examining thoughts and feelings that are precious to him only to hear her declare them as cheap and worthless as the painted plates on sale in that shop on Jiangyin.
Scissors, a blade - something sharp-edged and final - the drawers are full of them and they're all calling to Simon to cut the cord. Do it, Simon. Set yourself free. Set us both free.. River smiles encouragingly at her brother. If you love me, let me go.
But Simon doesn't understand. He's shocked by his own selfishness and stung by the compassion he sees in River's eyes. She watches the apology form in his mind, take shape in his mouth. Glaring at him, she shakes her head.
"Waving. Not drowning. Not your life jacket either. We're all just floating, Simon."
Except those of us who are tied to the past, who won't let it go. It tugs at our ankles like seaweed and will drag us under if we let it. Time to swim in the future's vast open waters again, Simon. Time to let the wave carry us forward, and trust we'll come safe to shore. Can't cling to each other forever.
Love isn't always about having and holding - sometimes it's about letting go.
Zoe understands. Loves Mal more than life itself, but knows that half a life is no life at all. He wouldn't cut the rope, so she did it for him. Fell and trusted the falling. Landed in safe strong arms on a cushion of laughter. Made a new life. In more ways than one.
Unable to find the words to tell River how much he loves her - how he's never resented giving up everything for her - without making it sound like she owes him something, Simon goes back to rearranging drawers and recompiling the list of drugs he'd like to add to his store.
Gradually he becomes aware of another person's presence in the doorway. His pulse quickens, but when he looks up it's only Zoe, arms folded across her chest. A poor substitute for Mal.
"Um ... did you want-?" Simon begins awkwardly, fearing she senses his disappointment.
"You punched the Captain," she states baldly, her face expressionless.
If the Captain says shoot you, I shoot you, Simon recalls.
He attempts a casual shrug. "It was my turn. But he's still ahead on points."
One corner of Zoe's mouth twitches.
"Are you here to warn me that punching the Captain is tantamount to mutiny?" Simon continues, pretending that the syringe drawer needs reorganizing.
"Not at all. Pretty sure he deserved it." Zoe replies, making Simon look up again in surprise. The tone of her voice is almost sympathetic. As if she understands ...
"Wo de tian," Simon breathes as realization dawns. "He did it to you too."
A flicker of something like sadness passes over Zoe's face but is quickly replaced by a resigned smile. "Long time ago. Water under the bridge. But-" She looks away.
"But?" he coaxes.
"Wouldn't mind knowing the why of it."
Simon hesitates. Should he tell her? If they were on Osiris, the answer to that would be easy. It would be 'no'. Conversations between doctor and patient are confidential. Out here in the Black, it's never quite that simple. Zoe is Simon's patient too. She would die for Mal and Mal hurt her. Hurt her and never told her why.
She has a right to know, Simon decides, so that she can heal properly too.
"Have you ever heard of post traumatic stress disorder?"
Zoe nods slowly. "Some of the men in our platoon ... " She breaks off, rememberin' faces, frozen with fear, unseein' eyes full of dread. Ragged voices, yellin', cryin'. "Battle wounds ain't always physical. But Mal? You sure? Cos he's never broken down, never stopped bein' able to function."
"Which may have compounded his problem," Simon explains. "From what I understand, it often takes a crisis before a patient will seek help. Until that point, they deal with it as best they can - often through denial or avoidance."
"Makes a kinda sense," Zoe agrees. "But how come Mal's been able to control it? Men I seen with it before - loud noises, bright lights, the smell of smoke - all sorts of things set 'em off. They cou'n't control it."
"I imagine it depends on the nature of the trauma. For the men you're describing it was probably battle itself. They would therefore be triggered by anything that reminded them of that experience."
"So Mal's trauma wa'n't on the battlefield?"
A muscle in Simon's cheek tightens. "The Alliance troops," he begins, "the ones who sent the medships into Serenity Valley - they took one of the survivors, a young girl of about seventeen ... the same age as River ..." Oh God, how would Simon have coped in Mal's position? Not nearly as well, he's sure.
"And?" Zoe prompts.
