The Speed of Choices
a Firefly story
Mal/Simon
by dirty diana

dirtydiana78@hotmail.com

Translations: chun=stupid, mei-mei=little sister, bi zui=shut up, wo tingshuo=okay, hao ba=okay

Love to sffan for the beta. I wrote this over a long stretch of time (June/03 to March/04) in six parts, in a misguided attempt to convince Mal and Simon to hook up.

So we move
We change by the speed of the choices that we make
and the barriers are all self-made
  ~"Out of this World", Bush

"I wish, Simon whispers as his lover kisses his neck, "that you'd said something to me before you told the whole crew."

"I didn't," Mal answers quietly. "Zoe already knew. She's known me a long time." Pushing Simon against the wall of his bunk, leaning into him, he added, "I suppose she told Wash."

"And Wash told Jayne..."

Mal glances up sharply. "Jayne knows?"

"Yes. You should have seen the looks he was giving me this afternoon. Like I wasn't wearing any..."

"I'll kill him," Mal says simply.

"I'm perfectly capable of defending myself against Jayne. And he knows it." Simon brushes his lips against Mal's with a smile. "He won't try anything. Not uninvited."

"Uninvited?" Mal's ears catch onto the last word. "And what's a fella got to do to earn an invitation from you?"

Simon laughs, reaching down to gently squeeze the curve of Mal's ass. "Well, if anybody would know that, I should think that it would be you."

"I don't know about that. All I remember is waking up one morning with you in my bunk. Don't rightly remember how you got there."

Simon reaches a hand underneath Mal's shirt, running the palm of his hand across his chest and lightly over his left nipple. "I think you remember some of it."

Mal moans softly at the familiar sensation. "Well, I remember that none of it was my idea."

"Yes, I remember that too." Simon has begun to use both hands, the pressure against Mal's nipples coming harder and rougher. "You were playing hard to get."

Mal's gentle laugh comes from deep in his throat. "You ain't see me play hard to get yet, Simon. Trust me." Tugging gently at the waistband of Simon's pants, caressing his hips.

"Maybe. Mal...perhaps you could stop that a moment."

"Now who's playing hard to get?" Mal asks, as his tongue slipped wet across Simon's collarbone.

"I'm not. I simply need to talk to you for a second, and that's a little...distracting."

"Is it?"

"Yes. I..." Simon's fingers drop from underneath Mal's shirt, hands used as a barrier now to create a six inch space between them. Room to think. Hazel eyes locked on Mal with dead seriousness. "Would it bother you that much?"

"Would what..." Interrupted in his train of thought, it takes Mal a moment to catch up. "If you had sex with Jayne? Would that bother me? I reckon that would most certainly bother me."

"Ah." Simon drops his gaze, a deep pink blush creeping up from his open collar. "The thing is, Mal, I wasn't aware that we were in that type of relationship."

Mal finds himself fighting the urge to laugh, at a man too well-bred to be discussing open relationships, but not too well-bred to want to be in one. "What type of relationship? The type where you don't have sex with Jayne?"

"Essentially," and Simon is blushing hard now, "yes."

"Oh." Mal grins, and pulls Simon into his arms, pressing him against the wall. "Let me clear that up for you, then. Pay attention. I know you're top three percent and all, I think you'll catch on right quick."

"Mmmmnn," is Simon's only reply, as Mal's hands undo the buttons of his shirt.

*

Simon is keeping a chart for his sister, like he would at the hospital, detailed notes in illegible handwriting. He updates it everytime that he takes her temperature or gives her a new dose of medicine. He's waiting patiently for a pattern to show itself, a clue as to whether he's doing anything right. Whether she's getting better.

But he still can't tell.

It's two days later when he glances up from studying his notes to find Book standing in the doorway. "Is there something wrong?"

"Well now," Book's eyebrows are knotted together, in what seems to be a mix of worry and confusiuon. "I'm not rightly sure. I was wondering if there was any particular reason that Jayne was bleeding to death in the cargo bay."

Simon scoops up a few essential supplies, and follows Book.

Jayne isn't bleeding to death, exactly. But he has a four inch laceration down the length of his forearm, bleeding all over his shirt.

"Knife slipped," is Jayne's only mumbled explanation when Simon asks. "I don't need any doctorin'."

"Perhaps you could let a doctor be the judge of that," Simon answers. His tone is commanding, and Jayne sits still, while Simon's fingers explore the broken skin and finally declare, "it's not too deep. But you need stitches."

"I don't." Jayne shakes his head uncomfortably.

"Unless you want to risk infection and an ugly scar, you do."

"I ain't got no need to be pretty, doc. You just let it be."

"Jayne," Simon says quietly, "is this about what I said to you? After you got knocked unconscious?"

"No," Jayne's staring at his shoes, "it ain't."

