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Zoe says, "I'm going to have a baby."

Simon wonders how that's going to affect her job performance but all he says is, "I've delivered one of those before."

Thankfully, Zoe laughs at this. Simon pats his trusty examining chair, the one part of this ship he trusts (and the one part that River doesn't.) "Up."

"Excuse me?"

"Unless you just told me that bit of trivia as part of a casual conversation that you made a detour all the way to my part of this ship to have, I'd like to check and make sure that everything is working right."

Zoe still isn't moving. "Everything's working right, doc. I just told you in case anything happens to me. For the sake of your awareness."

Simon is willing to have things come to blows with Jayne but not with Zoe. She thinks too much before shooting/punching/applying lethal pressure to one's carotid artery. "Humor me. I'd like to see your baby born with all ten digits on both hands and feet and a full-sized brain."

Zoe blinks at him and there's nothing to indicate that it’s a blink of surprise but somehow Simon knows it is. He's pretty sure it's the first time he's ever seen her taken off guard. He knows it's the first time that he was the one to cause it. Her lips curve ever so slightly, the way they do when she wants to laugh at the captain but thinks it might not be the best moment for such a reaction. "All right."

As she slides onto the chair Simon asks, "Does the captain know?"

"Not yet. Nobody but you and Wash."

"How long have you known?"

"Four weeks. Wanted to be decently sure before saying something."

"When do you plan on telling the others?"

"Wash and I thought that dinner some night this week might be best."

Simon presses his stethoscope to her abdomen and listens to a sound so faint that it might be an echo from Zoe's heart, not so very far up. Except he knows that it isn't. "Sounds good."

"You can actually hear something?"

Simon nods a bit absently as he moves the stethoscope up to check on her heart, and around back to listen to her lungs. He doesn't think he'll find anything amiss; Zoe is pretty hearty. It's only hurt to prove himself right once, though, and even in that instance, he's still glad he did it. Even now, with the bare skeleton of a medical facility and eight people dependent on his nearly un-aided skills.

He lays the stethoscope out on the counter and pulls a blood kit from one of the drawers. Carefully, he draws a sample from Zoe's left arm, the one she uses the least. Not that he thinks a tiny prick will affect her--he's seen the scars left to decorate her body, tip to toe--it's just habit.

He checks her reflexes and hearing and sight and things that probably couldn't affect the baby if they tried but that he's used to checking before this routine is over. Simon doesn’t recognize much about the world anymore and he's not above holding to the things that are still familiar. Whether she knows it is a kindness or not, Zoe stays still for all of it and doesn't challenge anything.

Soon enough he's finished. He smiles at her. "Perfect working order, ma'am. I'll be wanting to see you every month to make sure that your nutrient levels are holding and assure myself that everything is going well. Of course, if there are any problems I expect to see you in here immediately, no excuses."

"Of course." She turns to leave and is almost out the door when he calls her.

"Zoe?"

She swivels her head back to face him. "Yes?"

"Congratulations."

Simon's not sure he's ever seen her smile the way she's smiling now. Simon's not sure he's ever seen anyone smile that way. She says, "Thanks," and continues out the door.

*

The dynamic of the ship has changed since Inara left. There's certainly the little problems, the money that was coming in from her rental of the shuttle and the respectability that she brought to their "crew" now missing, but that's not really what Simon notices most of the time.

He notices the way Kaylee's eyes stray to the chair that whoever's job it is to set the table that night does not set anymore. Well, unless said person is Jayne, who memorized the number of inhabitants on the ship the first day he came aboard and took two months to remember that there were three extras when Book, Simon and River joined on as full-time flyers. Jayne has yet to grasp the idea of subtraction. Oddly enough Simon has faith that all it will take is another six weeks or so. Nobody else seems to hold this opinion.

He notices the way Mal takes the long way around the cargo hold so as not to go near that shuttle. Simon knows there have been offers to rent, offers that Serenity could probably well use. Nobody's complained about Mal's not taking them.

He definitely notices all of River's curious stares, the kind that look to be blank, but Simon has come to recognize as pensive. She casts them at everyone, has since the day her eyes calmed down enough to do anything other than dart around in panic. Lately, she reserves them mostly for Mal and Kaylee.

He notices the way Wash will come close to dropping a joke, a joke unquestionably to do with the 'verse's oldest profession and will stop in the middle of his words, redirect his verbal pattern in a way that is halting and awkward and not at all Wash.

He notices that Book spends more time with his books, and though Simon can't trace what the relationship was between the preacher and the Companion, he knows loneliness when he sees it. Simon has spent too much time in its company to be anything other than strongly aware of its touch. Sometimes Simon thinks he can even recognize its scent.

He notices Zoe's disaffected stare, the one she casts at Mal when she knows he isn't looking. The one that searches for what is wrong and worries at a way to make it better. The one that is, more often than not, resigned. Simon doesn't think of Zoe as someone who gives in very easily but there are whole pages of history between her and Mal that rewrite her basic person at times. Simon feels illiterate when he's in the room with them.

He notices that Jayne, when he sets that last chair, and someone calls him on it (which Wash invariably does), gets an expression on his face that if Simon didn't know better, he'd call ashamed. Simon does know better, which makes him wonder exactly what that expression actually means.

Mostly he notices that Kaylee talks to him more often now. Simon rather likes this, which makes him feel a bit mean, given that she's obviously just missing her friend. Whereas Kaylee's chatting used to flow with him, one thought to another, one syllable to the next, one comment into a giggle, now there are times when it stops suddenly. Those are the times when Simon, always, without fail, says the wrong thing.

It bothers him that she never seems to get as angry as she used to when he does. She just frowns, that small little frown that barely qualifies but is all-too-telling on a face wherein that small curve of her lips goes completely against the mold.

It is in a moment of desperation that Simon says, "I wish I'd met you before all this. When I knew how to show someone what they meant to me. Someone other than River."

The smile that gets him, much to his surprise, is the first real smile he's seen since Serenity pulled out of Moonshine, Inara still firmly on the surface. Kaylee says, "You're doin' alright, doc."

He notices the hand that flutters to her stomach. There's dirt under her fingernails.

*

Mal getting himself torn up during a job is nothing new. Most of the time the tears are small things, things that Mal doesn't even really need to come to Simon to have fixed. He won't, either, if it isn't absolutely necessary. Which is how it is that Simon is only used to seeing Mal if the problems involve lots of blood, or bones that aren't where they're supposed to be, or brain damage of some sort.

At first glance, when Jayne drags Mal into the infirmary and sets him on the chair and yells, "Doc, get yer ass in here!" with a note in his voice that Simon can only describe as panicked, he thinks that this time the problem might involve all three. Simon pushes Jayne out of the way--forcefully, he's more likely to stay out of the way if the shove hurts a bit--and starts assessing the damage.

The first thing Simon realizes is that things aren't as bad as they look. Mal is concussed and his right arm is sporting a compound break and there is a cut deep enough that Simon will need to stitch it. That said, most of the blood isn't Mal's, which is a relief, since it's just about everywhere. Simon asks, "What happened?"

"Fight," is Jayne's brilliantly enlightening answer.

"Can you manage to provide any details, or will I need to request them of Zoe?"

"Cap'n knocked Zoe out nearly as before it started, ordered me to take her back."

Simon asks, "Did you?" because when Jayne has a mind it's completely of its own.

"Came back for 'im," Jayne sneers. Simon can feel waves of defensiveness without even turning to look at him. Which means that whatever happened, whatever this fight was about, Mal is the only witness they have for it. At the moment, this does Simon no good.

To complicate matters, Zoe, newly alert, has just stepped into the infirmary. Simon doesn't realize this--she moves quietly and his mind is definitely on other things--until Jayne starts babbling and Simon looks back, mostly to make sure Jayne isn't up to anything stupid. Zoe says, "Shut up, Jayne," and "How's he doin', doc?"

"He'll be fine," Simon says. It's a little bit premature to be saying it, really, having not managed to wake Mal just yet, but Simon's seen the man pull through too much to be much in the way of worried. Simon pulls Mal's arm back into place with a wrenching and grinding noise that he's glad the man isn't awake to experience. Momentarily Simon allows his eyes to flick over to where Zoe and Jayne are standing, stock still, Jayne more than a little green. Simon is careful to turn his back fully to them before smiling. Small victories, really.

Zoe asks, "What were you doin', leavin' him in there to fend for himself?" It's under her breath, and all the more menacing for the softness of it.

Jayne asks, "Don't you think a better question is what in the seven hells was he doin' askin' it of me?"

Simon has to admit, this is possibly the most sensible thing Jayne has ever suggested. Sadly, the fact that he has to ask is just further proof of a severe lack in mental development. Zoe sighs. Simon doesn't blame her. She says, "Jayne, I have a baby and Mal is an overprotective lout. Put two and two together."

"What, you mean you get to skip out on fights just 'cuz you're toting for two?"

"Not if you don’t follow stupid orders."

Simon is now cleaning out the arm, sealing the break, making sure no shards are left anywhere that will cause them to become infected and send the whole healing process spinning off its axis. He thinks "stupid" is a kind word for this particular order of Mal's.

Jayne says, "Zoe, I can’t just be-"

"I'll talk to him."

There's silence for a few seconds but Simon is too concerned with what he's doing (after all, Mal seems to value his arms quite a bit) to look around and see what's happening. It's not long before Jayne says, "You’d better," and storms off.

Simon says, "There's some bandages in the far left cabinet, can you bring them to me?" because he can trust Zoe to bring him the right thing.

*

Mal is frustrated by his inability to use one of his arms and it's wearing everyone thin. He snaps at River twice on the day that they set down on Burn's End, the destination of cargo that was lifted less than a week before. For them, it's a good turnover. Not that anyone would know it from the way Mal has been stomping around.

Simon doesn't really think much of Mal's volatility. The man has proven himself time and again to be a lousy patient, and between that, losing the fight with Zoe (which Simon knows he did, as Zoe is the head contact for this particular drop), and the lingering bitterness of Inara's departure, Simon figures this was only to be expected. He soothes River all the same, too many years of habit, too much of the little girl he's known all of his life still inside of her (and too little), too much need to be of use to someone. He soothes her, and he thinks he's succeeded because her mouth straightens out, and her hands whisper across his face and she says things that don't make any sense. Not to him. Simon's sure they're perfectly logical to River.

Only Simon leaves her side to talk with Mal, who is doing some buying in town, stuff they absolutely need, food and water and soap. Simon needs more rubbing alcohol and he's not backing down without a fight. Which he knows will ensue. In the end Simon wins the fight largely because he threatens Mal with the loss of his arm should the stitches get infected. The stitches won't get infected, Simon was too careful for that. What's more, Simon still has his hands on antibiotics. So really, the medical jargon that he spews at Mal is purely for the sake of cowing him into serving Simon's needs, but Burn's End is the only half-way civilized planet the ship will most likely see for at least the next few weeks, and Simon isn't taking chances. Not with this crew.

When Mal returns, silently handing over the rubbing alcohol with a less-than-gracious air of defeat, Zoe is already back on the ship, cash in hand. Well, case. Which she has in her hand.

Simon goes to look for River -- she loves the moment of take-off, the fleeing from more imminent peril than space provides, the return to something so open, and those are the moments when she's best able to express herself, most cognizant of the world around her and its forms of communication. Simon never misses spending those moments with her.

In this way he discovers that she's nowhere to be found. Frantic, he runs up to the cockpit and asks Zoe and Wash, if they've seen her. Wash pauses in his fluid flicking of switches and buttons and asks, "Have you checked that panel behind the engine? She fits herself inside sometimes. Jumps out when people walk by in order to cause mass mayhem and destruction of mental well-being."

Any other time, Simon's pretty sure he would find a smile. He likes Wash. "I checked there."

Zoe shakes her head slowly, "I haven't seen her."

Simon moves then, running into Book, stammering out the same question, but the answer is the same. Book last saw her before they set down. Simon's seen her since then.

