It never goes smooth. That was a given. But this was a special kind of wrongness, one that Mal didn't quite know what to do with. He sighed, and stared again at Saffron and Simon, lined up in front of him in the empty bar, like two prisoners on trial.
He took a deep breath, and began from the beginning. "Let me get this straight," he said. "I leave you alone for one hour..."
"I think it was closer to two hours," Simon corrected him. Beside him, Saffron's red curls bobbed yes in agreement.
Mal glared at him. The doctor had, as usual, a spectacular way of missing the point. "Okay. I leave you alone for two hours and I come back to find you, to find you..." his voice trailed off, choking on the word.
"Married," Simon said, sounding the word out clearly, with calm doctorly precision.
Saffron smiled implacably. "It was a beautiful ceremony. You should have been there."
Mal nodded, struck mute for a moment. His head hurt. He fixed Simon with an unforgiving blue-eyed gaze. "Qù tamade. Two hours. Didn't I tell you to shoot her if it became necessary?"
Simon glanced down at his waist, and the unaccustomed weight of a gun in its holster. "Yes."
"And the wedding thing didn't make it seem necessary?"
Simon blushed, and shrugged apologetically. "I wasn't...that is, I didn't...it was an accident. I was hungry. And there was soup. "
Mal pressed his fingers to his forehead, as the ache in his head turned into a full-blown migraine. That's what a local who'd witnessed the event had explained to him, that this moon's traditional wedding ceremony involved a shared bowl of soup, something with a name that Mal couldn't pronounce. It was a special soup, one made from the feet of a very rare turtle, and drunk together by the bride and groom.
Not only did things never go smooth, they insisted on happening over and over again.
"You shared her soup?" Mal shouted.
"Mal," Simon said slowly, "I wish that you'd calm down."
"Calm down?" Mal repeated. "Calm down? Let me tell you something son, it's been a long day. First I gotta go through all kinds of circus tricks to see the fellow who wants to buy the Lassiter and come extremely close to gettin' myself shot, which let me tell you has helped to make me all kinds of tetchy, and then I gotta send Jayne back to the ship to help Zoe keep an eye on our loot, cause let me tell you I don't trust that beady-eyed fellow further'n I can throw him, and then I come back to find that you've gone and got yourself married to this pofù."
"Now, Mal." Saffron was finding her voice, overcoming her amusement as she looked from one man to the other. "It ain't so bad, being married to me. Tell him."
"Right." Mal looked at Simon seriously. "It ain't so bad. She'll probably only almost kill you."
The doctor was blushing, hard.
Mal stared at him, feeling sympathetic for a split second. Women in general seemed to make the doctor nervous, you could see it in the way he dealt with Kaylee. Mal didn't know if there was a story behind that, didn't particularly care, but he could imagine what a shock it was, for a man such as the doctor to find himself hitched to this bit of red-headed evil.
Oh, well. There weren't no problem so big it couldn't be fixed with a little threat of violence. Tightly Mal gripped the handle of his pistol, aiming it evenly at the new bride. "Well, this has been fun as always, but I think it's maybe time you were on your way."
Saffron's green eyes sparked at him, showing no fear. "Sweetheart. I'm so sorry, but you know as well as I do that we just weren't working out. Don't be jealous."
The captain cocked his head to one side in faint amusement. "Oh, but my heart's all broke and torn, darlin'. And you've officially become more trouble than you are worth. So get moving."
Saffron shook her head stubbornly. "How long have you been trying to move the Lassiter? Three, four months? Now you've finally got it sold, and that's all thanks to me. And I want my cut." Long lashed fluttered sweetly. "So you'll just have to find a way to get past your pain, my love."
"We'll put your payment in the mail." Mal's fingers fondled the grip of his pistol meaningfully, as his free hand gestured out the door and into the street. "Now start walking."
"Captain." Simon's voice was soft, but Mal recognised the tone, the one that meant that one of them was about to regret something very badly. "Mal, please don't."