"Are you sure? Because I meant what I said. While you're my patient, you're safe."

"It ain't being safe from you I'm worried about," Jayne mutters. "It's your chun boyfriend."

"My..." Simon can't fathom Jayne's meaning for a long moment. "You mean Mal?"

"Yes. He said somethin about stayin' away from you. So I'm stayin' away." And with only a small grimace of pain, Jayne eases him arm out from under Simon's grip. "If you don't mind, Doc, I was takin' care of my own injuries long before you came aboard."

"Jayne." The commanding tone is back in Simon's voice, along with a shadow of something else. Something new. Already, he's rolling up his sleeves. "I'm going to stitch you up. Just sit still."

Jayne sits still.

*

Simon stiches Jayne up neatly, and then he goes looking for Mal. He finds him in his bunk, scribbling in a book.

Simon hadn't known that the captain kept a log. "I need to talk to you."

"Sure." Mal gets up, and takes a step forward.

Simon, standing stiffly upright, takes a matching step back. Takes a deep breath, and gets right to the point. "Mal, why do you think that I'm here?"

"Here, where? On Serenity?"

Simon nods.

Mal stares at him, as if seeing him for the first time. He can see plainly that the new Simon, the Simon who laughs in his bed, is gone. The old Simon is back, and Mal is scared to touch him for fear that he'll break. "You're here cause the gorram feds messed up your sister. And cause of the warrant out for your arrest." Noticing when Simon's hazel eyes narrow, he adds, "ain't you?"

"I'm here because I want to be here, Mal." He takes a breath. "Why do you think I'm," he gestures around, at Mal's cramped bunk, "here?"

Mal shrugs. He's not falling into the same trap twice. "Ain't sure."

"I'm here because I want to be here."

"And you reckon I might be under some other impression?"

"You might believe that I believe that I have no other choice." Simon's eyes are bright and dangerous, making Mal want to duck for cover. "I always. Have choices."

Mal nods. "Choices. I got it."

"No." A wry smile appears on Simon's lips. "I don't think so. I think, actually, that there's been a misunderstanding. I think perhaps I should go."

Mal's mouth twists, and he makes a sweeping motion with his hand, gesturing a clear path to the door of his bunk. "Choices. I got it. Don't let me keep you."

"No." Simon shakes his head. "I mean that I think perhaps I should go. I've used up enough of your hospitality."

"It ain't hospitality," Mal says, but when the words come out of his mouth they're nearly invisible. He can see Simon's mind is made up.

*

Late at night, Simon is packing up the infirmary. He is taking as little as he can, just the things he doesn't think River can do without. Everything is itemized on the list he is making, and he'll pay the captain what he thinks is fair.

"Simon?"

"Jayne." Simon doesn't look up when he recognises the voice. "Don't tell me you've pulled your stitches already. I told you not to..."

"No, it ain't that." Jayne says as he enters the room. His words come from low in his throat, almost a growl. "I just saw the light on, and I thought that maybe..."

"Yes?" Simon asks impatiently.

The mercenary has given up on words. Instead he stands behind Simon, and places two strong hands on his waist.

Simon lets out a gasp, one that he knows didn't sound nearly as offended as he intended. "Jayne..." he says slowly. "Jayne, what are you doing?"

"Well," Simon can hear the shrug in Jayne's voice. "I figured we could have ourselves a little fun. Since you an' the captain ain't..." And his hands start to travel, around the swell of Simon's ass, across his thighs, pressing the fabric of Simon's pants smooth against his skin.

Simon still isn't looking at Jayne. He closes his eyes, lets Jayne's fingers caress him, just long enough to count to ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Then finally he turns around, pushing Jayne's hands away from his body. "No."

Jayne opens his mouth and closes it again, like he's having trouble understanding something. "But...you...and the captain said..."

"Mal," Simon explains with a sigh, "has gotten the wrong idea."

"Oh, well that's fine." Jayne brushes that aside. "I ain't talking about getting ideas. I'm talking about gettin'..."

And his hands reach for Simon again, but the doctor takes one more step back. Getting the words out is a struggle. He's never been good at explaining himself. "Jayne, I can't...this was never meant to be...it doesn't make sense to..." He stops and takes a deep breath, reaching for the one thing that he knows Jayne will understand. "I'm leaving."

*

Mal didn't notice exactly, when he became friends with Inara, but he reckons that it's around the time he started sleeping with Simon. When he knocks on her shuttle door, she doesn't look surprised to see him.

"Come in," she says. "I was just making tea. Would you like some?"

Mal sits down heavily on the loveseat, with a sigh. "News has spread pretty fast, I guess."

"It's a small ship," she answers placidly. "What did you do?"

"What did I..." Mal's eyes narrow into slits at the accusation. "It ain't my fault."