Jayne probably wouldn't remember if he'd seen her, since Simon has long come to the conclusion that Jayne has roughly the memory of a dog--seven seconds, unless a person counts things that have been trained into him by force. Simon asks anyway, because he's desperate. Unsurprisingly, Jayne has nothing but a look patently stating lack of comprehension. "You lost your sister?"

Simon keeps moving, because he hasn't, not again, he can't have.

By the time he finds Kaylee, Book has already set her on the hunt and though her hands aren't shaking the way his are, it's evident that she's nearly as frantic. They look everywhere, even in the places River could never fit, even the infirmary, which River avoids whenever humanly possible, everywhere.

Kaylee grabs him as he's starting another round, grabs him and shakes him a little, just enough to get him listening. "She's not here, Simon."

But she has to be here, because anywhere else just isn't safe. Simon turns back to keep looking but Kaylee holds him still. "She's not here."

Kaylee isn't a liar.

*

"I thought I told you your sister was your responsibility," Mal says.

Simon doesn't have words for how long he's known that. That responsibility didn't begin when Malcolm Reynolds came into his life, and it won't end when he leaves. It won't, because River is just fine, and will stay that way so long as they find her, Simon reminds himself. All he says is, "I can't believe she'd leave the ship."

The last time River left was to go for a little spacewalk into another ship a few yards away. Simon can't hear her voice, though, not through any of Serenity's comms, and they're on land. River isn't half so fond of that as she is of space.

"She wouldn't have had to go very far, not if someone saw the girl," Jayne says, always the voice of optimism and good cheer. All the same, Simon knows he's right. He generally is when it comes to things like this.

"You'd think we'd've heard something." Wash looks uneasy and Simon wonders if he's thinking about a certain unborn responsibility and the way it appears small things can disappear rather easily.

It's Kaylee, though, who finds the courage to look Simon in the eyes and say, "She mighta left the ship if she was followin' me."

This is true. River has something of a hero-worship thing for Kaylee, almost the way she would for an older sister. "I thought you were staying."

Kaylee's posture crumbles, just a bit. "I thought I was too. But we've needed some repairs, small things, and I thought I'd nip on over to the trash yards, see if I could find us some bargains. She's quiet, River. You'd never know she was on your tail until she came up and nipped it. And if she never did…"

Simon is overwhelmed by the implications. Luckily, Mal has chosen this moment to remember that he is captain of the ship. "All right, if that's all we have to go on then we'd best be startin' there. Jayne, I want you with me, we're gonna do a little reverse bounty hunting. Zoe, take Kaylee, retrace her steps, track anything you see that looks promising."

Most days Simon is more than willing to lie low on the ship. Now's not a most days kind of day. "And me?"

Mal's expression is unreadable. "You stay here. She needs people to come back to, don't she?"

While Simon knows what this crew thinks of him, their not-quite-understanding of a life that has depended heavily on books and his knowledge of them, Simon is a doctor. By definition, he is a man of action. This has ever applied to River and he's never been able to imagine a time when it wouldn't. That said, Mal is right, and Simon, to his overwhelming frustration, knows it. Despite the fact that Mal has been a right jerk of late and they've never exactly seen eye to eye, Simon forces the captain to meet his gaze. "Find her, please."

Simon, even knowing he shouldn't, takes the tiniest bit of reassurance from Mal's, "I don't go losin' members of my crew."

*

Simon appreciates the fact that Wash avoids him and Book stays silent. Simon's afraid that if anybody talks to him right now he'll fall to pieces and then Mal will just have one more problem on his hands. Simon's not sure how many Mal will sustain before giving up on the two of them. Two. Of. Them. It always seems like a lot, at least for someone who isn't related (like his parents, his parents who would've let River die there) but what does Simon know, except about protecting River? There was a time when it felt like a lot, but he's pretty sure that was the brashness of youth, or some other cliché that his father used to drop in casual conversations with Important People.

Or maybe he used to do that. Simon sometimes forgets what he was like. He knows he shouldn't. One's past is one's present is one's future (another one of those clichés), but he can't help it. Serenity erases things, or maybe she magnifies them so largely that they lose their focus. Simon isn't sure which one, but either way, there are things that he's lost on this ship.

Not as many as he's gained. At least, not most days.

Today's not his average day.

Zoe and Kaylee make it back first and he can see from the look on their faces that they haven't found anything. He can't stop himself from asking, "River?"

Zoe looks as though she's going to say something, going to be the calm center that Simon often notices her in the position of having to be, but Kaylee surprises both of them with a quiet, heartfelt, "Simon. I'm so sorry. I didn't even think-"

Simon wants to say something cutting about that. It's the perfect opportunity, after all, and River is missing. Somebody should hurt as much as he does right at this moment. He's seen Kaylee's face dissolve at the end of a pointed comment before, though, and Simon doesn't need something else on his conscience right now. He's not even sure he wants it. Sometimes he wishes Kaylee weren't so goram sweet. She has it in her to be something else, he knows. No person with that much assertiveness, that much self-awareness is completely locked into treating the world in the best way she knows how. Kaylee just chooses to, day in and day out.

Some days, Simon hates her for that.

Today might be one of those days.

He says, "She shouldn't have left the ship. Particularly without telling anybody." As much as the words rip up through his larynx he knows they're most likely true. River has a bad habit of doing things she most likely shouldn't do. She always has. A catch-22 that. Simon wants River, the real River (whom he knows doesn't exist anymore, even if she ever did, real is such an odd concept, he knows, but admitting that...well, that's something completely else), back, but there are times when he could really do with her loosing some of the pesky habits that used to drive him crazy. Still drive him crazy. Will always drive him crazy. They will, because Mal will find her. He hasn't failed in that arena.

Yet.

Which is the best Simon has to go with, so he erases the last word from his memory, gives it to Serenity to swallow up. He's still concentrating on this when he feels hands on his shoulders and focuses enough to notice Kaylee in front of him. She says, "We're gonna find her. Cap'n always finds what he's lookin' for, you know that."

Simon doesn't, not absolutely, not the way he knows where each bone is or what each muscle does. Simon curls his hands over hers, too desperate for the touch to fall back on propriety at the moment -- it doesn't go far with her anyway -- and says, "Yes. Right."

She smiles. Simon almost believes.

*

Mal comes back empty-handed. It takes Simon several tries to understand. Mal is an old-time anti-hero, and Simon went through a phase (a small but improbably influential phase) wherein he read classic Westerns. Books where the cowboy always got the lady and the town sheriff, dirty and rough as he may have been, always took care of the bad guys. Mal's still dirty, and definitely still rough, but he's standing on Serenity without the lady, and his town is missing one of its citizens.

Archetypes aren’t meant to be changed up.

Mal says, "Someone saw 'er. She shipped out on an Alliance freighter an hour ago."

Simon's mind processes that immediately. It doesn’t have much choice. "Give me time to get my stuff."

"What the hell are you on about?" Mal's moving even as he stands still. Simon's not sure how Mal manages it but he does, something about his energy, or his mind, it manages motion even without the physical manifestation.

"My sister is on an Alliance freighter," Simon says. He's surprised by how calm he sounds. Perfectly amiable, practically.

"Wash," Mal doesn't turn his face away from Simon. Simon wonders if Mal thinks he'll disappear too.

"Captain?" Wash is there, at their sides. Simon thinks the whole crew might be in this one room. Then again, that would make sense. Mal is standing there, and they're on the ground, so where would everyone else be?

"One of the people we talked to said they took off the south side of the planet, heading out to The Core."

"And we're trusting this person, Sir?" Zoe's voice is soft, like she doesn't really want to ask the question.

As much as Simon hates the delay caused by the question, he has to admit, it's valid.

Mal shrugs. "Alliance has done this planet no favors."

"Have we got anything else?" Kaylee asks. Simon's surprised to hear it come out of someone else's mouth.

Wash says, "I'll go start'er up."

Mal looks at Simon. "How were you gonna find her?"

Despite the fact that Simon is not actually sure, he asks, "Do you suppose it was easy the first time?"

"Easier with a ship and some people at your back, you imagine?"

Simon doesn't imagine anything except finding River. Mal looks so expectant of an answer that Simon says, "Most likely."

*

Kaylee's behind Simon. She seems to be there a lot, although maybe that's just Simon blowing things out of proportion. He doesn't think so, because, well, her being there doesn't really bother him. At least, not until she starts in with, "You comin' t'dinner?"

"I'm not particularly hungry." Simon's quite content to sit here in his infirmary and clean his instruments. Looking out the shield in the cockpit is nice, too, waiting, waiting for the other ship to come into Serenity's view. Wash knows she's out there, that other ship, has been edgy about the fact for hours now, edgy enough to push Simon out of the cockpit. So here Simon is, and here he's staying. Food sounds disgusting.

Kaylee sighs the sigh of the long put-upon. "Yer not doin' anythin' to help holin' yerself up in here. Cap'n's eating. Maybe the two of you could, I dunno, say, talk. Make a plan?"

Simon's about to protest. He doesn't like being manipulated and he's not much of a planner, except that, on the latter point, he is. Simon remembers the way the hoist on Ariel fell into place, and granted, Simon knows--knew? knows--core hospitals, but it hadn't really been about that. It had been about River and her brain and the fact that Simon had needed that neuroimager. "Do we have anything other than protein chips?"

"You would choose now to get picky."

Simon's been picky since he boarded this ship. Most of the time he just hasn't said anything. Right now he'd give anything for broccoli sautéed crisp with ginger, the first thing he taught River to make, while mom and dad were away at separate conferences. Or cinnamon cookies, the type their mother always sent home from her long trips away, the type of which River had always always always tried to grab the majority. Most of the time, Simon had let her have her way. He hadn't much enjoyed seeing her upset, not even then when she'd been joyous and spoiled and nearly too young. "Texturized protein it is."

He follows Kaylee up to the mess. Absently he notices that her hair is even less tightly tucked back than usual and feels a shocking slip from longing of one kind to longing of another before he's pulled back, perhaps even more painfully than the first time, into the former. Still, when Kaylee pushes him into a chair, her palms warm even through his shirt, with an imperative, "Sit," he wants to follow her hand. He's not sure if it's for what most red-blooded males would want to follow it for, or just the security of having it there--Kaylee is so very very talented at fixing things--but either way, he's bereft in a wholly new way at its absence.

Across from him, Mal says, "Gettin' onto an Alliance freighter ain't gonna be no walk in the park."

Kaylee sets something down in front of Simon. He thanks her, more out of habit drilled into him than an actual awareness of what he's saying. He takes a bit. It tastes nothing like ginger or cinnamon. He swallows. It isn't polite to speak with a full mouth. "I have an idea."

*

It's pretty obvious that Mal does not like Simon's idea. "And how, exactly, would that make this situation better?"

Simon is willing to admit, privately, that it's not the safest, most convenient or best plan he's ever come up with in his life. It is, however, the only one he has, and as Mal doesn’t seem to be offering up any others, Simon's just going to have to defend this one. "They're looking for me. It's a good excuse as to why you would be following them. Obviously I would have been on the same planet as her and since there's a price on my head, and this ship looks like it could use that money, they'll accept that."

"Serenity's lookin' just fine," Kaylee says, but even her usual hurt at casual references to the ship's state-of-repairs is missing. Nonetheless, Simon appreciates the attempt to return some normality to the moment.

Mal asks, "What if they don't care about you, now they've got her?"

Simon's considered that possibility. "They kept me alive on Ariel. They want something from me."

Mal leans back in his chair. "Not really makin' me feel a whole lot better about this plan o' yours."

Kaylee intervenes for Simon. "Got a better'un? 'Cuz I can't imagine they're gonna wait all that long before startin' in gettin' finished on whatever Simon interrupted."

Mal swears under his breath. "Go fix...something, Kaylee."

Kaylee doesn't move, though. Simon says, "If you want to leave me there- Just get me on that ship, all right?"

Mal looks at Simon like the doctor is the biggest idiot with whom Mal's ever had the non-pleasure of communicating. Mal does the, "Are you a complete imbecile?" look better than anyone Simon's ever met and he's feeling a bit insulted until Mal spits out, "You don't understand a goram thing, doc, do you?"