He stared at Simon in disbelief. "You can't be serious."
"Well, I..." Simon glanced at Saffron, and then back at Mal, his expression pleading for understanding. "She's my wife."
"Just cause you shared a snack and some backworld bartender says it's so, don't make her your wife."
"Well," Simon said carefully, "apparently this bar isn't his only profession. He gave us this."
Dispassionately Mal's eyes scanned the paper thrust at him, inked in neat florid kanji. He didn't know all the characters, but he understood the important ones. Certificate. Marriage. Today's date, and at the bottom stood two names. "Saffron Reynolds. Simon Tam."
Mal glanced up. "Still going by Reynolds, are you?"
"Well," Saffron smiled sweetly, and curtsied slightly, "not anymore. Mrs. Saffron Tam, it has a pretty ring, don't you think?"
Simon shot her a glare, enough to reassure Mal that the good doctor hadn't completely lost his mind. At least, not yet.
"Captain," Simon said, "we can't just abandon her. Not while she's my..."
Mal's eyes flashed, daring him to say it.
"Wife." Simon's stance was nervous, fingers fiddling absently with starched shirt cuffs. But his tone was firm. "That would seem to make her my...responsibility."
Mal was staring at him in complete disbelief. "Do they breed them all insane in the Core, Doc, or are you just special?"
"Oh," Saffron smiled again, her fingers gliding over Simon's bicep, "he's special, alright."
Simon blushed bright red at the touch, but didn't flinch. "And even if we do leave her...Mal, I'll still be married."
"On this moon. Guess it won't be the best place to choose your future bride."
"No." Simon's tone was firm. "I'll be married. And I can't very well expect anyone to...I'm not leaving this planet without a divorce. It's that simple."
Mal shrugged. "Fair enough. You stay, and you and the missus can find yourselves a nice plot of land. Build a house, have yourselves a whole passel of insane children. Maybe we'll stop by in a year or so and see how you're doin'..."
"Sure." Simon's eyes flashed dangerously. "Good luck finding another surgeon. Tell River that I'll try and write."
Mal sighed inwardly. He didn't think that he'd ever, ever met a man quite as stubborn as the doctor. Told that once to Zoe, who'd laughed hard and started muttering something about pots and kettles. He paused a moment, working out something in his head, and then nodded. "The transaction ain't takin' place till tomorrow evening anyway. So we're stuck here till then. But if you ain't married or unmarried to your satisfaction at that time, you're outta luck. We're leavin'. With, or without you."
Simon nodded. "Okay."
"I'm going to see about getting us a room," Mal said, already moving towards the door and across the street to the town hotel. "Try not to marry anyone else while I'm gone," he called cheerfully over his shoulder, and then he disappeared out the door.
This town, identical to so many others on so many other border planets, had one small inn, and all but one room was occupied. Mal rented the last room for the three of them, its window overlooking the main street. "This time, shoot her if she tries anything," he told Simon, and then went back out into the street.
They had picked up fruit in the market, before finding lunch in the tavern. It was harvest time, and the apples, peaches and strawberries were all dark with colour and swollen with juice. Saffron sat at the table, peeling and slicing the fruit.
Simon watched her, nervous. "You don't have to do that."
"I want to." Her tone was unreadable.
"Yes, but you don't..." Simon stopped, lost for words. "You can rest. You don't have to worry. I'm not going to let him shoot you."
Saffron turned around. Her eyes blazed bright for a moment, with something resembling anger, maybe pride. "I'm not afraid of Malcolm fucking Reynolds." And she added, before slipping a strawberry between full lips, "I'm a good wife."
Simon sat back in the chair, watching her movements, the click of the knife making an oddly comforting rhythm. This moon was hot and dry, and he was suddenly exhausted. "I'm sure you are," he said, and knew that sarcasm showed at the edges of his tired voice.
She dropped the knife, standing up from her chair, blood rushing to her face in something like anger. "I am."