"Mmmnnn." Inara sweeps her skirts underneath her, and sits down. "And you have no idea why Simon would rather take his chances with the Alliance, than deal with you?"

He shakes his head, but answers the question anyway. "He more or less accused me of thinking I own him. Of thinking that he's a..."

"Whore?" Inara finishes the sentence as she pours Mal a cup of tea. "And where would he have gotten that impression?"

"Well, I..." Mal breaks off, and he considers the contents of his cup. "What kind of tea is this?"

"Don't change the subject, Mal. We weren't talking about tea. We were talking about your unrelenting need to control everything around you."

Mal's expression twists, but her words knock him silent for a moment. "I thought we were talking about Simon leaving," he says, finally. "It ain't that much of a surprise, I guess, I figured he'd go sometime. It just seems a bit soon. Kinda all of a sudden, like."

Inara shrugs, as her soft hands stir the sugar in her tea. "It wasn't all of a sudden for me."

*

Simon sits on the floor of the infirmary, watching the dim lights bounce against white walls. He thinks better in here, than anyplace else on the ship. River makes no noise when she enters, soft like a cat. She simply crawls into his arms, warm and still. Simon can feel her disapproval, mixed with sadness, steady in the rhythm of her heartbeat.

"I don't want to leave," she whispers. "It's cold outside."

"I know," he answers. "But it's time."

"But it's safe here."

He shakes his head, as his mouth brushes her cheek. "That's just it, mei-mei. I don't think that it is."

*

They all found a moment to corner him, starting with Book who gave him a slightly battered bible, and Jayne who wanted to know if Simon was leaving behind anything that he didn't have any use for. Inara simply slipped her arms around him in a comforting hug. Kaylee said that she wasn't going to cry, but then she did, and Simon didn't know what to say. Wash and Zoe approached him they way that they approached everything else. Together.

"You shouldn't let him chase you off," Wash says from the pilot's chair.

Simon mouth tightens, insulted. "He's not. I'm not."

Zoe raises her eyebrows, the only change of expression on a beautiful face. She's heard things, but the things that she has heard don't make much sense. "Jayne?"

Simon wants to laugh, but finds that he can't. "Jayne is not scaring me away. It's just...it's time for me to go."

Zoe looks at him a moment, like she's deciding whether to believe him. Finally she says, "come down to my bunk. I'll give you something."

'Something' turns out to be a pistol, pulled out of a locked box underneath her bed. Simon shakes his head. "No, I couldn't take..."

"You've stitched me up enough times to earn it," Zoe answers, and that's that.

"I don't know how much good it's going to do me," Simon says, as he holds the steel hesitantly in his palm, cold and lighter than he'd expected. "I don't know how to use it."

"I reckon you're a fast learner," Zoe says. And then she adds, as if they've been talking about it all along, "he ain't going to ask you to stay, you know."

Simon licks his lips. "I know. It wouldn't matter if he did."

She nods. "Good. Cause he ain't going to."

*

They land on Beaumonde at 14:27 local time, in the middle of an afternoon rainstorm. River has been drugged into a semi-vapid state, which Simon feels guilty about. But he can't deal with her fits, not right now.

At the mouth of the cargo bay, the crew stands silent, watching them leave.

Mal isn't there.

*

Simon wakes up slowly, his head aching.

Hesitantly, methodically, his brain struggles to unscramble itself. Serenity. His quarters. The ceiling, the walls all look perfectly familiar from this vantage point. But something isn't right, he knows that, and he searches to name what it is.

He tries to sit up, quickly forced back into a reclining position by the pounding pressure at his temples. Simon groans out loud.

Breathe in. Two. Three. Four. Breathe out.

"It can't be as bad as all that."

Simon doesn't dare open his eyes again, not just yet. But the voice is roughly, unmistakably, Mal's. Breathe in. Two. Three. Four.

The captain seems to hardly notice the heavy dangerous silence. "You gotta be hungry. Book's been cookin'..."

But the mention of food is like a heavy upward motion on his stomach. He breathes in again, pushing down the desire to retch. "Mal," Simon whispers, "bi zui."

Mal is quiet.

The silence isn't silence, really. It is punctuated by the dark whirring hum of Serenity, a sound that the doctor would barely have noticed two days ago. Now, it is the loudest thing that he has ever heard.

The moments stretch out. Finally Simon struggles once more to sit up, this time conquering gravity, the blankets slipping from his bare torso.

Simon glances down at smooth naked skin, glances up again. "You..."

"Thought you'd be more comfortable."

Mal can see Simon thinking about that one, turning it over in his head. Finally he says, "River?"

"She's fine. In her bunk, sleepin' just fine."