Simon understands a lot of things, but not what Mal wants him to in this moment, that's blatantly apparent. "Evidently not."

"Could you leave her on that ship? Ever? Under any circumstance?"

Simon says, "No," and doesn't spare a second thought, because Simon isn't Simon without River, and he's long stopped worrying about the larger implications of that complication.

"Then why is it so hard to get that I couldn't leave either of you there?"

"She's my sister." Simon's a big believer in the principles of Occam's Razor.

Mal blinks. "You're my crew." Beside Mal, Kaylee doesn't seem phased by this concept in the least. Simon envies her. Mal keeps his eyes on Simon, and slowly, Simon starts to see where the two answers might match up at some point, might mean the same thing, even when, on a purely etymological level, they're nothing alike at all.

*

Mal grabs Simon by the hair, shakes him a little in front of the screen. "Heard tell you were lookin' for this."

The Alliance officer stands conspicuously straight on the other side, eyeing Simon, who is trying to curl up into the hurt, not really caring what he looks like--after all, he isn't all that concerned with impressing the officer and Mal's paying attention to other things--with a vague amount of suspicion. "I suppose you're expecting the reward."

"I did find'im," Mal says, rather reasonably, all things considered.

"Very well. Begin docking procedures." The screen flicks off, leaving the vastness of River's trusted space before them. Simon can't decide which vantage is less reassuring.

Mal lets go of Simon's hair and the pull of false-gravity has Simon sinking back into the floor. Simon's about to reach up, soothe the area where skin has too long been separated from its roots, but to his surprise another hand beats his, Mal's large palm settling gently over the area. "Sorry 'bout that."

The pressure of the hand is removed, then, and Simon's skull still aches, but there's a lingering sense of touch that causes another ache, one that Simon can concentrate on in its stead. The purer ache is probably safer, but Simon has long since given up worrying about safety. "Let's go."

They move down to the cargo bay. Kaylee's waiting there. She looks at Simon, "Remember what I told you about the codes."

Simon remembers. He has a good memory to begin with and she's told him at least four times as she has a wont to do when she's nervous. Also, her language is like red and purple and gold and other colors that once seen, never quite leave the mind. "Mess'em up and River's gonna be a guinea pig in a wheel on a floating cage for the rest of her existence," Simon says in Kaylee's lilting tone.

Kaylee grimaces. "I shouldn'ta said it that way."

Simon shrugs. "There's something to be said for motivation." Even when one already has all the motivation he needs.

"Oh-two-thirty," is what Mal has to add to this whole conversation. Simon nods. The only time an Alliance ship is at all in flux is when the shifts change. That’s their first convenient shift turn over.

"I won't miss it."

There's a thud and Simon staggers slightly as the ship locks into the larger ship's docking port. Kaylee rolls with the movement and Mal doesn't move an inch. Simon thinks maybe that's a metaphor for something, for Mal's part in this boat, but even Serenity moved at that, so maybe not.

Mal's hand goes to his back, where Simon knows he's tucked an extra gun, just in case. The one in his halter is nice and large and showy, but it never hurts to have a little back up for the times when things explode in all the wrong directions. Which they frequently do with this crowd.

Simon's pretty sure Jayne's somewhere else in the room, the rafters or somewhere that he can't be seen. Him and Vera, no doubt.

Surprisingly, though, the exchange goes pretty much as planned. The Alliance officer takes one look at Simon, tosses a comm at Mal, who keys it up and checks that everything is there. It evidently is, as Mal shoves Simon at the officer. Simon scowls at Mal, half for effect and half because, well, that wasn't really necessary. The officer catches Simon (whose balance is lessened significantly by the amount of rope he's got around his upper body and the fact that his hands are bound behind him) only to shove him forward onto the other ship.

Simon can't catch himself, so he falls to the floor of the larger, antiseptically clean ship. Slowly, awkwardly, he picks himself back up.

*

The Alliance ship is cold. It's cold and the last time Simon saw her, River was wearing a sundress. This thought concerns him more than the fact that he's not entirely sure how he's going to put this plan into action, if he actually trusts himself with all the arcane techno knowledge that Kaylee cobbled together in his head before he was shoved (literally) into this situation. Or if she was right. Which is a big if. Kaylee is brilliant, but Alliance hardware isn't really her area of specialty.

Nobody talks to him. He's thrown into a cell--a cell without River, he feels forced to observe--and left there. The cell does have a console, enabling it to be locked from both within and without, just as Kaylee said it would. This is at least one point in favor of The Very Poorly Put Together Plan. The door is, of course, locked from the outside at this moment. Simon will have less than three minutes to change that at the hour of 0230, an hour he will hopefully know by the small capsule he injected into himself, timed to dissolve into his bloodstream slowly for four hours, when the effects will be complete. At that point, he will feel his heart slow and his body temperature drop drastically. It will then be 0230.

This is assuming all of this goes precisely as predicted. Simon doesn't dwell on the fact that this seems unlikely. At best.

He also doesn’t dwell on the fact that he has no clue where River is on a ship wherein he has very little sense of layout. He paid attention on his trip to this cell, and his memory is a thing of near-perfection, but she could be anywhere. Simon is gambling on the fact that the officers on this ship would only find it convenient to keep two prisoners in the same area.

Because if they haven't decided that, things are going to get a lot uglier than they are at the present moment.

The one thing Simon has going in his favor is that he does definitively know how to return to where Serenity will be picking them up. Also, although Simon would never admit this, not even to the freezing air of his lonely cell, he has this bizarre belief that River could find that ship from miles away. With her eyes closed and her ears plugged. There's something between the two entities, both of whom can be referred to by way of feminine pronoun, and neither of whom ever completely fits into that categorization.

So getting back to Serenity isn’t the issue. Getting free of the cell, finding River, and Serenity actually being where she's supposed to be...those are issues.

Simon takes a deep breath and begins working free the knots that Mal explained to him how to undo once out of sight. They come loose just as Mal said they would, and Simon brings his knees up to his chest. He needs to stay as warm as possible, as limber as possible. He catalogs the ways in which this is possible, his mind throwing itself back to a text he once read on hypothermia. Simon was vaguely, pruriently fascinated by the body's response to extreme cold at the time. Now he's just annoyed. While the temperatures are nowhere near to hypothermia causing, they are certainly cold enough to make him sluggish. He's sure this is purposeful.

He scowls at the Unseen Alliance. It makes him feel better. Which makes him feel stupid and childish.

Simon's breathing slows and he's made aware that the pill is beginning its work. Not long now. Not long.

*

Simon's never had to concentrate in a state of near catatonia before, let alone make his way through halls carefully avoiding well-armed soldiers every three feet or so. Idly, Simon wonders how they feed all the people on this ship. Unless he keeps seeing the same person, which, given his mental state, is entirely possible. He hopes not, because that would mean he's going in circles.

Kaylee's codes work. Sort of. It takes a few tries, and Simon is getting a little desperate by the time the door slides open soundlessly. He creeps out without waiting to find out if the alarm will sound. He's well down the hall, avoiding officers who evidently haven't thought to check that the prisoner didn't slip out while they were changing over, when he realizes that until someone does think to check, there's not going to be any alarm.

If he makes it back to Serenity, he's finding the right thing to say to Kaylee. Even if he has to search the whole engine room floor to ceiling.

The alarm sounds before he finds River. Simon swears and tucks himself into a corner only to notice that the guards aren't running in the direction he's pretty sure his cell was placed. Serenity's back, then. Time to get moving.

Simon redoubles his efforts, slightly less careful. Most everyone seems to have been diverted to the direction of the intruding ship. Simon doesn't think about what the Alliance does to ships that intrude on their space. He thinks about where they've hidden River.

He's still trying every cell that he comes upon when he feels it. It's...more a tug, than anything else. A direction to head in. Simon knows the tug, though. He can't say how he knows it, just that it's as familiar as his hands, his breathe, his...River. Simon jogs in the direction of where it's pulling him, not stopping to think, stopping only to slip away from the odd distracted Alliance personnel heading down the same hall.

Finally, (Simon knows it hasn't been that long, but the white halls wear on his nerves, stretching until they feel infinite. He used to be reassured by white, he thinks,) finally Simon hits the end of the tug, slamming full up into something that he knows is River. Frantically, he keys the third code (have to change every five minutes and Simon's pretty sure they're pushing fifteen) into the pad. It isn't accepted. Simon tries the fourth, hoping against hope. The fourth is his last code. They all agreed that any more than twenty minutes and having another code was no use.

The door slides open. Simon's breath floods through his body, out of pores he didn't previously know existed. Still, they aren't out yet, and River isn't even looking up at him. She's curled in on herself, the way she does, the habit she's yet to rid herself of, but unlike usual, she isn't moving. Not rocking, not shuddering, just...holding herself still.

Simon wants to bring her out of whatever is holding her to that position, but he knows they don't have time. He goes to her, puts his hands on her shoulders. Not a sound. He finds the place where what was a tug is now a stagnant pool of...something in his head. He tries pushing at it, somehow makes it ripple. River's head shoots up and her eyes meet his. "Simon?"

"We have to leave," he whispers.

She stands, oddly still even in motion.

*

All we have to do, Simon repeats to himself, is make it to a waste receptacle.

For a ship that’s frighteningly clean, Simon’s beginning to get a little worried by the fact that they haven’t seen one. Of course, despite telling River what to look for, Simon’s not entirely sure she’s actually joining in the search. He’ll have to check her out when they get back to Serenity. She seems…Simon isn’t really sure how to tell one of her variations from the next so he puts it down to the fact that she just spoke directly into his mind and as of yet, that’s never happened.

Finally, finally Simon finds a receptacle. As he’s reaching to open it the ship's alarms sound and Simon realizes two things: time’s up, and he’s going to have to send River through the shoot first. Neither of these thoughts lies very quietly with him, but there are no choices, not if he wants her back to their ship safely. That he definitely does.

He opens the latch and says, “River, it’s a garbage shoot-“

“Have to meet Serenity,” she says, and it’s a completion to his sentence, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

He nods. “That’s right. I’ll be right behind you.”

Her feet are just disappearing as Simon feels the concussed air of a stun bullet that doesn’t quite reach him. Hoping that she’s moving through the tunnel fast enough, he pulls himself in, wrapping his arms around his head as a measure against brain damage. Even over the rush of the air around him he hears her laughter as he’s coming out of the tunnel. Mal’s already picking her out of the garbage, muttering, “Yeah, don’t we wish every day could be this much fun?”

Simon picks his way through the refuse and allows Mal to grab onto his arms, haul him onto the ship. Once they’re both on board, Simon says, “We can’t stay docked here.”

Kaylee’s picking pieces of trash out of River’s hair. “It’s the only place their sensors can’t see us. We move away from here and it’s a race. One they’ll win.”

“They saw me go down the chute. It doesn’t take a genius to connect those dots.”

Mal swears, the words sounding as though they’re cutting the inside of his mouth. He keys up a talking device. “Wash?”

“Captain.”

“We have any running possibilities?”

There are several long, abrupt static bursts before Wash answers, “There’s a field of sporadic black matter not too far off. They’d have to be crazy to follow us in.”

Largely because we’d have to be crazy to go in, Simon knows. Crazy or out of options. Most of the time he thinks it’s probably both on this boat. Mal cocks his head, staring at Kaylee, who’s still patiently trying to unmuss a very jittery River. “Take us in.”

“Alrighty, then.”

Simon lurches as Serenity looses her fingers from the larger ship. Mal catches him, setting him back on his feet with a quick scan of his eyes up and down the length of Simon’s body. Simon thinks about apologizing, seeing as how Mal’s about to take everything that means anything to him into a spot of space wherein all of it will more likely than not just disappear into oblivion.

Before he can say anything, though, Mal asks, “Both of you in working order?”

Simon glances over at River. “A quick check and I’ll know.”

“Best get on that then, doc.” Mal’s hands come free of Simon. It’s never before occurred to Simon to feel unbalanced when lacking the man’s touch. He sways a bit and turns to coax River to her least favorite place on board the ship.