"Well," Simon answered, "I suppose you'd have to be. You've had so much practice."
"I have. A lot of practice. How many men do you suppose I've been married to, doctor?"
Simon shook his head, reluctant to guess. "A lot."
"That's right. Sixteen. And not one of 'em ever had any complaints, while they were married to me." She had crossed the room. Her hand was on his arm again, the weight warm and gentle. "No complaints at all."
"Not till you tried to kill them."
"No." A smile curved Saffron's lips. It was a sweet smile, almost out of place on such an intense face. "Not until then."
"Is it okay with you if we just skip that part?"
"Why, Simon." She knelt down, bringing herself to eyelevel with him, and placed her hand on his thigh. "We can focus on whatever parts you like."
She had made him blush. Again. But his gaze didn't waver, studying her carefully. "I told you that I'm not going to let the captain hurt you."
"I heard you," Saffron said. But she didn't move her hand. There was silence, for a moment, the both of them staring at each other. Finally Saffron shrugged and stood, seating herself on the arm of the chair. "So, doctor, here's something that I've always wondered. What's a fancy man like you doing this far from the Core?"
Simon breathed in, then met her flirtatious stare, careful to leave no expression on his face. "Seeing the universe."
"Right." Saffron smiled, leaning into him slightly, her hand resting on the back of the chair. "Upset some rich girl's daddy, did you?"
"Several," he answered lightly.
"Sure. Bad boy like you. Was she the girl that you're planning to marry?"
Simon coughed. "I'm sorry?"
"Well, you're in an awful hurry to get rid of me. I reckon you've got someone else needs marrying."
The memories came back in a hurry, like a flood, before he could stop them. Simon bit his lip, and shook his head. "No."
"No?" she repeated, with bright eyes that knew too much. "No bride-to-be, are you sure? Bridegroom, maybe?"
He pressed his mouth closed, knowing that the colour was rushing to his face again. He changed the subject. "Can I ask you something? What's your name?"
She smiled easily. "Mrs. Tam, sir. At your service."
"I meant your given name," he said. "Your real one."
"What's that got to do with anything?" she asked, the smile dropping from her face.
"It's about as relevant as whether I'm engaged, I think."
"Fine." She raised one eyebrow at him. "Shall we trade?"
"June. Now, who is she?"
"There's no fiancée. No girl waiting at home, or anywhere." His voice dipped on the last word, unable to keep the sadness out of it.
"I'm not sure that I believe that," she said.
"I'm not sure I believe that your name is June."
A rough silence fell over them both. There was something about her, something that made him need to watch her, to watch the way that her pink lips curved when she lied, which was every time that she spoke. He sat and he watched the untruths form behind her eyes, like cloud wisps cruising over a blue sky.
There were things that he missed about his old life, and then sometimes he remembered that there were things that he didn't miss at all. Simon had known a lot of liars.
Now Saffron was leaning in closer still, her hand brushing Simon's shoulder, the barest of defeated smiles crossing both their faces. The moment was broken by the creaking sound made by the room's heavy wood door, as it opened and then slammed shut. "Well, this whole damn town seems to shut down for the afternoon. Too hot, I reckon. I doubt I'll be able to find the liúmáng who married you till after dark. But till then..." Mal stopped short in the doorway, staring at the scene in front of him. "I'm sorry, if I'm interrupting something, I can just come back..."
Simon shot him a glare. "You're not interrupting. In fact," and here he turned the glare on Saffron, "I think Saffron was just making you a snack."
"Well, that sounds shiny," Mal said, with a dull smile. "Seein' as how I haven't had any fancy turtle soup. I'm starvin'."
Saffron rose gracefully. "I'll make you a plate."
Mal didn't take his eyes off her, as she crossed the room. "Thank you kindly."