That information gets filed away too, behind bright eyes. Mal didn't understand, not until they started fucking, that what appears as dismissive rudeness to most people is simply Simon's natural way, his inability to deal with more than one thing at a time. But nothing gets left out or forgotten.

Some days, that is a good thing. Today, Mal doubts very much that he will appreciate it.

Simon is getting out of bed, naked, all the lines of his body sharp and tense. He fumbles for pants thrown over a chair, and pulls them on. He bites him lip to suppress another groan, as the blood rushes to his head, increasing the pressure. The forgotten moments on Beaumonde are coming back to him, all of a sudden, in a rush of pictures and sounds that he doesn't entirely understand. "Where are we?" he asks.

Mal is watching him carefully, speaking carefully, as if dealing with an unknown animal. "On Serenity," he answers slowly.

Simon shoots him a dark-eyed glare. Then he repeats the question. "Where. Are we?"

"About a days' travel from Beaumonde. We picked up some cargo there. We're headed to Boros."

Simon touches a hand to his mouth, and winces as he finds it swelling, slightly bruised. "I've been out for twenty-four hours?"

"Just about."

Mal shuffles slightly in the doorway, and Simon won't stop staring. "How long to Boros?"

"Wash reckons six more days. Give or take."

Simon nods. "We'll be getting off there."

"I ain't sure that's the safest idea. Boros is an uncivilised place. You'd have been better off on Beaumonde for a bit, except Zoe got wind of the Feds makin' a landing." Mal knows that Simon hasn't asked for an explanation. He hadn't meant to give one. It's a long way, though, from an apology. That Simon isn't getting. "You weren't safe," he finishes flatly.

Simon looks at him, a glare harsh enough to melt steel, and takes one shaky step forward. Two steps. Three steps, and his legs buckle beneath him.

Mal's hand reaches out, to give him an anchor. "Whoa, steady."

A dark flush rushes quickly to a pale face, as Simon pushes Mal's arm away, righting his body through sheer force of will. "I have," he said slowly, precisely, "a mild concussion."

"Yeah," Mal agreed, "you got knocked up some on Beaumonde. Jayne got a little..."

"I have a concussion," Simon repeated, enunciating clearly as if he thought that Mal hadn't heard him. "Yesterday, you came to retrieve me from the hotel at Beaumonde. I declined to go with you. So you knocked me unconscious..."

"Jayne..." Mal began, but Simon couldn't be interrupted.

"...dragged me back to your ship, where you are currently holding me against my will. In addition to this, I have a concussion. Is that a fairly accurate summary?"

"Well, I..."

"It doesn't matter. We'll deal with it later." And here Simon began to stumble over his words, as his breaths became short, his body fast losing strength in the struggle to remain on his feet. "Right now I would like to see my sister. Can that be arranged?"

Mal nodded. "She's in her old room, same as always."

"Good." He starts to leave, and briefly changes his mind. "Mal."

"Yes, Simon."

"Don't touch me again."

Mal opens his mouth to say something, and changes his mind. He steps aside, and let Simon pass.

*

Mal wakes up like a shot, startled. Then he relaxes, breathing out, as the figure in his darkened room takes a familiar shape.

"Simon?"

Simon answers by pressing his lips against the captain's, a kiss that runs hot and cold at the same time.

Mal's hand reaches out to him, and touches only naked skin. A shiver runs through him, surprise and just a hint of something more. "Thought you said no touchin'," Mal says, roughly. One day and half of one night has passed by on Serenity, and in that time Simon has managed never to be in the same room with the captain. If this is some new form of punishment, Mal isn't submitting to it. That's what he tells himself.

Simon's voice barely reaches a whisper, as if it hurts him to talk. "I did."

"So what's this, then?"

"I'm holding up my end of the deal."

"Ain't sure as I follow you."

"I live on the ship. You protect me and my sister. We fuck. I leave, you bring me back. The rules seem perfectly clear to me, Mal."

"It ain't..." Mal begins, but he is interrupted by the sweet, insistent pressure of Simon's mouth on his. He struggles to pull away. "It ain't like that."

"Tell me how it is then."

But Mal is lost for words. Simon's warm, naked body is enveloping his own, Simon's mouth wet against Mal's lips, his cheek, the dip and curve of his throat. His fingers on Mal's skin are demanding, unyielding. Simon knows what Mal likes. Mal taught him, too late to wish that he hadn't.

"You ain't see me play hard to get yet, Simon," Mal had told him, the last time that they had touched like this. And it had been true. But his body is nowhere near as stubborn as his mind, his body has not felt Simon's touch in over a week. A week too long, and the caresses make Mal's breath come faster, short gasps through his mouth. His skin draws in Simon's warmth, his nipples hard underneath Simon's palms as his body betrays him.

"Simon, this wasn't...it didn't have the meaning that you think." And Mal doesn't even want to think about that, the meaning that Simon thinks, the thoughts making him sick to his stomach. "I wasn't going to leave you there. You're on my crew."