River doesn't seem to be listening but Simon takes Zoe's elbow and steers her to the opposite side of the room just in case. "They raped her," he mouths. "Five of them. In front of Mal. They made him watch."
Zoe presses her lips together, staring bleakly at Simon. All of a sudden, things are a lot clearer. Things like why Mal always acted the way he did around Inara.
"Too afraid of hurting her and losing her for good," River agrees out of the blue, making both Simon and Zoe start. "Couldn't have done that with anyone else. Wou'n't have wanted to."
Zoe raises an eyebrow and Simon shrugs. "I've no idea," he insists. After all, it's almost the truth and if he doesn't dig deeper it will stay that way. Just a vague feeling of unease. In an attempt to distract himself and Zoe, he wonders out loud, "What I don't fully understand is why Mal's violent episodes were triggered by some people and not others."
Zoe raises her eyebrows as Simon blunders on through his embarrassment. "You and I weren't ...I mean, there have been others ... others that he hasn't ... when he ..if he ..."
"Saffron, you mean?" Zoe asks with evident distaste at even having to speak the woman's name.
"Bu huihen de po fu!" River spits.
"And Nandi," Simon adds with a stab of jealousy. "I mean, I'm not sure if he ..."
"Reckon so," Zoe tells him. "But you're right - it don't make sense."
"Ni men shi shagua!" River exclaims, banging her fists down on the counter. "Locked the monster away. In here-" She taps her chest emphatically. "No touching. Freeze to death first." She looks up, pointing an accusing finger at Zoe, then Simon. "You warmed him, brought the thaw. Set it free and then he cou'n't stop it."
Zoe blinks and Simon's heart flips in his chest.
"Uh - is that all?" Simon asks Zoe awkwardly because he wants to see Mal. Now. Wants to ask him whilst he's still feeling brave enough if what River's just said is true.
Zoe shuffles her feet. "Not exactly, Doctor. I'd kinda like a second opinion on your sister's diagnosis."
" 'm'I really pregnant?"
"Two by two. The boy is strong, healthy," River declares, examining her own fingernails carefully.
Zoe's mouth falls open. "The boy?"
"Pitter, patter. Tiny feet," River sighs, rolling her eyes impatiently. "Whole passel of 'em underfoot."
Zoe looks at Simon. "She sayin' I'm having twins?" she asks, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Tianna! Not sure how Mal's gonna like that. Hell, I ain't even sure how Wash is gonna like that."
"He'll be fine," River soothes, cocking her head to one side as if listening to some faraway sound. "Likes babies. Wants six."
Something about his sister's words and the surprised light of recognition in Zoe's eyes makes Simon uneasy again, but at that moment Mal comes bounding down the stairs and into the infirmary.
Ruttin' hell, Simon ain't alone. Mal was expectin' li'l sis, but not Zoe. Wha's she doin' here?
Flustered by Mal's sudden arrival, Simon feels the pulse in his throat begin to throb but he forces himself to remain professional.
"If you could wait outside for a moment, Captain?" he asks as formally as he can, begging Mal not to argue the point with a pleading look. "I'm with a patient."
Mal hesitates, considers reminding his medic he's a patient too his own self - an' one in sore need of the Doc's healin' hands at that - but instead he nods and retreats to the commons area, even if he does start pacin' backwards an' forwards like an expectant father outside the delivery room.
At long last Zoe emerges, holding a sealed foil package in one hand.
"Gotta pee on it, Sir," she tells Mal in response to his quizzical look.
It takes a second or two but when the penny finally drops, the Captain coughs, shame-faced. "Guess I oughta be congratulatin' you," he mumbles. "Last night, well, shoulda been happy for you. Not yellin' an' threatenin' to sack your husband."
Zoe doesn't often touch Mal these days. They're beyond that. But today is different. She takes his hand in hers.
"And are you, Sir? Happy?"
They both know she ain't jus' talkin' about her bein' pregnant. Mal sneaks a look at Simon through the infirmary window, unsettled by the mix of hope an' despair the sight of him arouses.
"Be more'n a mite happier if we ha'n't had the gorram Alliance an' some mystery boat in our rear-view mirror for the past eighteen hours."