She comes easily.

*

Mal comes to the infirmary later, much later, long after Simon's felt the pull of Serenity untangling herself from the field of black matter and River has told him things about the speed of light which he could probably understand given a few hours with a physics text. Probably.

River's sleeping when Mal comes and Simon is fighting that very same condition, his eyes carefully focused on her, her breathing, the small sounds she makes that Simon thinks might be fear but won't wake her to ask. Mal asks, "She check out?"

It takes Simon a minute to realize anything has been asked. "I'm sor- Oh, yes."

Mal leans one hip against a counter. "I'm thinkin' you should follow her example, doc."

Simon spares Mal a glance but is looking back at River before he's even started saying, "She has nightmares. Sometimes."

"She's here," Mal says. "She'll wake from'em."

Simon wants to refute that out of sheer instinct, but the truth is, Mal probably knows what he's talking about better than Simon on that score. Instead he whispers, "I won't."

Mal swears under his breath. Simon turns his head in surprise. Then he understands, "No, not like that. I meant." Simon clenches his fists. "I meant that they're never going to give up, that this is always going to be...this." Simon hates the fact that his mouth never works the way he needs it to when he needs it to.

Despite this stunted verbal venture, however, Mal nods. "That's why there're days, doc. To be taken one at a time." He moves to the chair that River's curled up in, tiny and docile and running as deep as her name suggests. He picks her up without a sound and she doesn't wake. Simon blinks. Mal's the first person who's managed to touch her in her sleep--excepting Simon, of course, but that's different, he's not outside, he's just--and not catch some kind of reaction, most likely violent.

Simon stands paralyzed, not sure how to handle it. Mal, obviously expecting some kind of reaction, stands equally in thrall. Finally, he takes a step, then another. When nothing happens on the third he glances back at Simon, "Comin'?"

Simon follows, numb and something that might be elated, only it's been a long time since he's felt that way and it's hard to tell. He holds back her screen for Mal, who gently deposits her in her bed and pulls the covers over her. Then, with big hands, big hands that should seem scary, did seem scary, only seem like safety, Mal pulls Simon out, into his own room. They're right next to each other, of course, and he'll be able to hear anything, but Simon's heart skips a beat all the same. The last time he let her out of his sight-

"D'you need me to watch over her?"

Mal's question startles Simon. He makes himself shake his head. "No. It's fine. It'll be fine."

Mal's mouth twists upward. "I know that, doc."

Simon scowls. Mal heads toward the door. "I don't wanna have to do this again."

It should sound like a scold, like a warning. The look on Mal's face, the slight curve of his fingers around the door makes it a statement brocaded by just the tiniest bit of passing fear. Simon shudders. "Me neither."

Mal grunts at that, and leaves Simon alone with his bed.

*

"The codes worked," is Simon's brilliant idea of the right thing to say to Kaylee.

Because Kaylee can be the easiest person in the 'verse to please at times (and the hardest at others) she grins. "Noticed that. What with you bein' on Serenity again an' all."

Simon grimaces. "I meant-"

Kaylee tips her face up to his. "Meant what, doc?"

Suddenly, in a rush of knowledge that Simon has not felt the like of since he first began to understand the body's ventricular system, he understands that these aren't the right words. That there will very likely never be the right words. That someone like Kaylee is made for something more than that. So he angles his head just slightly and brushes his lips against hers, the brush more a product of his shaking than intent, but the intent is there too, hiding behind his trembling hands.

When he pulls back, Kaylee looks confused, like she's gotten to the end of a one thousand piece puzzle and there's one piece missing. Simon asks, "Kaylee?"

She shakes her head. "Just. . .seems an odd definition for 'the codes worked.'"

Simon laughs then, softly, too himself, at himself. Kaylee cuts into his amusement. "They work well enough to be getting me kissed again?"

Now that she's expecting it Simon thinks he might have to do a little better, but he's done this before, really he has, so he slides his right hand along the warm skin of her neck and pulls her lips up to his ever so carefully and takes what he's wanted to take since he figured out he might actually have leave to do so.

She tastes different than any woman he's ever had before. It's a little bit of a shock at first, but then Simon realizes he shouldn't be surprised. She acts different than any woman he's ever had before. She presses upward, extending onto her tiptoes, making sounds in his mouth that somehow taste good, even though that should be impossible.

Finally, finally he pulls back, because they're in the engine room, and Simon may have abandoned words, but he hasn't abandoned all the other rules of courting. He won't, not when it comes to her. She deserves better. She looks disappointed. "That was all you meant?"

Simon chuckles and tucks one of several errant hairs behind her ear. "For now."

She rolls her eyes at him. "Still bein' the last gentleman on this side of civilization?"

Simon's pretty sure this is no side of civilization, rather a patch of the 'verse that civilization has long left to rot. If it even ever came around. "Still being that."

"S'pose I'm a fool for actually likin' it, then."

Simon allows her her delusions of a toughness that she doesn't really support. Kaylee's tough enough in the ways she needs to be, but Simon can understand the need to think of herself as tough in all ways. Simon's almost given into the fantasy once or twice himself. Almost.

There's always Zoe or Book or Mal around to put him in his place with a nod and a, "Doc."

For now he runs a thumb along Kaylee's lower lip. "Suppose so. Have a cup of tea with me after dinner?"

She lights up brighter than any star Simon's yet seen.

*

After considerable thought, Simon talks to River about what happened on the Alliance ship. He's considered other possibilities. Mal probably should know about this latest development. Kaylee would be most likely to make him feel better about it, even if she had to resort to kissing to do it. Zoe might be able to put things in perspective.

It feels like it's between him and her, though, the way things used to be all the time. So he sits on her bed one morning and wakes her with a soft, "Mei-mei." She peels her eyes open, looking severely disgruntled. Simon laughs, which only deepens her expression of dissatisfaction with the world.

Finally though she sits up, curled into the wall, and waits. Simon's not sure how he knows she's waiting or how she knows to wait, for that matter, but he doesn't let himself think about it too much. "You ever talked in anybody else's head before?"

Simon's worried she won't remember, that the burden of knowing will be all on him and that might mean he's gone slightly crazy or that he knows something that can't be proven or any one of a million situations that Simon doesn't really care to be in. She nods, though, and says, "Similar minds."

Simon's not even sure he would have agreed to that back when she was making fun of his word choice in papers and wearing streamers tangled in her hair. "No, River, I heard you in my head."

"Influence and reception of quantum levels coordinates."

Psychology is one area of medicine that Simon has never really cared to study. It's not that he trusts his own sense of others, just that he trusts technical phrases for them even less. "River, it's not a. . . I'm not mad." Simon's not sure if it’s a bad thing or not, so he thinks he'll stave off making any definitive statements so far as that goes.

It's evidently the right choice of words because she finds his eyes and hers are surprisingly lucid. "I needed help."

"So you called me?"

"You were. . ." Her gaze leaves his and she doesn't finish the thought. Simon considers pushing but most of the time that just ends in her being upset. It's too early in the morning for that. Besides, Simon's aims have been accomplished. He's pretty sure she hasn't done this before, as while she doesn't seem taken aback at it, she doesn't seem comfortable with it, either. And her explanation suggests that Simon's the only one she's managed it with. Which is good, on some level, and on another level just means that it's one more thing she doesn't understand about what was done to her, one more thing for Simon to go and figure out.

River slides back into sleep. Simon stays for a while, watching, before stepping out, heading to the infirmary where Zoe's supposed to come in for a check up later in the day. For now Simon will have it to himself to think over the situation. Quantum levels indeed.

Kaylee finds him there mid-morning, pouring over the pictures of River's brain, trying to find what he missed, or didn't know to look for, or didn't understand. She leans over him, stomach and ribs to his back, the under edge of her breasts pressing at his neck. "Am I interruptin' somethin'?"

Simon's been staring at the film for a good hour and he's not seeing anything he wasn't seeing at the beginning of that hour, so he pushes himself away from the film, careful not to knock Kaylee over, and says, "No, nothing."

*

Simon tells Mal. He tells him because, well, the last time Mal wasn't told about something concerning River it ended in the kind of trouble that Simon doesn't really need right now. Not that there are a whole lot of variations of that he does need. Mal listens, his eyes careful and quiet, props his shoulder against the wall and says, "So she just. . .talked. Inside your head."

"She was in dire need," Simon thinks it's only fair to point this out.

Mal looks surprised by the commentary. "Wasn't blamin'."

Simon doesn't know how to say that Mal isn't always the best person at handling odd news that comes to him by way of River, so he doesn't say anything at all.

"Might come in handy, that trick of hers."

Simon suspects that if Mal weren't so unbalanced by River's quasi-insanity, he'd think that of a lot of her latent (manufactured) abilities. It's nice to have that as a response, though, rather than something else. Simon says, "It could."

With the end of the conversation Mal gets edgy, and Simon weighs his options. It isn't terribly obvious this change in Mal, Simon only notices because he's touched Mal before, sewn him back together, extracted insidious materials from under his skin, kept him alive. These things give Simon an odd sixth sense about others physical manifestations, and ever since Kaylee spread the news (and though she denied it for the first week or so, he knew she had, because the first person to give him a talking to was Book, Book who tends to be last on the list of people receiving gossip, unless Kaylee's involved) Mal's been displaying three or four of them every time he's near Simon, which isn't often. That in and of itself, the avoidance (which Simon only noticed after he had to chase Mal down to tell him the River Daily News) is a sign.

It's easiest, of course, to just allow Mal his edginess. Whatever is causing it might well dissipate. Is most likely too, actually. But allowing it is also allowing for rifts that Simon can't afford, or, even more dangerous, unknown results. So Simon grits his teeth and asks, "Is there a problem?"

And then Mal is calm. Preternaturally so. "No, why?"

"Because you're acting like Jayne after Ariel," and Simon's always thought he should have realized that immediately too, shouldn't have had to rely on River's reading abilities, but Jayne's skin is hard to penetrate, even having pieced it back together. Simon is slowly getting used to this. There might even be a day where he appreciates it. Maybe.

It occurs to Simon, when Mal's eyes widen ever so slightly, that he's not supposed to know about that. All the same, Mal doesn't ask how he came into the information. All he says is, "Haven't been sleeping well."

Which is a lie and not even a good lie. Simon's mildly insulted. Mal's well able to lay it on thick and smooth when he wants. Evidently he doesn't feel Simon worthy of this. "I could give you something for that."

"Don't like-"

"And I don't like being lied to, but evidently everybody's likes and dislikes are subject to be crossed every now and then."

There's a bitten off breath and a moment of silence so quick Simon doesn't even understand that sound has stopped before Mal says, "You hurt Kaylee and an Alliance ship will seem like paradise compared to what this place will become," in a low voice, nearly all sound of dirt and sun and air erased from it. Simon doesn't know how to understand that voice, anymore than he can fathom the look in Mal's eyes, other than to know it makes him feel sick, and like the gravity's broken again.

Only Simon's still standing, feet planted on the floor. He swallows. "Of course."

Mal nods then, his eyes flooding back to calm, turns and walks out. When the doors close behind him, his stride still hasn't completely recovered its ease.

*

Zoe doesn’t talk much, but Simon's gotten used to the idea that when she does, it's in his best interests to listen. Of course, it would help if she wouldn't choose times like when he's got her up on the exam chair, long expanse of extended stomach bare and covered in a substance that she refers to as anything other than "goo." Any other time than when Simon is concentrating on getting her a picture of the baby up on screen to check for regular development. Any other time than when he's hoping that he really knows for what to look.

That's the time she chooses, though, to ask, "How're things with you 'n Kaylee?"

Despite the small bump in the road that Simon more or less thinks of as Mal, things are going surprisingly smoothly, as though Simon just needed to take one step to make the rest of them fall into place. Actually, he suspects it has very little to do with where he places his feet and more about the fact that Kaylee, who is by and large accepting of most people's follies, has learned precisely where his are, and how to rectify them to her needs. Simon's main role in that is to be flexible enough to allow her that. He's pretty sure that he couldn't have back when he first joined the crew. What was flexible in him had already been bent way past the breaking point in his disownment and the loss of everything he knew.