Simon draws back, suddenly, and his eyes are bright shots of light in the dark. Watching, thinking, sorting. He takes a deep breath, exhales, as if spitting out a bad taste. "I know that," he whispers.

And he pushes himself forward again, pressing himself against Mal, hands slipping down over Mal's ass, squeezing hard. Mal groans, despite himself. Simon's hands, in his pants, fondling his balls, fingers traveling up the length of his cock. Firmly Simon strokes him, smooth firm motions, coaxing soft groans from Mal's reluctant mouth.

He won't do this, Mal thinks, this has gone too far already. He won't.

It's the last thought that he has before the world spins out of control, before all the stars in the 'verse crash and explode before his eyes. "Simon," he breathes out, and then the world is still.

He opens his eyes to find Simon watching him, wiping the sticky mess in his hand against the sheets.

"Simon," he says again, and Simon is against him again, close enough to be inside him, all breathy groans and hot, swollen cock, pressed against Mal's thigh. Mal reaches for him, it's a reflex, takes him in his hand and watches the beautiful lines of his mouth as the pleasure flows through him, as Simon grinds against him, demanding more. Demanding more and receiving it, as Mal's palm glides wetly over his shaft. Demanding more, without words. Then Simon bites his lip, moans, and comes with a startled shudder over Mal's fingers.

The silence that follows is heavy and painful to bear.

"Simon," Mal says.

Simon stares at him, but makes no sound.

"This ain't...I don't ever want you to come to me unless you want to." And maybe not even then, Mal thinks. But those words won't come.

Simon is staring at him, eyes wide and flat. "Mal," he says quietly. "I'm on your crew."

Then he gets out of bed.

*

They are five days out of Boros. Simon counts the time down restlessly in his brain. He has spent most of this day in a dark haze, one that he'd like to blame on his lingering concussion. But he knows that that would be too simple.

He seeks refuge from the bright and noisy ship inside his quarters. Except that he doesn't think of them as his quarters any more. He hides there and he reads, a badly written novel missing its front cover, found underneath a table in the common area. Jayne knocks at the doorway.

"Come in," Simon says. He stands up, and drops the book.

"Hey," Jayne says, as he steps in and crosses the room. He stands in front of Simon, and can't quite seem to look at him, as if embarrassed by the sight of the bruises on Simon's face. "I..." He stops.

"What is it, Jayne?" Simon asks, sharply, when the silence begins to hurt his head. He knows that he's being rude. He doesn't suppose that it's any more than the mercenary deserves, except that he's not really mad at Jayne. He knows very well who he's angry at, whose cold and desperate touch still lingers on Simon's skin.

"Listen, doc. I'm glad you're okay, an' all. I just wanted to say..."

Jayne reaches out, placing his hand on Simon's arm. Simon doesn't remember deciding to kiss him, only the act itself, pressing his body against Jayne's, his tongue pushing hungry and demanding into Jayne's mouth.

He doesn't remember deciding to kiss him. He only knows that he is cold, cold from the inside of him to the edges of his skin, and Jayne is strong and hot.

Jayne draws away. But Simon moves towards the warmth, like a satellite pulled by gravity, puts his arms around him and kisses him hard. Jayne kisses him back for just a moment, and then the moment is broken.

"Doc," Jayne says, "you know I ain't really lookin' to get in fight with the captain."

Simon pulls away. He is cold, but the fever plays tricks on you, he knows that. "Hao ba," he says crossly. "What are you looking for, then, Jayne?"

"Hell," Jayne says, suddenly flustered, "I don't know. I wasn't looking for anything. I just wanted to apologise is all. I wasn't meanin' to hurt you quite that bad."

Simon sighs out loud. "Of course not. No one ever means to hurt anybody. It just happens."

"Huh?"

Simon's fingers touch his lips, where Jayne's mouth has left wetness and salt. "It's okay, Jayne. Apology accepted."

The merc nods uncertainly, and leaves.

*

"Lift, Zoe."

"I'm liftin', sir." Zoe answers abruptly, as they lift another large carton off its side and shuffle it across the cargo bay.

Mal knows well enough that he's been barking at his first mate all day, since long before an unexpected engine thrust sent carefully stacked cargo tumbling across the floor. Zoe's known him a long time, long enough to know not to take his bad moods personally.

But today is a very bad day, steadily getting worse. Mal sighs.

Zoe drops her end, and Mal has to let go of his own, the carton's weight narrowly missing his toes. She says, "Have you tried apologising to him, sir?"

"It ain't that simple."

"Yes," Zoe says patiently, "but have you tried?"