"They ain't hailed us, Sir. Could be it's not us they're interested in. With any luck-"
"Luck?!" Mal laughs bitterly. "You're always forgettin' about our luck."
Zoe squeezes his hand. "Not to ruin a perfectly good moment of gloom, Sir," she says straight-faced, "But things don't stay the same forever. They change. I'm pregnant an' you've found someone who really cares for you. Could be our luck is changin' too."
They both look at Simon again. He's biting his lip now an' clearly only feignin' busy-ness.
Zoe knows Mal so ruttin' well it ain't no use him pretendin' he don't wanna hold Simon's body close, nor that he don't wanna have that moment again when all the tension goes out of it an' Simon yields to his will. Can't surrender like that his own self - which he guesses is why he finds it so enthrallin' when Simon does.
"Why don't you go in there, Sir?" Zoe suggests. " 'fore one of you explodes."
"Yeah - wou'n't want that," Mal concedes with a grin, takin' a step towards the infirmary.
No ice now. Just fire, smouldering, waiting to burst into flame. It's going to burn them both, brand them for life and River can't stop it. Wouldn't - even if she could. Can't be writing notes to Simon's teachers all her life. Can't always be a witness for the defence.
She slips down from the counter and approaches Mal, forcing him to drag his eyes off Simon and take notice of her. "He does good work," she says solemnly, tracing the outline of Mal's heart through the fabric of his shirt. "The scar's almost invisible." She lifts her head. "Broken but mended now."
What she jus' said makes perfect sense, Mal realizes. Funny how he ain't spooked by that any more. Nor by River neither, even if she does know things - things she shouldn't, things she couldn't. Ain't her fault the Alliance tried to turn into ... into what? A Reader? An assassin? Mal don't know, but he does know she was just a kid an' they took her anyway. Forced their way inside her, stripped her whatchathing.
She was just a kid - but they took her anyway.
Mal's jaw clenches. Still regrets never havin' had the satisfaction of bein' able to settle at least some of that score.
River smiles up at him. "It's not relevant."
"Mayhap you're right," he agrees. War's over, after all. But he wants to offer her somethin', some hope that at least part of it can be put right. He wants that more than he can say - an' not purely for her sake neither. "An' mayhap one day that brother of yours'll mend you too."
River pulls a face. "He'd wouldn't do it right. Always trying to go up the down slide. Besides, there are others better qualified." And with that, she skips away, singing something vaguely familiar to Mal's ear as she goes.
Alone at last an' now Mal can't find a single thing to say other than a lame "Hey".
But Simon, who not so long ago wanted to talk, is no longer in the mood for words and before Mal can utter another, he's across the room and backing Mal up against a wall. Grasping fistfuls of Mal's shirt, he leans in against him, pinning him with his hips.
"Ruttin' hell, Simon!" Mal exclaims, wonderin' if he'll ever stop bein' surprised by Simon's forcefulness in situations such as this. "What the diyu's gotten into you?"
"You," Simon reminds him, tangling a hand in Mal's hair to pull him closer still. "Remember?"
"O, zhe zhen shi ge kuaile de jinzhan," Mal murmurs into the kiss that follows an' for once he ain't sayin' it sarcastically.
"I. Missed. You." Simon pants, punctuating each word with a voracious assault on Mal's mouth.
"Shoulda. Stayed. In. My. Bunk." Mal counters in similar fashion.
Simon tugs Mal's shirt free of his pants, heedless of the fact that they're still in the infirmary and anyone could walk in on them at any moment. He has to touch skin. Has to know Mal will let him.
Mal feels himself weaken, feels himself want to give in.
An' it's kinda perfect.
"Thought. You. Weren't. Coming. Back." Simon explains - sucking, biting, pulling at Mal's lips.
There's a note of despair in the confession that Mal don't like one bit. Taking hold of Simon by the shoulders, he pushes him away a mite, his face deadly serious. "I will always come back for you, Simon Tam. Don't you ever think otherwise. Dong ma?"