Kaylee's had a significant part in rebuilding that, though, Kaylee and being around River and other factors that Simon prefers not to think about, even if he should. The parts of his that this ship rebuilt, and he really thinks it's a sizeable portion, they have much more give than the old parts did, and Simon can sway when Kaylee blows. Luckily there haven't been any huge gusts yet. Simon has already learned about crossing bridges when they rise up over rivers, so he doesn’t let himself worry, not when Kaylee's smile still tricks him into believing that things are all right, on this ship and off. "Fine, thank you for asking."

Zoe laughs. "I'm not pryin', doc, just asking out of a little friendly concern."

Simon doesn't want to ask, but some trouble can't be avoided by ignoring it. "Why concern?"

"Because I've seen the Captain watching the two of you and I know from personal experience he can get himself into a snit over crew members havin' relations."

That makes Simon smile. "He still isn't much thrilled over Wash and yourself, is he?"

"The day that happens is the day I drag him in here for every test you know how to give to make sure he isn't dying of some awful drawn out disease."

It eases something in Simon's chest to know it's not just him Mal doesn't trust, it’s the world in general. He's pretty sure this is something he should have figured out a while ago, but Zoe often brings perspective where there recently was none. "He's just worried I don't know how to comport myself in a relationship. I can't say I blame him entirely."

"He's barking up the wrong tree. Kaylee's wanted you since the day you set foot on this boat. She'll keep you until she's done and over with you."

Simon stiffens at that before forcing himself to relax. "Is that a warning to be careful?"

"Not sure. Never seen Kaylee so determined to have something outside of a working engine at Serenity's core. For all I know the day of Kaylee's hypothetical finishing with you might never come."

Simon can only hope, since he's pretty sure his hands will never work correctly again if he's unable to either get the feeling of her breath at his palm, the skin of her elbow at his fingers, the glide of her foot over their surface out of his mind or know that he'll be able to relive it soon enough. The former seems unlikely, at best.

His hands are working correctly just then, however, and the picture finally pops onto the screen. Zoe's eyes go wider than he's used to seeing them. Simon looks at it for a few minutes before narrating, "Well, here's the. . ."

Zoe follows every word, paying attention like he's seen her pay attention to Mal. It's gratifying and unsettling all at once. Zoe, not generally one for unnecessary commentary says, "That's. . .incredible."

Simon, who doesn't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by the inner workings of the human physique, is hardly one to disagree.

*

It happens again, though, this time in the middle of the night, just a sharp burst of "Simon!" in Simon's head and he's out of bed, in the next room over, pulling River out of sleep. She tries to scramble from his hands but he holds on, hoping it's the right thing to do, holds on until the reverberations of "Let go!" inside his skull shock him into losing his grip. She makes her way frantically to the corner of her bed, curled tightly away from him. Then, and Simon can feel when it happens, she comes into recognizing where she is, who he is, and unfurls.

Normally Simon would let her talk first or, if she didn't want to talk, just calm her back to sleep. Tonight he asks, "What was the nightmare about, Mei-mei?"

She shakes her head. "A man will thirst for sleep in his Southern night."

The cadence is familiar to Simon. "Poem?"

She frowns at him then, and he can tell she's thinking. "Poem." It's agreement of sorts. Simon makes a mental note to see if he can trace the source.

"Can you remember at all?" He reaches out to her, and she comes. "You spoke to me. Called me."

"I needed you," she says, and it is clear that she knows that of a certainty.

"Why?"

River rocks herself against him, burying her face in the skin of his neck. "Big brother."

Simon has learned when to stop pushing. He scoots her further into the bed and climbs in behind her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling the covers up over them. "Sleep, River."

She does, almost immediately, worn out by the emotion of her waking and lulled by his presence. Simon isn't so lucky. It has begun to occur to him that this might be why the price on his head is so high, and why it is set with the expectation of his being brought in alive. Until now this has been a mystery to him, his assumption being that the Alliance wanted right of execution, but it seemed like a lot of trouble for a government that most often got its jollies doing the most utilitarian thing possible. Simon's mind has been casually storing the possibility that there is some other reason, and it would seem there is. He wonders if this is about their genetic connection, or something else. He wishes there were someone to do a brainscan on him. He wouldn't mind being able to look for similarities.

As this isn't even a mild possibility, he's just going to have to keep piecing together clues until something becomes clear. What he has now, that she can speak to him telepathically whenever she's in desperate need and that, if his need is equally desperate he can at least broadcast a little back, isn't much.

If it weren't so worrisome, it would almost be neat.

All right, Simon admits, it's a little neat anyway, if you take out the whole somebody-cut-into-River's-brain-and-fixed-it-this-way part of the whole equation. Which Simon is hard put to do. Telling himself that he isn't going to figure things out tonight, laying in the dark, Simon breathes in the scent of River's hair and falls asleep knowing he's still got her.

*

Most of the time Kaylee smells of oil and metal and heat, and it's something that Simon can smell from across the room. He thinks that might have bothered him at some point, but now it's just part of her, part of this ship, and Simon's learned to love the former and given up being bothered by the latter. Every once in awhile, she smells different, though, and those are the times that throw him. As much change as Simon has experienced in the last year, it's still not something he welcomes.

Not that the smells are bad. Sometimes she smells like tea, when the ship lurches as she's drinking and it spills onto her coveralls. Sometimes she smells of sweat and River, when the two have been playing for an hour, more, without pause. Sometimes she smells of dust and alcohol when she's gotten in the mood to clean the engine room.

That morning, when she slides into River's room looking worried and kneeling down at the side of the bed, she smells of baking soda. Simon knows there are more important things going on, but he can't help asking, "You brush your teeth more than once?"

"Exploding toothpaste tube."

This happens sometimes, when contents that are kept in air-tight or pressurized containers get upset by the balance of air in Serenity or some other quirk of space. Kaylee takes these events with an equanimity that Simon envies. But then, that pretty much explains their entire relationship. Simon notices a small bit of past still in her hair and reaches out to pull it from the strand. It comes, sticky and a bit gritty. "Oh."

"Yeah," Kaylee grins. Then, "She all right?"

Simon disentangles himself from River, still out cold, and pulls Kaylee behind him, shutting the door when they're in the hallway. "Nightmare," he says in response to the question. Kaylee nods, and doesn’t ask, which is one of Simon's favorite things about her. For all her curiosity, she knows when to let things lie, at least with him, and it’s a reprieve he doesn't think he'll ever get used to.

"Wanna have breakfast with me?"

Simon's not very hungry, but he's not at all ready to part ways with Kaylee yet, so he nods, "Yeah, sounds good. Let me get dressed?"

Kaylee follows him into his room. "Or we could skip breakfast."

He's bringing his pajama top over his head, blinded by the tangle of cloth, so the kiss at his shoulder blade is just a bit startling. He throws the shirt onto the bed. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, and not that I'm turning it down, but want to tell me what brings this on?"

Kaylee slumps, aware that she's been caught. Simon's glad she offered to skip a meal, since he's only so-so at reading her and that's the one sure way to tell she's upset over something. She makes a sound through her teeth and says, "Mal's bein' a jerk."

Simon frowns. "To you?"

"Well, yeah to me."

Simon doesn't bother pointing out that it was more a rhetorical question of shock than an actual inquiry. "Why?"

Kaylee throws her hands up. "Darned if I know. 'Cause he can."

While it's not completely out of the realm of possibility for Mal to do such a thing, it’s pretty close with Kaylee. Mal doesn't abuse her affection the way he does other people's. Nobody abuses her affection. Well, all right, Jayne, but Jayne doesn’t count. Not the way humans do. "Is something wrong with Serenity?"

"No!" Kaylee pouts. "You think I'd be here if something was wrong with her?"

Simon doesn't, but he had to ask. "And you didn't have a fight over anything, you're sure?"

"Just 'cause I don't have no fancy medical degree don't make me stupid, doc."

"Not implying anything of the sort. It's just odd."

Kaylee huffs. "Well, whatever, he can be pissy all by himself. I'm gonna have me some sex with my very cute boyfriend."

Despite the fact that Simon thinks there's probably something he really should figure out going on here, he's only a man, and Kaylee's unbuttoning her coveralls and calling him cute and well, the figuring out can wait until after the sex, really it can.

*

Kaylee's not one to assume the worst of people, Simon knows, but all he can think is that Mal must be upset about something else and Kaylee's taking it personally. Simon's gone through all the other logical conclusions he can come to in this situation and as it turns out, there aren't any.

Only, there must be, because supper rolls around and sure enough, Mal's terse and edgy toward Kaylee, silent in that way that means he doesn't want anybody noticing. There was a time when Simon wouldn't have, when he would have taken it for granted that Mal was just the hostile-quiet type, but Simon's come to understand differently. Mal has different types of silences, and this one portends nothing good.

The silence is particularly eerie in that Mal smiles in all the right places, leans back in his chair the way he always does, even glares at Jayne once for making some wholly inappropriate comment about Kaylee.

This last action is what begins the slow crawl of suspicion in Simon's mind. It has to share space with all the mental notes he's been taking about River and himself, and with his concern over the apparent anemia in Zoe's last blood-test, but it makes room for itself and settles in not-so-comfortably.

Mal's glares at Jayne have mostly been half-hearted since Inara left. Simon suspects this is partly out of Jayne's latent but nonetheless heartily present survival instinct and partly out of Mal's having lost any real drive to get thoroughly angered. Inara brought things out in Mal that Simon rarely ever expected and never quite got used to. Yet somehow, when they were no longer a part of the man, it was every bit as much a shock as when they were.

Simon recognizes his surprise at Mal's actions as echoing the surprise that has gone before. The actions aren't the same, Inara always sparked heat and confusion and the alpha instinct in Mal. Kaylee isn’t one to spark those things. Well, maybe the alpha instinct, but not in a conquering way, in a protective way. Simon's not really sure she needs it so much as one would believe, but she causes it, regardless.

Kaylee is about laughter, and kindness and a sort of blinding knowledge that hits a person on the back of the head and runs away laughing. Simon never minds the bruises.

Evidently, Mal doesn't either.

When he's stayed just long enough not to arouse questions at his behavior, Mal stands, "Doesn't anybody on this ship work?"

"Oh, is that what you're paying us for?" Wash has one hand tucked behind Zoe, whose face is immaculately expressionless, and not for the first time, Simon wishes he could read her mind.

Mal snorts and saunters out of the dining room. Kaylee looks at Simon, you see? written all over her face. Simon dredges up a smile for her. He does, but it's not a conversation he's having silently without the aid of his hands at a table with Jayne and Book and River all sitting and watching. He's pretty sure Wash and Zoe would look the other way. They're oddly mannered in that aspect.

"Whose turn is it to do the dishes?" Jayne asks.

Zoe just looks at him, and this expression is as readable as a Dick and Jane primer. Jayne grumbles, but he gets up and gets himself in the kitchen. Book laughs, even though this happens almost every time it's Jayne's turn to wash up. Because he needs it, Simon laughs too.

*

Simon searches Mal out in the morning on the pretext of, "We need to be buying foods with iron in them, or at least supplements," which isn't exactly a pretext, because it really does need to be discussed, but being that it's not what Simon's heading toward, it feels that way.

"Not gonna happen, doc."

Simon rephrases, "Zoe needs us to be buying foods with iron in them, or at least supplements."

Mal glares at Simon. "And where do you propose to get said foods? And how, pray tell, to pay for them?"

"Not losing crew members involves more than just making sure they don't fall off the ship." Simon wishes he could take the words back the moment he says them, particularly with the way Mal draws back ever so slightly, almost unnoticeably. Besides the fact that Simon needs Mal fairly pliant for the conversation to come, he knows that the man would never knowingly risk the safety of this crew. He's seen that enough to be well past needing to question it.

"I was askin' for ideas, doc, not philosophizin'."