Mal sighs again. Zoe doesn't even know the half of it, and he won't explain it to her. He has been carrying it around with him all day, traces of the fevered apathy that Simon left behind in his bed. "It ain't," he repeats with certainty, "that simple."

"Okay, sir," Zoe says. And she kneels to pick up the box. "Liftin'."

*

Mal finds Simon in River's bunk. The girl is sleeping, curled in a ball under the blanket, her long tangled hair covering her peaceful face. Simon sits at the end of her bed, steadily watching her slumber, as if he can't bear to look away.

Interrupting the silence seems almost profane, as Mal speaks. "Can I talk to you?" he asks.

Simon looks up, his eyes so empty that Mal is startled to look at him. The ghosts are tracked in shadows on the young man's face, a face that looks so much older in the dark.

The no almost leaves his mouth, and then he changes his mind. "Wo tingshuo," he says. He gets up quietly, and leads Mal down the hall, into the cold white privacy of the infirmary.

"What?" Simon stares at him coldly, and Mal realises that he didn't expect it to be this hard.

"How is she?" he asks.

"She's okay. She's not worse than she was when we left, if that's what you mean." He stares at the captain, and sighs. "What is this about? Have you been talking to Jayne?"

"Pardon?" Mal asks in surprise.

"You mean you're not here to tell me that you're sorry?"

Mal shrugs, and he still doesn't know. "Would it help?"

"Not especially, captain." Simon pronounces his words carefully, his tone hard and brittle. "Not at all." And he moves past him, moves to go.

Mal's hand reaches out and grabs him by the arm.

Simon glances down, at thick strong fingers digging into his bicep. He says, "Let me go."

"Not till you've listened to a thing or two," Mal tells him.

"Oh?" Simon's voice rises dangerously. "Is that how it works? That's what I get when I don't cooperate?"

"You might get worse." Mal doesn't know what makes him say that, only that right now it's the truest thing that he can think of.

Simon stares at him, face cold, saying nothing. He waits one beat, two beats, and then he's moving away from Mal again, trying to break free.

Mal doesn't think, he only reacts. He holds Simon tighter, one hand on his hip, shoving him backwards.

He pushes the doctor against the infirmary counter, the tile digging sharply into Simon's back. Mal is an iron wall, pressed against him, and the only thing that Simon can feel right now is the tight hard muscle of Mal's body, hands and arms and chest and thighs. He breathes in and inhales only the captain's thick scent, leather and gunpowder.

"That's what you want, ain't it?" Mal demands, his breath hot on Simon's neck. "It's how I would treat any whore. And you're certainly pretty enough to be one, ain't you? More than pretty enough. But more than a mite too tetchy."

His voice is teasing and low, as one knee begins to force itself between Simon's thighs. Simon twists desperately, trying to break free. But he is pinned, trapped in Mal's unrelenting grasp.

Mal watches him writhe, his blue eyes reflecting faint amusement. "You know that I could have just taken what I wanted, at any time. Don't know why you reckon that I'd have to barter for it."

Simon doesn't answer. Abruptly, he has stopped fighting. His eyes have gone cold, his body falling still and stiff as stone underneath Mal's fingers. He licks his lips, slowly, precisely, the image sending up technicolour memories from the base of Mal's brain.

Then Simon is kissing him, hard. Mal responds automatically, he kisses him back, as surprise and desire ripple through him like electricity. Simon's mouth is open, wet and hot.

And then Simon bites down sharply, drawing the taste of blood. Mal falls back with a grunt, as Simon's knee kicks hard at his groin.

It's the shock as much as the force that knocks him to the floor. He lies on the cold ground, breathing heavily in pain. Simon stands over him, his eyes flashing dangerously. Mal knows the look, but he doesn't move fast enough, Simon's hard leather shoe connecting heavily with his left side. He groans in pain, and then Simon's entire weight comes down heavily on his chest.

Simon is sitting on him, straddling him. Mal knows that he has the strength to throw the smaller man off, but the fighting feels too much like fucking, it feels too much like breathing. He's had enough.

Simon's right hand has reached out, putting a light pressure on Mal's throat. He traces a jagged line, and his touch tingles warm on Mal's skin.

He's thinking about something. Mal can see that clearly. "What's that, then?" he asks, managing the words with difficulty.

"Your carotid artery." Simon's voice is calm and even, almost distracted. "It's a fairly major blood vessel."

"Is that a fact?" Mal can barely speak, he can barely breathe, all the air pushed out of him.

"It is." Simon's fingers continue their precise movement, gently stroking back and forth. "I don't really want to fight you, Mal."

"What do you want, then?"

Simon pauses, mid-breath, surprised by the question. Silence, while he sits, contemplating Mal's face, their eyes meeting. Mal wonders if the look in Simon's eyes is reflected in his own, the anger that burned so hard and white hot just a moment ago being quickly replaced by helplessness.