A dimple appears in Simon's cheek, deepens and is joined by another. His eyes shine. "What happened to not promising anything?"
"Changed-" A flick of tongue against parted lips. "My-" A nip of soft flesh between sharp teeth. " Mind-" A kiss. A long, lingerin' kiss. "Okay?"
"Might. Need. Convincing. Ohhh!" Simon gasps suddenly when he finds himself on the receiving end of a most persuasive argument.
Mal smirks down at him, all manner of self-satisfied.
Clutching at Mal's arms to steady himself, Simon manages to suck in some air. "Mal-"
But whatever he was going to say is lost as Wash bursts into the room, slightly out of breath, as if he's run all the way down from the bridge.
Simon goes rigid with embarrassment. Everything in Simon's upbringing and education has reinforced his innate sense of propriety. People may sneer, but Simon values appropriateness and he's pretty sure keeping the Captain pressed up against a wall when there's someone else in the room is absolutely, one hundred percent inappropriate. He'd move away from Mal right now and pretend nothing was happening between them if it weren't for the fear that once he does his carnal intent will be all too apparent.
Wash doesn't even seem to register his discomfort. His face is strangely pale and anxious. "We've received a distress call, Mal."
Grudgingly Mal diverts his attention away from Simon and onto his pilot whilst Simon retreats a few paces, grateful for the chance to do so without compromising his modesty.
"Distress call?" Mal asks. "What kinda help they wantin' ? Cos we've got a schedule to stick to."
Wash grimaces. Aiya huaile, why does he have to be the one to tell Mal this? Fella's looking happier than Wash has ever seen him and Simon - well, he's practically glowing ... and now this. Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de waisheng dou! "Not 'they', Mal. Her. Inara."
Out of the corner of his eye, Wash notices Simon stiffen and dart Mal a look that goes unreturned. Meanwhile Mal is flashing Wash one of those cold, scary smiles he uses to mask all kinds of angry.
"Inara? Really?" Mal's tone hovers between irritation and triumph. "Don't tell me, she's wantin' ..."
"She's wanting help, Mal!" Wash interrupts urgently. "And ... well, she's not looking so good. Ran into some trouble. Of the Atherton Wing variety."
Mal's smile vanishes. He blinks as the words sink in.
"The link's still up," Wash continues gently. "Come and speak to her."
Mal nods dumbly, takes a slow, disbelieving pace or two towards the doorway before breaking into a run.
Cou'n't have done that with ... to ... anyone else. Wou'n't have wanted to ... Too afraid of hurting her and losing her for good ... Time to wake up.
For a moment, Simon remains rooted to the spot. Paralyzed. Then he calmly picks up his shopping list of drugs and checks it through once more. Nothing has changed. Some things he needs, some he can do without. If he has to.
Placing the list carefully back down on the counter, he sets his jaw and follows in the direction the Captain left.
After all, Inara may need a doctor.
"You stay exactly where you are, dong ma?" Mal is telling the almost unrecognizable face on the Cortex link when Simon, his stomach churning with jealousy and resentment, finally arrives on the bridge.
"We'll be with you in - Wash?" Mal gestures impatiently for the pilot to provide him with an estimate.
"Four hours," Wash supplies.
"Two hours. At most," Mal promises. "Wash, set us a new course."
"Xie-xie, Mal," Inara rasps.
The sound of her voice shocks Simon, forcing him to accept the fact that the cut, swollen features on the screen are indeed hers, and that, far from his envy and annoyance, she needs his compassion.
"What?" Jayne growls. "You ain't plannin' to change course with the Alliance on our tail, are ya? Gorramit, Mal - what about Monty? What about the money?"
"I ain't arguin' this Jayne." Mal's reply is quiet but steely as he cuts the link and flicks the ship's comms button. "Kaylee? Get up to the engine room an' prepare for hard burn."
"Hard burn, Sir? Carrying a boatful of explosives?"
Mal gets to his feet, glares at Zoe defensively. "You got a problem with that?"
"None at all, Sir. Unless you count the likelihood of us all being blown to stardust the minute we hit atmo."