If he had them to give, Simon would, but, "I've never even seen this system on a map. I've no idea where we'd find something like that. I just know that we need it, and that you're the person I go to when we need things."

The comment is unintentionally soothing and Simon can practically see the ruffled feathers smooth themselves down all over Mal's body. "I'll see what I can figure out."

It's an obvious dismissal, but Simon hasn't had that whole tiff for nothing. "I realize that you are less than impressed with my manners and tendencies and seem to fear that I will leave a more valuable member of your crew in an unenviable state, but it passes understanding why you are treating said member in a manner fit only for Alliance officers."

"I haven't the slightest clue what you just said, let alone what you're talking about."

Mal's lying. Simon suspects that Mal is every bit as smart as he is, if in different ways, but the man is insistent that he be seen in a certain way and sensing that Mal is trying to divert his attention Simon snaps back, "Why are you treating Kaylee like something you stepped on and can’t quite wipe off the bottom of your shoe?"

Mal blinks then, and it can't be surprise at the question, so Simon imagines it is at the bluntness. "I'm not."

"You are. It's quiet and clever, I'll give you that, but your attitude toward her has changed distinctly, and not for the better. Is it because of us? Do you disapprove? Because if that's it-"

"It's not."

Simon's completely ready to roll over the protest, except that Mal's keeping eye contact and there's not a lie to be found in those pupils. Simon flounders for a moment and then admits, "That was really my only guess as to what was going on."

"Good to know you're not always right."

Mal's long known that, but the statement feels like some sort of apology. Simon's not sure what it's for precisely, but he takes it in the spirit that it's given. "Happens more often than you'd think."

"It's personal."

"What is?"

"The Kaylee thing."

"You're making it otherwise."

"I'll attempt to see that that changes."

Simon wants to scream. Instead he says, "Perhaps-"

"That's all you're gettin'. Walk away while the walkin's good."

Simon knows when to push his luck. He also knows when pushing will just break something. He walks away.

*

When he reports the conversation to Kaylee she giggles. "Well sure, silly. Mal don't like complications."

Simon has learned, through hard training and some well-placed questions, to read Kaylee's giggle. This one is somewhere between being amused at Simon, and being relieved. Which means she understands way more of what's going on than he does. "What's complicated?"

"The fact that he's jealous."

Simon is tempted to giggle at that, only now, of all times, Kaylee's actually serious. "Wait-"

"I just don't know which one of us he's bein' all jealous on." At this Kaylee frowns. "I mean, I'd automatically 'spect you, only I didn't know the Capt'n layeth down in those pastures, if you know what I mean."

Simon does know. He's laid there once or twice himself. Men are easier than women. However, "I thought he was. . .interested in Inara." Simon isn't sure that interested is the right past participle or adjective to complement Mal in that situation, but for the moment, it will do.

Kaylee nods. "Well sure he was."

Simon keeps his hands from his temples, where they desperately want to rub. "Now he's over that?"

"I'm not sayin' he doesn't still miss her. We all do. Or, I mean, at least I still do, almost every day, and-" Kaylee looks at Simon.

Simon nods. "She is irreplaceable," and while it's true, and Simon does miss her calm humor, her unwonted grace, he suspects that his emotional claims on Inara are far less than Kaylee's or Mal's.

"But things keep goin'."

Simon's not sure he wants to agree. Only, he's sitting on this ship with a price on his head and River nowhere near the medical facilities she so obviously needs and he's desperately, painfully in love and possibly, Simon suspects, quite happy where he is, so, "Right, I know."

"And Mal, for all his bluster, and his terrification of complications, is only human."

"Terrification?"

"A state of bein' in terror. Don't you know the English language at all?"

At that, Simon can't help leaning in and kissing her. "My Chinese has always been stronger."

Another giggle, this one pure amusement. "Ye're distractin' me."

"From?"

"From what we were talkin' about."

"Oh." Simon pulls back. "That."

"What are we gonna do?"

Simon's not entirely sure that Mal's emotional needs are his responsibility, but he does owe the man several times over and this seems as good a way as any to start paying up, so he asks, "What do you want to do?"

Kaylee holds herself upright for several seconds before slumping down onto Simon's chest. "Sleep on it."

And Simon may not know the English language at all, but he's pretty sure he can pick apart that euphemism with no problems whatsoever.

*

Simon wakes from a dream in which he is the conductor of a symphonic production of Mahler's third and the entire strings section is missing. Dream isn't the correct word, but it isn't a nightmare, either, it's just. . .

Simon pulls himself free from Kaylee, who sleeps like a hibernating bear. Just this once he's glad, because he's not sure he can explain what the dream was telling him, even to himself. All he knows is, he has to see the images of River's brain again. He's missed something.

Once in the infirmary he tacks the photos up to the lightboard and things come together. It's so subtle that he rubs at his eyes and tilts his head, just to make sure he isn't distorting something out of a need to see something. There it still is, though, a splicing of certain DNA patterns so fine that Simon can't imagine what the intention was. It wouldn't seem considerable enough to do anything, hence his missing it time and again. Still, no strings in a Mahler production is pretty detrimental to the performance, and Simon doesn't think for a second that his subconscious wanderings aren't connected, not when they've already lead him here.

Simon keys up the computer and begins to go through the databases, seeing what he can find on the strands that have been cut into and re-organized. Most of it is stuff he already knows, respiratory function control, sleep pattern control, serious but basic things.

He's still searching when Mal wonders in, looking worn. "Why is it that you get to tell everyone else that sleep is essential?"

"Because I spent an extra four years in school and another three training to have the authority to make such statements." Normally, Simon would scold Mal for being up, but right now he doesn't have the mental energy to divert from his task.

Only then Mal says, "Simon?" and he sounds so. . .the only word Simon can find for it is concerned. Combined with the use of his name, this is enough for Simon to rip himself away from the screen.

"Mal."

As if the straight-forwardness of Simon's answer has scared away the uppity part of Mal that has dared to show worry, Mal blanks his features. "Workin' on somethin'?"

"I found irregularities in River's brain-based DNA strands. Forced irregularities. Amazingly well done, I'd probably read the research were it not being done on young girls and boys without their given consent."

"What, you not up for progress at any price?"

Simon doesn't deign to answer, because that's a low blow and they both know it. Mal relents, "'Shouldn't've-"

Simon lets him off the hook. "I say a lot of things I shouldn't." After all, Kaylee is still sleeping on how to solve their problem.

The silence that follows would be uncomfortable, Simon's pretty sure, if he weren't so intent on his research. Mal breaks it anyway with, "You think you can help her?"

Simon knows Mal hasn't meant to ask the one question that Simon doesn't want to answer, but he has, and there's no ignoring it, really. "I can't even figure out exactly what they did. This is. . .I'd probably kill her if I even tried."

Simon doesn't even notice that he's digging the nails of one hand into the skin of his other wrist until Mal reaches out and carefully disengages the clenched hand. There are small tears in the skin, blooded half-moons. Mal says, "That's not doin' anyone any good."

Simon wants to argue, since the moment the pressure is released it fills him in other places, with words that are more painful, cutting, than his short fingernails. He tries to take his hand back, but Mal holds tight. "It doesn't make. . . Sometimes there are things that don’t take no fixin', doc."

"In the hospitals, when someone's past fixing, one of the doctors is eventually going to have to fill out a death chart for that person."

Mal doesn't let this discourage him. "Maybe she's like Serenity, just needs new parts."

Replacing a person's brain, let alone her DNA strands, like one replaces a catalyser isn't possible. Still, Simon's never forgotten River's faux-melding with Serenity, what it taught him about her, and he thinks Mal might have a point. "New parts."

Mal shrugs. "Not that I know ships. Or people."

Mal is still holding Simon's hand, though, and Simon thinks that sometimes knowing is overrated.

*

Simon rushes down the length of Serenity in the morning, hoping to get back before Kaylee wakes, since she can be a little insistent that she not wake alone. She's already awake when he slides into his room but one look at him and her frown alters from one of consternation to one of concern. "Where y'been?"

Simon moves inside to sit at the edge of the bed and she obligingly curls herself over his back. Once he's settled on the soft edge of the blankets his body seems to restart itself and Simon yawns, exhausted. "'Firmary," he says, on the edge of the yawn.

"Everybody okay?"

Despite wanting nothing more than to curl up and pass out, Simon can hear the alarm in her voice. "I was doing research. I had this. . .dream. About River. Well, about the symphony, but it was a metaphor and then I had to see the pictures again and this time they made sense, not at first, of course, I had to look and look and then I saw and then Mal came and he said she was like Serenity-"

"You're not makin' any sense."

"Oh." Simon had been making perfect sense to himself. "I'm a little tired."

"Why don't you sleep some?"

"It's morning," Simon told her.

"I know, but so long as nobody's dyin', I think we can afford to spare you for a few hours or so. I'll watch after River."

Kaylee tugs at him to lay him down and Simon just about falls off the bed following the lead of her hand. Luckily she catches him and guides him safely to the pillow. When he's situated, he says, "Love you."

There's a moment of startled silence and even through his half dead state Simon can hear and process Kaylee's intake of breath. Simon opens his eyes, which have fallen shut at some point, just as Kaylee giggles. A giggle of unease. "See if you feel the same way when you wake up."

Simon frowns at that and fights against the tide of unconsciousness trying to claim him. "I've felt it for at least a month now, why would a couple hours of sleep change that?"

Kaylee's mouth opens and shuts a few times. Then it opens with, "Ye're just tired-talkin'."

"Not about this," Simon says, a little miffed that she doesn't trust his word on such a large issue.

"Then why'd you wait 'til now to blurt it out?" she asks, obviously unconvinced.

"Wasn't waiting," Simon tries to explain. "Was. . .worried you didn't return the sentiment. Wouldn't have said it at all if my brain were working correctly."

"Thanks muchly I'm sure."

"Not hearing you refute my last point."

"'Course I love you, you daft rich boy idiot."

Simon resents that. "How was I supposed to know?"

Kaylee throws her hands up. "I stayed in bed with you 'til mornin', I look'd after your kid sister, I made you birthday cakes, I dunno Simon, you tell me."

"But you're always friendly, that's why I love you."

Kaylee stops short with a look on her face that combines confusion, amusement, bemusement and frustration all in one. Finally, she laughs. "You're the least perceptive person in the world. Well, 'cepting maybe Jayne. But he don't count."

Simon's glad they agree on something at the moment. "I'll try better when I wake up."

"Don't. I love ya just the way y'are."

Other than River, Simon doesn't think anyone's ever done that for him. "Oh."

"Get it?"

"Got it."

"Sleep."

Simon does.

*

River's reading one of Jayne's weapon manuals when Simon finds her in the mess. He doesn't know where she's gotten this from, or even that Jayne kept the manuals, rather than having some inborn knowledge of how to clean and work a gun. "Jayne know you have that, mei?"

River says, "Rubber soles leave a residue. Footprints and breadcrumbs."

Simon's pretty sure she's trying to tell him Jayne will figure it out. It's not that Simon opposes stealing from Jayne all that strictly, but in the interest of keeping the peace, "Maybe you should mention it next time. How did you even get it?"

"Jayne."

Simon's head aches a bit at that so he leaves it. "I found something in your scans."

River's fingers open and close several times at that, as though she's trying to restart something. It must work, because her, "My brain?" is pretty lucid.

"DNA, actually."

"Basic structures altered, corrupt flow of life."

"Corrupt is a pretty harsh word." Simon won't have pessimism from her. He's right full up on it by himself.

"Time to wake up?"

Simon contemplates this dose of confused quixotic interrogation. "I don't know. I don't know if I can interrupt this type of sleep."

River smiles at him. Smacks his arm playfully. Simon knows what she's trying to say. He wishes he were kidding. He shakes his head. "I don't know."

River's smile fades by a fraction, and she turns her head back to her reading. "This one can handle sixteen different types of ammunition."

"This one?"

"The last one only handled two. It's not very versatile. More power, though. 'Blow you right good,'" she concludes, doing a passable Jayne.