"I want to get the rutting hell off this ship."

Mal breathes in, with difficulty. He nods. "Okay."

"For good, this time," Simon adds.

"Okay, I said." Mal's voice is rough. "But we got another four days till planetfall. You think you can manage to stay away from all my arteries between now and then?"

Simon's mouth curls, the sliver of an ironic smile. "If you try not to threaten me."

"Furthest thing from my mind," Mal answers. "Do you think you can also manage to get off me?" Not nearly light enough to be a whore either, and he only just stops himself from saying it out loud.

Simon stands up, gives Mal a hand and lifts him off the floor. Mal winces at the pain in his side, the familiar ache of a bruised rib.

Simon looks at him in concern. "I'm sorry."

"You ain't."

Simon's tongue sweeps across his lips, that same faint smile. "Well. You earned it."

"I imagine I did," Mal says, then realises that Simon's hand is still held inside his, his fingers smooth and warm. Quickly, he pulls away. "Four days, then."

"Four days," Simon repeats, like a prayer.

Mal leaves the room first. Simon turns out the light.

*

"See?" Simon helps River down off the medbed, with one hand tight around her slender arm. "I told you it wouldn't hurt."

She makes a face at him, stretching pretty features. "Silly," she says gently. "It always hurts."

"But you feel a little better," he says.

She hesitates, and then nods.

Simon lays the hypodermic down, and watches her. She is graceful even when she is falling apart, like a ballerina. Simon wishes that his undoing could be as beautiful, then thinks that maybe it is.

Simon perfected the art, during residency, of sleeping when he can. River's jagged restlessness kept him up all night, and when he closes his eyes in the mid-afternoon, the dreams are vivid. Sharp hard pictures, inside a relentlessly moving brain.

River.

Barely floating, arms stretched, and smiling. Asking for him, calling his name.

"I thought you wouldn't come."

Mal.

Shallow breaths, hot hands that hold him down. Simon's own body folding into his, responding, hands and fingers, and willing open thighs.

"I told you it wouldn't hurt."

River turns to him, hands open. "It always hurts," she says.

Then she begins to scream.

*

He wakes with a start, to the vicious high-pitched noise that is so familiar. Simon curses, underneath his breath. Then he stumbles, shaking off sleep, through the ship.

The captain makes it to the cargo bay before him. River is perched on top of a cubic container, arms huddled around herself, watching them, watching her.

"Hey there, River."

Simon imagines that's the voice that the captain uses to talk to horses, deep and even and soothing. River doesn't take the bait, staring at him, motionless. Between her tiny fingers, something glints brightly.

"Whoa." Mal takes a step back. "Whatcha got there, darling?"

She is holding the scalpel tightly, between her thumb and forefinger. Simon blanches. He remembers locking up his medical bag. He thinks that he remembers.

But his head hurts, and he knows that he hasn't had enough sleep.

"Maybe you should put that down," Mal says quietly.

Desperately, River shakes her head. "It hurts," she whispers.

"Sure does," Mal agrees. "Might hurt a mite less down here on the ground, don't you think?"

River stares at him, then shakes her head.

"If it hurts," she says, "we have to cut it out. Hand to heart."

"River," Simon begins desperately, and that's when she lunges. She flies off the crate, trajectory crooked like a wounded bird. Mal's eyes fly open with stunned surprise.

The scalpel grazes his palm, and Mal makes a muffled sound of pain. Simon reaches for her, and pulls her away, a mass of lightning in his arms. She's screaming, she is fighting as he wrestles her down.

"It hurts." She is crying, wet and cool on his hands. He can feel each fragile line of her beneath him, bones and wrapping paper skin.

"Shh," he whispers to her, and he is crying too, despite himself. "Shh, mei-mei. I know."

She holds still long enough for the shot, the strongest sedative that he has. The she crumples in his arms, and closes her eyes.

He holds her until the sedative kicks in, and then carries her to bed.

*

Mal is bleeding.

Simon picks up his calloused hands, and examines the fine cut, a strangely flawless incision. "Infirmary," he says.

"I'm fine," Mal mumbles.

Simon's eyes narrow slightly. "Infirmary," he repeats, in the doctor-voice that he has to use too often on this ship. "Now."

*

"Sometimes," Simon says, as he weaves stitches neatly into Mal's skin, "I feel like all I ever do on this ship is sew people together."

"Well, maybe if your sister didn't keep cutting 'em open," Mal says.

Simon's features twist and change, wordless.

"Sorry," Mal tells him roughly.

"It's okay," Simon answers softly. "I'm not...it's my fault."

"Don't see how you worked that one out," Mal says, as Simon sews the last stitch, and turns to put his equipment away. "You ain't the one did this to her."

"No. I'm the one that should know how to make her better. And I don't."