Mal clenches his teeth an' carries on glarin' cos he can't back down. Even if she is right. "Wash," he orders, eyes still locked on Zoe's, "Hard burn." A beat. "Till we make orbit."
Zoe doesn't say a word. Doesn't need to.
Mal turns to Simon. "Better get the infirmary prepped, Doc-"
Doc? Simon thinks he would prefer Mal to call him 'boy' right now.
"- looks like Inara's gonna need you when we get her back on board."
"Yes, it does," Simon agrees stiffly. But will you? When she's back? Desperate for a little reassurance, he reaches out a hand. "Mal-"
The Captain shakes him off. His eyes meet Simon's for the briefest of moments. "Not now, son. Can't." He leans into the mic again. "Kaylee? You hear me?"
The nursery rhyme is simple. Everything else is complicated. Mal. Simon. Mal and Simon. Inara. Mal and Inara. Simon and River. Inara and Mal and Simon and River. The math won't add up the way River wants it to. There's too much too much to fit in. Three into two won't go; four into two even less so.
River might be stuck in this subroutine forever had she not transcended her programming, had she not winnowed it down to its core. At the centre of everything there's Mal. All that matters is taking care of him. Right now, he's lost in the woods and even though he claims otherwise, he can't see a clear path. Can't - or won't. So River will have to do it for him. Or at least make his options clearer to him.
Something needs to be taken out of the equation.
Fly away Peter.
"That's a pretty tune," Book comments as he passes River in the hallway.
She stops humming abruptly. "Two little dickie-birds."
River laughs. "One named Paul." She looks around, as if for eavesdroppers, leans in and whispers, "At least now he is. Changed it."
Girl knows things, things she shouldn't, things she couldn't. This is a cup the Shepherd would rather not drink from.
"The other named Peter," River continues, ignoring his discomfort. "But Peter's not sitting on a wall. Sitting on the fence instead and afraid to take the leap." She sighs. "No faith, you see. Thinks he'll break like an eggshell. Thinks he's the only one who knows how to mend people."
"Are you talking about your brother?" Book asks gently.
"Talking about all of you!" River retorts, annoyed at being distracted from her calculations. "When are you going to get off the fence, Preacher man?"
She knows things. The time has come, Book realizes. For all of them.
"You know a place, don't you?"
It's not really a question.
Book takes a deep breath.
Cursin' Mal's bone-headed disregard for earnin' a decent amount of platinum for a change, Jayne stomps off to the engine room. Sittin' with Kaylee a while might take him mind of the wantin' to punch someone right in the middle of his dumbass face.
To Jayne's astonishment, Kaylee ain't here. The mercenary scratches the back of his head. She's damn near always in the engine room - an' besides, Captain Backbirth just ordered her up here. Jayne looks around, puzzled, and that's when he spots the lack of a demi-john under the still.
Zao cao,Kaylee!" he growls. "Mal's gonna kill you."
It's worse than he expected.
Kaylee is in her bunk, lyin' on the bed, wearin' that ridiculous pink number Mal got her the last time he upset her an' listenin' to that God-awful formal dance music turned up as loud as it'll go. Plus, she's drunk as a skunk.
She raises her glass. "Hey, Jayne. You come to ask me to dance?"
Jayne strides over to stand in front of her. "Di'n't you hear Mal tell ya to get to the engine room?" he asks, switching off the ear-splittin' din an' prisin' the glass from her hand. "An' what the hell are you doin' drinkin' in the afternoon, anyhow?"
"It's night," Kaylee slurs. "When it's dark outside, it's night." She hiccoughs, giggles an' then lets out a heart-felt sigh. "Dark inside too. Why don't he like me, Jayne? Ain't I pretty enough?"
"You're plenty pretty enough," Jayne tells her, fillin' the glass with water from her sink an' pressin' her to drink it. "We gotta get you to the infirmary, ma shang. Doc's sure to have somethin' in the soberin'-ya-up line."
"Don't want to," Kaylee sulks, but swallows the water down anyway. "Wanna stay here." She stretches out on the bed again and gives Jayne a sultry smile. "Wanna stay with me?"
He scowls at her. Been waitin' for this moment for gorram ages an' when it comes along it's nothin' but a disappointment. She's only offerin' cos she's hurtin' over the Doc. An' even if Jayne was low enough to take advantage of that - which he ain't - he can't. Cos Mal's on a stupid errand of mercy.
"No, I don't an' you ain't stayin' here neither," Jayne declares, draggin' Kaylee to her feet.
"But I thought you liked me," she whines as he propels her towards the ladder.
"I do," he says, shovin' her forward. "But I ain't beddin' ya drunk."
Kaylee looks back at him over her shoulder, her brows crinkled up in confusion. "What? Why?"
"Because I like ya," Jayne sighs. "Come on. I'll give ya a hand. I've done that hard burn routine before. Oughta be able to stop you from doin' somethin' that gets us all killed."
Kaylee scrunches up her face. "Hard burn?"
"Yeah. Turns out we gotta get Inara back. Never mind about makin' any money ..."
"Inara!" Kaylee beams. "Really?"
In response to the blinking light on the console, Gaunt opens a radio channel.
"They're changing course," Chang's disembodied voice informs him. "The wave they picked up was highly encrypted but my navigator has done all the calculations and it looks like they're heading for Xuefang."
Ginger consults the starchart and licks his lips. "Well, now, there's a happy coincidence. I'd say that gives us the advantage."
Gaunt rubs his blue-gloved hands together. "Excellent."
"They're what?" Belinda asks with suppressed rage.
"Changing course, ma'am," her pilot replies. "And going for hard burn."
"Fire on them," she orders. "Now! Before they get out of range again."
"We're still not close enough for a proper lock on the target, " the pilot objects. "At this distance, there's no certainty we'll hit them."
"Belinda, honey-" Somehow Saffron musters a wheedling tone. "If we fire on them, how are we going to get the reward? The warrant says the Tams have to be alive."
"Do it," Belinda insists, ignoring her. "Fire."
The pilot's finger hovers over the rocket launch button.
"Fire!" Belinda repeats, not bothering to turn around.
There's a sudden sharp crack as the pilot depresses the button. The man has just enough time to notice the instrument panel flashing confirmation of the missile launch before Belinda Burgess' lifeless body slumps forward and obscures it.
Wide-eyed with shock, the pilot swivels slowly round in his chair to find himself looking down the barrel of Saffron's revolver. He casts a horrified look at the corpse leaking blood at his side.
Saffron smiles sweetly. "She shouldn't have said 'fire', if she didn't expect me to. Now, sweetheart ... you might wanna move your finger away from that button ..."
Serenity lurches under the shock of the explosion and her crew struggle to remain upright.
Simon finds himself bumping into Mal, before they both go sprawling.
The Captain is quickly back on his feet. "Yesu tamade! Wash?"
"Canon of some kind. Modified, not standard issue that's-"
"I ain't interested in the gorram spec!" Mal yells. "What I am interested in is are we hit?"
Wash flicks the three overhead switches. Serenity does not respond as she should. "Looks like it."
"Kaylee?" Wash asks the mechanic over the comms. "You got any problems up there?"
"Lost some of the electrical circuits," Kaylee reports. "Won't take but a minute to fix that. Could be the auxiliary power's knocked out too - which ain't much of a problem when we still got the main power on. All the same, probably oughta-"
"All I wanna know, " Mal growls, "Is whether we're gonna make it to Xuefang on schedule?"
River nudges Zoe. "Two by two," she confides with a wink.
As he pulls himself upright again, Simon tries to persuade himself that the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach is probably due to the unexpectedly bumpy ride.
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Title: Chapter 21. It's not a problem . 'cause it's not.
Series Name: Trauma Medicine.
Author: Kispexi2 [email]
Details: Series | R | *slash* | 46k | 07/31/05
Characters: Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book, Other - Saffron, Belinda Burgess
Pairings: Mal/Simon Jayne/Kaylee (pending)
Summary: The warm glow of the morning-after for Mal and Simon chills when Serenity receives a disturbing wave from Inara.
Sequel to: Chapter 20a. A *zhen de shi tian cai* when it comes to plans.
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