Simon laughs. "How many of these have you read?"

River holds up one hand, the fingers spread wide. Simon asks, "Five?"

"Have to work my way up."

"Jayne tell you that?"

River nods solemnly. Simon would have a talk with Jayne about letting her read literature on fatal weaponry, but he thinks that's probably the equivalent of shutting the barn doors after all the cows have escaped. She might as well know what she's doing, consciously as well as sub. In fact, this might be one of the better ideas Jayne has had. Not that Simon plans on spreading this opinion around.

"Sixteen, huh?" Simon wonders how that's even possible. So far as he knows, weapon chambers have sizes, fitted to the agents of death loaded into them-

Sizes and shapes and configurations, but the gun can take sixteen different weapons. Simon doesn’t want to think of River this way, hates to even allow the possibility to stray into his mind, but River is a weapon. Can be a weapon. Was being molded into a weapon.

Why should River be any less flexible than the pieces of metal that Jayne can control?

Simon hasn't got any good answers to that, which means that there just might not be any.

*

Serenity spends most of the evening avoiding a Reever ship, which throws everyone's appetite toward the non-existent and makes sleeping a near impossibility. When the danger has finally completely passed, when Wash is slumping over his control panels, Zoe's hand making small circles over his back, and Mal is watching the viewscreen with a relieved tint in his eyes, Kaylee whispers to Simon, "I think the Cap'n could use a drink."

They could all use a drink, even River, and Simon isn't generally one for the sharing of libations with minors. Still, this is Mal's ship and Mal's crew and Simon thinks Kaylee might have an excellent point. He asks, "Do we even have anything?"

Kaylee quirks an eyebrow. "Shows how much you know."

"Was that really up for debate?"

Kaylee giggles at that. In amusement. "We always have somethin'. You just gotta know where to look."

Which means, to Simon's unpleasant surprise, that Kaylee goes off to look while Simon gets stuck with the part where he has to say, "Um, Mal?"

One very exhausted ship captain turns his head at this rather unrousing address. "Um, Simon?"

Right, well, fair enough. Still, Simon takes a deep breath and reminds himself that what he has (whatever that is, at the moment he suspects alcohol, and probably Kaylee) Mal wants. "Care for a drink?"

"You stealin' from Jayne's moonshine pile?"

Oh shit. All the same, Mal looks mildly impressed and Simon is tempted to claim credit. Mal will find out though. Mal has some sort of sixth sense that if he were into that sort of thing, Simon would definitely cut his brain open to figure out. Luckily, Simon has enough cut open brains to deal with at this moment. "Kaylee."

Mal grins then, and if it's not a full-fledged grin, it's dangerously close. "Shoulda known."

Simon thinks that's a yes. "Is that a yes?"

Mal puts a hand out in front of himself. "Lead the way, doc."

Simon doesn’t know if Kaylee was planning this little get-together for his place or hers. They usually set up camp at his since it's so near to River, but with the alcohol factor. . . He heads to Kaylee's. She's there when he knocks on the door. She grins when she sees Mal follow him down. Holding up a bottle, she asks, "You don't recognize this, d'you Cap?"

Mal regards it carefully. "Never seen it before in my life."

Kaylee giggles. The I've-already-had-a-bit-myself giggle. That one's gotten Simon into trouble before. Granted, he was also drunk at the time. A state which he plans to be in again. When Kaylee offers the bottle up, Simon lets Mal have the first swig. Mal grimaces, "Shee-niou. Where the hell does he get this swill?"

Mal hands the bottle over to Simon, and in light of that description, Simon is rather cautious with his own intake. He passes the bottle over to Kaylee as a sort of bitter fire runs a path down his esophagus and well into his digestive system. "I'm not sure I want to know."

Mal looks over at him. "Prob'ly better that way."

Kaylee takes her turn and keeps the spirits flowing, or at least, making the rounds. Simon is less careful with his second sip. It never tastes quite as bad as the first.

*

Mal is very very drunk by the time he kisses Kaylee. Simon is also very very drunk at this point so it takes him a moment to say, "Hey." And then, because that was not the impassioned boy-defending-his-girl's-honor speech that he was going for, "Hey."

After the second "hey" Mal is looking at Simon. He explains, more with his hands than his words, "She's beautiful."

Simon doesn't understand this sudden sign language that Mal has created. He frowns, trying to remember why it's not enough that Kaylee's beautiful because she is, she really really is, and Simon loves- Oh. There it is. "I love her."

Mal frowns. "But I'm the captain."

Simon doesn't see what that has to do with his loving Kaylee. The woman in question, however, is now standing between them, standing quite steadily, which makes Simon suspicious. "You're not drunk," he accuses.

"The plan," she tells him patiently, "was to get Mal drunk."

"Oh." Simon isn't sure they discussed this plan. How's he supposed to know things if she won't just tell him? Only, normally she does just tell him. Except when she's mad. "Are you mad?"

Kaylee looks at him like he's a moron for a couple of seconds. Finally she says, "No, but I'm gonna be if both of you are too goram drunk for me to get laid this evenin'."

Simon's still thinking about this possible dilemma when Mal asks, "Why am I suppos'd t'be drunk?"

"You are drunk," Kaylee informs him. "And you're suppos'd to be 'cuz Simon an' me think you wanna be part of us but are too. . .cap'n-y to admit it."

"Am not," Mal tells her.

"What, drunk or cap'n-y?" Kaylee asks.

Mal collapses onto her bunk. "Stop askin' questions."

"I'll stop askin' questions if you'll kiss my pretty boyfriend who's all lonely, standin' over there by himself."

Simon's perception of distance is admittedly skewed at the moment, but he's relatively sure he's not that far from either of them. Kaylee's quarters aren't exactly gargantuan. Still, when Mal says, "Ye're not the one in charge here," Simon feels something suspiciously like disappointment. Which is odd, because he doesn't remember wanting Mal to kiss him, but he must, if he's disappointed at not being kissed. Obviously.

"I most certainly am. This is my bunk," Kaylee says. It sounds like a logical argument to Simon.

Evidently it does to Mal too, since he finally settles on, "Well, alrighty, but he has to come over here."

Simon looks at Kaylee for confirmation of this fact. She nods. "G'on."

Serenity's moving an awful lot tonight and it takes a bit of effort for Simon to get to the bunk. Kaylee puts her hand out almost immediately and guides him there, nearly into Mal's lap. Once he's there, Simon doesn't really care where exactly he's settled, he's staying. By the time he's sitting though, he's forgotten what he came over for. Kaylee urges, "Well, what're you waitin' fer? 'Less ye're wantin' some more questions."

Mal tells Simon solemnly. "I have to kiss you."

Simon thought they weren't doing that. Not that he's going to complain at the change of plans. "Okay."

Mal tastes like the distilled barley liquor that Jayne brings on board from the 'verse-only-knows where. It's awful going down but on Mal. . . Simon takes some initiative and licks up every last drop that Mal's tongue seems to have absorbed. He's not sure how he could have ever not wanted this because Mal's lips fit over his perfectly and Mal's chest is just right as a resting place and well, this almost rivals Kaylee-

Simon breaks off then, looking around wildly. Kaylee's got her top off and the fingers of one hand lazily twisting around one of her nipples. "Don't stop on 'counta me," she says, and it sounds like an order. Mal's voice at Simon's ear is low and dry, "I think the lady asked us fer somethin'."

Simon can't remember what that something is. In fact, he can't much remember his name at the moment. Mal helps him out with the first.

*

Simon wakes up with a hangover and the sense that he's done something he's going to regret. His senses slowly coalesce enough for him to feel the tangle of skin against his, warm, slightly damp flesh at his back, solid and smooth skin against his front-

Simon carefully does not open his eyes. He has not yet seen himself draped naked over an equally naked Mal and perhaps if this picture is not confirmed in his mind he will not have done something that is likely to lose him not only Kaylee but the safety of this ship for him and River.

Behind him, Kaylee, the grand mastermind of this really badly thought out scheme snuffles his ear. "'Mornin'."

Simon can't help the trill of pleasure at how sated she sounds. Even if Mal did do his fair share of work. Perhaps especially since Mal did. Simon is having a hard time wrapping his mind around just how big a mess this all is. Mal really, really shouldn't be as good a kisser as all that. Or have fingers that are just the right size. Or say things like, "Simon," while they're having sex. It's not right.

Kaylee's evidently gotten tired of waiting as she puts her hands on either side of Simon's face. "Ye're not asleep, mister."

Simon, aware that light is not particularly known for its hangover-improving qualities, opens his eyes slowly. Kaylee grins and Simon almost has to look away it's so bright. Simon doesn't really want to put an end to that, but, "We should leave. Before he kills both of us."

"These are my quarters," Kaylee says, and Simon can see that she's going to be stubborn about this.

"We can come back later when he's calmed down."

"When who's calmed down?"

Simon stiffens at the question, asked by a previously sleeping third conversant. Mal, however, sounds grumpy--perfectly reasonable, given he's probably feeling just about as good as Simon--but not homicidal. Still, Simon sees no reason not to tread lightly. "Jayne. You know how he is about people making a lot of noise at night."

"Jayne would sleep through an Alliance battle if it came to it," Kaylee says, rather unhelpfully. "You. He thinks you're gonna kill us."

Mal looks at Simon for a long time. "Solid suggestion, doc. But no."

Despite the stealing thing, Mal's pretty much a man of his word, so some of the tension leaks out of Simon. "Oh."

It's Kaylee's turn to tense up, however. "So ye're jus' gonna ignore us a whole bunch and pretend like this never happened, is that it?"

"Kaylee-" Mal starts in a clearly placating tone.

She's having none of it. "Get outta my room Malcolm Reynolds. And don't speak to me until you have somethin' like, 'How's about dinner?' or 'Wow, that was nice, can we do it agin?' to say."

"Kaylee, I'm the Captain of this ship-"

"Not what I wanna hear," Kaylee spits, "Out, out, out!"

Simon considers interceding on Mal's behalf; he really needs the man's good will, but staying on Serenity after losing Kaylee seems to almost be a worse hell that being turned out for any old Alliance ship to come and pick up. Mal gets up then, all right, stumbles to his feet. "Fine. I'll see you at dinner."

"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," Kaylee says.

Mal throws himself into his clothing, stomping harshly into his boots. "Whatever."

It occurs to Simon while watching Mal climb out the hatch, that for all that the three of them shouldn't work, things would probably be infinitely less complicated if Mal could swallow his fear of complications.

*

Zoe, whose hands keep going to her lower back--seemingly without her own accord, as she drops them to her side whenever she realizes this--settles herself on the exam table. "You I would have expected this from, but Kaylee? I thought that girl had more sense."

Simon wonders how far playing innocent will get him. "Sorry?"

"Don't." Evidently, not very far.

If she's going to give him the chance, though, and obviously she is, Simon's sure as hell going to defend his position. "We were just trying to make it easier for him to say yes."

"What if he didn't want-"

"Then he would have said no," because there are a lot of things Simon will debate with Zoe, but whether Mal wanted to take Kaylee after a thorough warm up from Simon is not one of them. Mal didn't leave that room because he was disgusted.

Zoe purses her lips. "There are times, hard as this is to imagine, when Mal is as human as the rest of us."

Simon knows this. What's more, he knows Zoe knows this. He's pretty sure he never expected to hear her say it. "Do you have an actual suggestion of how to help the situation, or were you just wanting to make my life more complicated than it is at this moment?"

At that, Zoe smiles. "I have a suggestion."

"Imagine that." Simon puts his hand to her belly lightly. "Any discomfort?"

"Other than the ones I would expect to be caused by a living being growing inside my abdomen?"

"Such as?"

"Lower back pain, swollen feet, generally achy joints."

"Other than that." Simon pulls away from her to see what he has in stock that might help with the aforementioned symptoms without causing possible brain-damage to the fetus.

"No, everything's in working order."

Simon raises an eyebrow.

Zoe relents. "Everything that I, with my mere pittance of a degree in common sense can determine."