Mal ate his fruit his silence, crunching loudly on the apple skins, his gaze flickering from Simon to Saffron, and then back again. The uncomfortable silence was heavy, almost threatening, in the afternoon heat. Saffron busied herself tidying the room, smiling innocently whenever Mal or Simon looked her way. She seemed not to notice the tension. Simon sank further into the bruised and tattered armchair, wanting badly to ignore them both, and fell asleep.
When night fell, Mal went back into the street. He returned with dinner, wrapped up in brown paper. "Couldn't find any soup," he apologised, which Simon didn't find funny. He also brought the news that the bartender would be willing to sign the annulment certificate tomorrow after sundown.
"He's got some other folks to marry in the morning," Mal explained. "Guess that's a busy business round here."
Simon shot him a glare, as Saffron finished the sandwich that the captain had brought her in silence. And then they prepared for bed, the captain flopping into the armchair.
"I'll sleep on the floor," Simon said.
Saffron shook her head. "There's plenty of room. There's no reason we can't share the bed."
Behind them, Mal made a strangled noise halfway between a laugh and a cough. "Sure. No reason."
"No," Simon answered stubbornly. "I'll just take the other chair."
"Okay," Saffron said, and lifted the thick wool blanket from the bed, dropping it onto the rough wooden planks.
"What are you doing?" he asked her.
"I'm sleeping on the floor. I'm not going to be comfortable on the bed while my husband," here Mal made another strange noise, watching them both, "is uncomfortable."
Simon sighed. "I don't want you sleeping on the floor."
"I don't want you sleeping in the chair."
Stalemate. They stood for a moment, staring at each other defiantly. Finally Simon got in the bed. Saffron smiled.
"I promise to be good."
"Hey," Mal's voice cut through the tension that Simon could feel emanating from his body like heat. "What about me? This chair is ruttin' uncomfortable. Bet there's enough room in that bed for..."
"No," Simon and Saffron both said in unison, and then the light was turned out.
Mal fell asleep first, his breathing loud, deep and rhythmic. Simon couldn't close his eyes, watching the moonlight through the thin curtains. Watching Saffron, lying so still in front of him. Simon followed her line of vision, to the darkened figure of the Captain, sleeping soundly in the chair.
"Can I give you some advice?" he asked in a whisper.
She didn't answer, the curve of her shoulder rising and falling with each breath.
"That's a waste of time."
Now she rolled over to look at him, green eyes shining in the near darkness. "Speaking from experience, doctor?"
The sheets rustled as Saffron's body stretched, and then her slim body curled warm against Simon's torso.
"I'm cold," she whispered, in response to the tense surprise that shot through his body.
He frowned. But she really did seem cold, goose bumps raised along the slope of her neck. Hesitantly he slipped one arm around her, and they both drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
He woke up with her breath warm on his neck, and her arms still around him. Mal's chair was empty, the sun streaming through the windows. Morning.
Simon shifted slightly, and immediately Saffron opened her eyes. "Good morning."
"Good morning," he said uncertainly, suddenly aware of the pressure of her fingers, lightly making circles in the small of his back. He was made suddenly aware of the responses that his body had been giving in his sleep, his whole body tilted towards her, their limbs tangled together. "Saffron..." he began.
She silenced him, with a finger pressed to his lips. "Simon. It's been a long time. Hasn't it?"
He didn't answer that, simply tried to pull away. There were no lies that he could tell that his body wouldn't contradict, as her hands moved downwards, gently cupping him between his thighs. "We can't."
"Shhh," Saffron whispered, as her hand stroked him his. He was already beginning to respond to her touch. "It's okay. Let me be a good wife."
Her mouth met his. She was right, it had been a long time. The crush of her mouth on his was sweet and soft, and he lifted his head slightly, wanting more. They kissed for a long moment, tangled together, breathlessly.
Then she sat up, kneeling on the bed, Simon rising with her. His arms reached around her, their mouths still pressed together. Easily his fingers released the long row of buttons at her back, and the bodice of her dress dropped to her waist. Hesitantly, Simon's fingers brushed the curve of her breasts, thumb teasing a nipple.
"I'm not going to break," she told him.
"No," he agreed, only half-listening, as he bent his head to rest his mouth on pink freckled skin. His lips traced the curve of her bosom, slowly, his tongue finding the nipple of he left breast, sucking hard.
His hand pushed at the heavy fabric of her skirts, moving up slim legs, slipping unseen between her thighs. His wet mouth retraced its path, up her breasts, along the lines of her throat. Then he kissed her, hard, her tongue sweet and warm in his mouth. His fingers nudged her thighs apart, fingers brushing the vulnerable softness of her, teasing, exploring. Saffron bent forward, leaning into the kiss. Then she moaned softly into his mouth, as an index finger entered her.
"Simon," she whispered breathlessly. "We don't know how long Mal is going to be gone."
Abruptly, a strong hand gripped her slender waist, pulling her up and out of her skirts. Then she tumbled down on top of him, laughing, bare and naked. She unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it aside, then pushed his undershirt up over his head. He was breathing hard, the both of them in a hurry now, as she undid the buttons of his fly.
Simon closed his eyes with a moan, as he was released into her hand. Saffron licked her fingers, sliding her wet hand over the length of his cock, throbbing and hard.
His hands closed tightly around her waist, as she slid onto him. She leaned over, her hands tangled in his hair, drowning him in urgent kisses. His hands slid down the smooth curve of her back, damp with sweat. She groaned against his mouth, and shifted her hips, forcing him deeper inside her. She was riding him hard, as their rhythm sped up. She had taken control, demanding more, and he arched his back and gave it to her. Simon's fingers dug into her skin as they moved together, climbing closer to the edge. Then he let go. He moaned as he came, a low guttural sound, and then Saffron came too, breathless and laughing.
Slowly recovering his composure as she rolled off him, Simon tried to speak. "I..."
"Simon." Her voice was abrupt and firm. "We had a nice time. Don't try to ruin it."
"Wo tingshuo," he agreed quietly, as she slipped back into her dress.
They left Saffron on the crowded and dusty ship docks, at the end of a long day. She had booked passage on a transport that was leaving at midnight, headed towards the Core.
"You know," she said to him, "eventually you're going to get tired of flying on that piece of junk with that hùndán captain."
"If he doesn't get me killed first," Simon agreed.
She laughed. "Don't look so serious. I really was, wasn't I?"
"You were what?" he asked, frowning at her.
"A good wife."
He stared at her, looking for words, opened his mouth and closed it again. Then he nodded. "I've had worse days. And you got what you wanted, didn't you?" He glanced at the bulge of credits underneath her skirt.
She blinked innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."
The lies sparked and burned behind her eyes, like light bending and fracturing between raindrops. "This all happened the way that you wanted it to," he said slowly. "You knew that I'd defend you. That Mal wouldn't bother to take us both on."
"I told you I'm not afraid of that tamade sishengzi," Saffron said, and he watched her, watched the lies burning. "But I did appreciate the nice words. I expect you'll make a decent husband to that lady you left behind."
Simon stared, and said. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"No. 'Course not." And Saffron smiled, her pink mouth brushing his with a brief kiss. "It's been fun. I'll see you around, husband."
"I hope not," he said, and then Saffron was gone, disappearing into the shadows.
Simon jumped suddenly, at the unexpected pressure of Mal's hand on his shoulder. "Captain?"
"Wash has got us all ready to go," Mal told him. "Unless you got some other wedding to get to."
Simon scowled at him. "You know, this wasn't really that funny."
Mal shrugged, and the grin hadn't left his face. "Sure it was. Plus we got the Lassiter sold, and hey, your wife didn't try to kill you. She must have liked you some."
"It wasn't funny," Simon repeated. But the captain wasn't listening, already halfway up the gangplank.
Simon took a deep breath, and then followed him on board.