"You ain't a magician," Mal tells him, and that's the voice again. "You're just one person. And you're doing your best."

"It's not enough," Simon says. "It's never, ever been enough."

Mal eases off the medbed and moves towards him. Simon's fingers are shaking, the suture set clattering against the counter, until he drops it with a clanging noise. He presses pale white palms into the countertop, and sighs.

He hasn't stood this close to Simon in days. He had forgotten this, the darkness of him, the sadness that bounces and echoes off his skin.

Mal moves in behind him and wraps strong arms around his waist. Simon collapses in his arms. And simply lets Mal hold him there, for a moment, their bodies pressed together, hard bone and muscle. Simon is shaking, taking large uncertain gulps of air. He turns to face Mal, his movements slow and trembling inside the embrace.

Their kiss is shy, at first. It has been so long, for Mal, three days that felt like forever. Simon clings to him, his tongue pushing roughly inside Mal's mouth, starving and hungry. His hands cup the back of Mal's head, pulling him towards him, for deep eager kisses. Simon's mouth is salty and real, the both of them barely breathing.

Mal's hands push roughly underneath Simon's shirt. Simon is trembling as Mal's hands undo his fly, cool shivering skin. Then he gasps, as Mal takes hold of his cock, with tentative fingers.

Simon's fists make clumps of fabric in Mal's shirt. Mal lifts him, with hands on his hips, and places him on the counter. Then strokes the soft skin of his hips and belly with gentle fingers. The wiry, dark hairs tickle Mal's fingers. He pushes down Simon's pants, touching the inside of Simon's thighs, spreading his legs apart. And finally leans in, and takes Simon's hot, hard cock inside his mouth.

His tongue slides across the head, down the shaft. His hands hold steady on Simon's hips, as Simon bucks up slightly. Simon leans back against the wall, exhaling a hard sigh. His fingers grip the edge of the counter, as he moans, gently, over and over.

Simon is wound like a new clock, and it doesn't take much. Just a few short movements of Mal's mouth, and the bitter metallic taste floods his mouth.

Simon pulls up and reaches for him, still breathless. But Simon's last words still echo inside Mal's head. "No," he says.

"Mal."

"No," the captain repeats, and Simon lets him go.

*

Mal sits beside him on the infirmary counter, waiting for Simon to speak. He doesn't know what to say that won't be the wrong thing, again.

"I didn't really want Jayne," Simon whispers, finally. He is saying it to no one in particular, the empty white room.

Mal nods softly. "That's good."

"I just wanted...I wanted to be able to want Jayne. Or anyone. Anyone else."

"Maybe not Wash," Mal says helpfully. "Zoe'd kill you at least twice."

Simon allows a small smile to cross him mouth. "Not Wash. He talks too much for me." Then he sighs, watching shadows cross the walls. "I just didn't want to be...yours."

"But you are," Mal says quietly. It's true, now that it's been said aloud, a truth exposed and bare on the floor.

"Yes," Simon whispers back. "How fucking selfish is that?"

A silence falls between them. Mal can feel Simon fading, disappearing from him as his breathing returns to normal.

"I'd help you," Mal says. "To take care of her. Keep her safe. You wouldn't be alone."

Simon turns to him then, hollow eyes and a shadowed mouth. He says, "Why?"

Mal wonders if that is really the way that it works in the Core, if every action by its definition has a price. He can't fathom that, anymore than he can imagine the words that will make his intentions plain. So he leans in, and kisses Simon, capturing his mouth as tenderly and sweetly as he can manage.

Simon simply shakes his head. "You have to say it, Mal."

"I love you."

"Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?" Simon asks, roughly. He sighs, and moves to lean on Mal's arm. Mal likes his weight there, heavy and trusting. "It doesn't make any sense at all."

"Things don't always make sense."

"They do where I come from."

"That ain't where we are."

"No. It isn't."

"I don't reckon it'll ever stop hurting," Mal tells him. And he knows what he speaks of, of slow dull aches that never fade. "But it might hurt less. If you let it."

Simon swallows a half-laugh. "You're full of good advice."

"And not much else. I know." Mal smiles against his skin. Then says, "I never asked you to stay."

"No," Simon agrees quietly. "You never did."

"Will you?"

"Mal," Simon tells him, with one pleading hand on his thigh.

Mal takes a deep breath, watching the other man's face. Mal exhales. He knows that Simon isn't going to give him a lot of chances to get this right. "Will you stay, Simon? Please."

Simon hesitates. "I..." he begins.

"You gotta say it."

"Yes." Mal barely hears him, his eyes tracking the uncertain movement of Simon's mouth. "I'll stay."

Then Simon lets Mal put him together, pulling his clothes into place, zippers and buttons. Mal helps him down, off the counter.

Simon goes to unpack.

~fin.

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