"Why don't you put that degree to use and tell me about your suggestion for Mal?"

"You're not going to like it."

"I'm not sure my nervous system would have handled the shock of any other outcome."

"Mm." Zoe closes her eyes. "You and Kaylee took the control away from him. He has to know that he has some amount of control, even if it's a control in consent."

"You think that's the problem?"

"I think that's a pretty huge part of it. The other part has to do with his insane fear of things getting tangled up and his sense that he's just a visitor in your relationship, and can just as easily be told when he's overstayed his welcome."

Simon winces. "We-"

"Don’t tell me, I'm just paraphrasing insanity that hasn't even rightly been told to my face."

Normally that would bother Simon, but Zoe doesn't talk where she isn't sure of what she's saying, so he nods. "Right. Well, I'll speak to Kaylee."

"Then, I'm supposin', Mal?"

"Probably a pretty safe supposition."

"Oh, I'll bet it is," Zoe says, and her tone tells him that it will be a safe supposition on her part, whether he wills it or no.

This is Simon's infirmary though, so with all the grace he can muster, he says, "Take off your shirt."

*

Defiant attitude aside, by the third day that Mal hasn't come crawling back, Kaylee is sulking. Simon has hit a wall in his research so far as River goes, which isn't settling much better with him, particularly as he knows what he needs, and that the only place to go for it is somewhere that he's going to have to ask Mal about going. Mal's not going to like it.

It's not the solution for the first problem that Simon would have chosen, but given the situation he tells Kaylee, "I think I can help."

Kaylee presses the flat of her palm to Simon's chest. "Help?"

"Um, with Mal."

"Look, Simon, no offense-"

"I got the idea from Zoe."

At this Kaylee straightens a bit. "What's the idea?"

"There's someone I need to talk to, a doctor. I can't get any further with what I'm trying to do for River without consulting him."

Kaylee gives the silence a second. "Where's this doctor?"

"Deep in the core. He's one of my mentors, from school."

"Ye're crazy, doc. He'll never go fer it. How d'you even know this guy of yours isn't in on the River Brain Puzzle Project?"

Simon repeats, "The River Brain Puzzle Project?"

Kaylee hides her face in her hands. "I yelled at Jayne for sayin' it, swear."

Simon sighs. "I know because this man taught me my own ethics, the ethics that told me it was right to give up everything I had in order to get her away. Trust me, he's not one of them. What's more, he won't turn me in. But he'll know more about this stuff than I will, and if he doesn't know enough, he'll have resources that I don't in order to get the answers. We don't actually have to go into the Core. We just have to get close enough to place an untraceable transmission into it."

"Don't ask for miracles or nothing."

"Mal needs to have the power of a miracle in his hands in relation to us."

Kaylee looks at him, eyes wide, for a moment. "That what Zoe said?"

"Paraphrased."

"Don't it ever annoy you how she's never wrong?"

"On more than one occasion," Simon says.

"Guess you'd better go askin' to make a phone call."

"A kiss for courage?"

Kaylee goes him one better.

*

Simon knows Mal's not going to allow himself to just be cornered. Mal has more sense and more survival instinct. Simon is therefore forced to play dirty and ask Mal to come to the infirmary in order to discuss "ship's business."

Mal, when he comes, manages to look extraordinarily busy rather than the most likely more honest deeply uncomfortable. "You've got some business that needs discussin'?"

"I need to get a message to someone on Aller."

"Aller."

"The planet four over from Ariel? Two in the other direction from-"

"I have an excellent knowledge of geography, doc, most like better'n yours. Why don't you try explainin' to me exactly why you think I'm gonna get this boat anywhere nears Aller for anything other than a bona fide emergency."

"Or yearly health exam." The minute it's out of Simon's mouth he regrets it. Mal turns to leave but for once in his life Simon finds the speed to stop him, one hand shooting out even as he leaps toward Mal, wrapping around the larger man's arm. Mal stops, staring at Simon's hand in what almost seems like terror. Simon says, "Mal, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Mal."

Kindly, or perhaps for his own sanity as much as Simon's, Mal does not ask what Simon is apologizing for. "This has t'do with River, don't it?"

Simon tries to take his hand back. Finds himself incapable. "Would I ask for any other reason?"

"Kaylee." The word is a ghost of pain between them.

Simon once took an oath to heal where he could and to not cause any more pain wherein there was no way to heal. The same instincts that have stood by that vow every second since taking it prod him into saying. "You."

Mal tries to shrug off the arm but Simon holds on tight, sensing that everything, this conversation, the look on Kaylee's face, the way Mal lives his life, the whirl of Simon's world, everything may depend on him not letting go. Mal spits out, "I s'pose you'll be talkin' to somebody else 'bout the actual workin's behind the call?"

"River."

Mal just raises an eyebrow.

"Trust me, nobody better on this ship to be fixing for something like that. Growing up she was closer to her communications devices than she was to me. If anyone can make this work, it's her."

"Life certainly does work funny sometimes," Mal says.

Simon can't help it, he laughs. He's standing on a Firefly ship that except for his gorgeous little mechanic of a girlfriend should long have been docked on the permanent planetside of ships who've seen their time, holding onto the arm of a man he thought wanted nothing more than to take what Simon was apart, in an infirmary that could hardly cure a common case of strep with what it has stocked in it. "Funny's one word for it."

"If I say, yes, if I give my order to turn Serenity the way you need her to fly, will you let go my arm?"

Even knowing what he risks, Simon shakes his head. "No, I won't be able to do that. I'll be forced to take you back to Kaylee if you say that. See, she misses you, horribly, but you've made it hard for her to say that, when she thinks maybe you won't listen. So, no, if you give me even the slightest bit of proof that she's being foolish, I won't be able to let go. Sorry."

There's a long silence in which Simon contemplates everything he has to lose, the way he's just prioritized this odd thing with Mal over River, the fact that Mal's skin is always so beautifully warm and then Mal says, "Aller, huh?"

Simon nods.

"Wouldn't y'know, that's right near a system where jobs can usually be found."

"Really?"

Mal steps just the slightest bit closer to Simon. "Fer sure."

*

Mal tells the crew about the change in directions that night at dinner. Wash groans. "No, Wash, why would we want to actually use the course you've spent four days plotting meticulously out?"

Zoe bites back a smile and closes her hand over one of her husband's. Mal looks at Wash. "We should be able to find more iron that close to the core."

This is enough to stop Wash's complaining, but not enough to stop Kaylee from asking, "That why we're goin', for the iron?"

Mal locks eyes with her. "No. We're goin' cause there's some fancy doctor Simon needs to have a talkin' with."

Simon's not sure who's most shocked at the table, him, Kaylee, Wash or Book. River just smiles the way she does when she's getting her way, and Zoe nods like she expected this to happen sooner or later. Jayne says, "We're riskin' our asses so that doc here can have a little chat?"

Mal switches his focus to Jayne. "I take it you have a problem with that."

Mal's tone, or perhaps the look in his eyes, causes Jayne to back off. "No, no problem."

"Good then. When d'you think you can have the new coordinates ready by?" Mal asks Wash.

Wash does some quick mental calculating. "Gimme a coupla days."

"Sure." Mal stands and takes his plate, as well as the empty one in front of Kaylee, then heads to the washing station. Kaylee blinks at the empty space in front of her before picking up on the hint and following him. Zoe gives Simon a quick glare that gets him up and moving.

Mal's scrubbing up his plate despite the fact that Simon's pretty sure it's Book's night. Simon knows the use of strategic motion, though, so he lets Mal do as he will and waits to know why they're all standing by the sink. Kaylee's not so patient. She turns the water off over Mal's hands, still soapy. "The Shepherd'll do it."

Mal turns the water back on. "He'll get the rest."

It's only when Mal's good and done washing his and her plate that he fixes the tap firmly to closed and walks right past her, out of the mess. Simon follows, snatching Kaylee's hand and dragging her along. He's worked too hard to have her stubbornness get in the way now. Mal's disappeared by the time they're actually out of the room but Simon just keeps down the hall, only to notice that the hatch to Mal's room is undone. Simon steps back, "Ladies first."

Despite everything, Kaylee giggles. "Always the gentleman." She climbs down into Mal's quarters, Simon right above her at every step.

When he lands on the ground, he tugs at the hatch, closing it. Mal throws him a look that Simon thinks might be gratitude. Then he diverts his attention to Kaylee. "Seems I'm not the Captain of this ship here."

"What kinda stupid thing to say is that, Malcolm Reynolds?" Kaylee shoves with a flat hand at Mal's chest. "'Course y'are. Doin' things for the people y'care 'bout don’t make you any less in charge."

"Wasn't quite, 'how's about dinner,' or-"

"Those were examples," Kaylee says, clearly exasperated. "Besides, you do wanna do it agin, doncha?"

Simon can't breathe. He wants to, desperately, has the feeling it might dispel the sharp spike of pain pushing out against his sternum, but it just isn't going to happen.

Mal rolls his eyes at Kaylee. "You think I'm gonna do all the work here, Miss Kaylee?"

Despite the paralysis of his lungs, Simon knows that while a captain may run a ship, he needs his crew for the ship to actually fly. Simon manages to walk without the aid of air. It's only when his lips are up against Mal's that he remembers what oxygen tastes like, and how to draw it in. By that time, though, there's none to be had, not unless he steals it from Mal.

In the background, he hears Kaylee say, "No, s'pose not." He finds one of his hands and extends it. Hers fits over it, a near match in size.

*

Kaylee peeks her head in the infirmary as soon as Simon has shut down the connection and he knows that she must have been listening. It doesn't bother him as much as he wants it to. She swings just slightly inside the room. "So?"

"He says it would be possible if I had the best of equipment and the highest of specialists and was willing to take a risk. And that he'll call and see if he can get a second opinion."

"Maybe that opinion'll be different, then."

"What opinion?" Mal asks, sauntering into the infirmary like he's there to pick up some acetaminophen, or something equally mundane.

"The second one," Kaylee explains so that Simon doesn't have to, "from the doctor that Simon's doctor friend is gonna call."

Simon has put his face in his hands by now and is only marginally listening to the whispering behind him. He knows they're concerned, which is nice. Simon wishes he were in more of a mood to appreciate it. Instead he jumps at the hand that spreads itself between his shoulder blades, small and warm. Kaylee, then. "Sorry," he says, "startled me a bit."

Still behind him, Mal says, "Kaylee 'n I aren't gonna let nothin' happen to that sister o' yours."

"No, I've pretty much allowed everything that could happen to already, haven't I?" Simon winces at what he hears in his voice, at what he has no doubt that both of them can hear, too, perceptive or no.

"Way I see it," Mal says as casually as before, and it makes Simon want to kiss him, really it does, "that was the Alliance 'at done that t'her. I'm seein' your part as somethin' of a rescue."

"Tell that to the part of River's brain that's been surgically altered."

"Can y'get me an audience with it?" Kaylee asks fiercely, her hand still resting against his back, steady and soft.

Before Simon has even heard any movement, Mal is behind him, pulling him out of the chair and to where he's facing Mal. "D'you think this is nothing, the way she's not some scared little girl in a box no more? The way she sometimes makes sense? The way she knows every last one of us? D'you honestly take that all for granted, doc?"

Simon hears the question, hears what it means, hears, "D'you take me and my ship for granted?"

"No," Simon says. Amazingly, Kaylee's hand has not moved once in all the commotion. Simon loosens Mal's grip on his arms, but doesn't move the hold. "No, never."

Kaylee exchanges her hand out for her head. "If the second opinion ain't changed none, we'll get a third."

"And if we have to park ourselves smack dab in the middle of Core territories for a month to get'er what she needs . . . We'll discuss things then."

"Mal-" Simon starts.

"My crew," Mal cuts him off.

"Oh, is that what I am?" Simon raises a challenging eyebrow. "What we are?"

Mal's stillness is hard to take, but Simon bears it, just as Kaylee does, her breathing un-rhythmic against Simon's shirt. The only part of Mal to move as he says, "That's part o' what y'are," is his mouth.

It's enough.

*


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile