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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Mal revisits some good old times, then – a day in the increasingly complicated life of Simon Tam.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1590 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.
Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.
Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
*** Extra Note: The intro to this chapter refers back to the Fish Job, Chapter 17 (FFF) (LJ) if you care to refresh yourself. Also, anyone of anal as I am might notice that this chapter doesn't fit Simon's thoughts in Easy Tickets, Ch. 23 as originally posted on FFF. But - ha! - I adjusted it when I reposted the chapter on LJ.
Back Stories, Book 1
Chapter 3/14: Simon
Mal revisits some good old times, then – a day in the increasingly complicated life of Simon Tam.
Mal finds himself standing just outside Serenity’s engine room, his back against the bulkhead, his arms folded across his chest, and his head hanging. Kaylee is stepping up to him; she reaches out like she means to give him a hug.
Gently, he blocks her hands and pushes her away. He recalls this situation with sudden clarity, and knows that he can’t bear to accept comfort from his mechanic. He pointed a gun at her, just yesterday. Surely he hadn’t meant to, but that doesn’t change the fact that he'd done it.
This isn’t a time to be trusting himself. He’s not ready to pass all the blame on to the Alliance doctors on Oeneus, the ones who’d reached into his head and mixed things up. They may have left him seeing nightmares, but the nightmares are all his own. His reaction is his own as well – no one made him draw his gun and take aim.
Violence became his way long before those monsters got ahold of him.
“No, Kaylee,” he says. “I can’t.”
He turns his back, leaving the engine room feeling numb, nearly blind to the path his feet lead him along. He hears Zoë following. Her soft footsteps are a different kind of comfort, one he’s glad to have. Zoë’ll do what’s necessary; she’ll see to it that he doesn’t hurt anyone.
And it doesn’t shame him that Zoë sees him like this, half-crazy and near unhinged. It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before. He’s seen her pretty bad off too, and they got nothing to hide from each other.
Maybe it’s this line of thought that sets off yet another hallucination, pulling it up through brain cells worn tired and sore by the Alliance’s interrogation. Or maybe it’s a ghost that’s been waiting years for him to be ready to see it afresh. Whatever the reason, the room he finds at the end of the corridor isn’t the one it should be.
He smells it first: the rot of death underlying the sharp chemical tang of an uncontained engine. He looks up as he enters a large space full of shadows; it may have been a bay in some mid-sized carrier once, but not a soul could tell by looking at it now. Every bit has been wrecked and stained and in some way defiled. The metal of the bulkheads is covered over by gore.
Mal forces his eyes away from the walls. For a long second, he thinks he’s really here, back in a moment that passed damned near a decade ago. As he did then, he prays he’s not too late, and frantically searches for anything alive. Scratch that – anything that’s alive and human. There’s a crowd of things that are now glaring and growling at him for interrupting their sport, but they can’t be human. No way they’re human.
Two people are still fighting. One's a young private, on his feet and firing into the crowd of howling creatures. The other is on the ground in the center of the bay – Corporal Alleyne. She’s down and those things are on her. Her screams are full of rage, not agony, but Mal can see blood where the creatures claw and bite into her skin.
He’s just wondering what happened to the gun he should be holding when he hears a faint throat-clearing behind him – Zoë. He closes his eyes and shakes his head, remembering that what he sees isn’t real. His mind is playing tricks. His mind has been tricked; it’s been doped and cut into and shocked and played like a fiddle. But now he knows the game, and now he can choose not to believe.
He ignores the corporal’s screams and makes his way to the bulkhead, then sighs with relief when his hands touch clean, cold metal, not the dripping mess on the inside of the Reaver ship. He tips his forehead against the wall, closes his eyes, and pictures the dining room of Serenity. He imagines the shape of the Firefly around him, extending the deck under his feet and the bulkhead against his palms until they form the center section of his ship.
Eventually, he opens his eyes, and turns to find that the room has gone back to how it should be. There’s no tormented corporal and panicked private, only an empty table. That’s the way then, he thinks. Stay connected to the ship. The ship is an anchor.
He remembers that Zoë is beside him, watching. He hopes that she won’t ask.
Bless her heart, she doesn’t.
“Doc’s been sayin’ he wants to draw some blood,” she tells him. “See if the drugs are clearin’ out.”
Mal nods and turns toward the infirmary. All the way there he trails his left hand along the bulkhead, walking slow and steady like a man lost in a dream.
Simon wrapped both hands around his mug, hunching over it and savoring the warmth against his palms. He hadn’t slept well last night. In fact, he hadn’t slept well for the past two weeks. It seemed there was no peace of mind to be had lately.
He smiled grimly to himself. Serenity. The word took on all kinds of new meanings when it referred to this ship. It’d been hard enough living here for the first several months, when all his mental and emotional resources had been focused on his sister. He’d thought that was a hardship – one he didn’t regret and would never take back, but still a hardship – to give up his old life and ignore his own needs for so long. Now he just wished everything could be that simple again, that all he had to focus on was the single task of helping River. Since Niflheim, his problems had become much more complicated and immediate.
For one, he couldn’t seem to get Kaylee out of his mind. He’d had a friendship, and even a little flirtation, with the mechanic for some time. Nothing complicated - his main worry had been trying not to say anything blatantly stupid to her. It was so different now. They hardly ever talked, but she was in his thoughts almost constantly...
He shook his head at himself; there was no use is getting distracted like this, and wishing for what he couldn't have. He’d known exactly what he was doing when he made the decision to get River out of the Academy. His old life – the hospital, his parents, any chance for romance of his own – was over.
He suddenly became aware of what he was thinking and shoved the idea deep into the back of his mind. He looked across the room nervously; River was the only one present, entertaining herself by humming as she played in one of the big, soft chairs in the dining room alcove. She rotated onto her back and slid down until her head rested on the floor, her feet against the back of the chair. As Simon watched, she kicked off, skinny legs waving and twisting in the air, making her skirt flip up to show a very inelegant pair of plaid boxers.
Simon blew his breath out in relief. She was too taken with her own errant imagination to be listening in on him, if “listening” was the proper word for what she did. She caught his thoughts from time to time, often enough that he was almost getting used to it. But if she’d overheard this one, known that he was feeling something like remorse about the direction his life had gone, she’d likely be thrown into a downward spiral of guilt, thinking it was her fault that he’d forsaken as much as he had.
He cut off that train of thought before it could capture him again, trying to empty his mind as he watched River play. She squirmed sideways, her legs tilting to land on another chair, then pushed off the floor and righted herself. Self-consciously, she fixed her hair and clothes, as if worried that someone had witnessed her antics and would think her silly. When she saw that her only audience was Simon, she leaned back with a sigh of relief. Well – maybe there a little impatience in it, too, as if it would be refreshing to have someone besides her big brother pay attention to her.
Which was another reason why Simon needed to let go of his own worries. The medication he’d been giving River since Oeneus were still proving remarkably effective, and her improved condition could have been a load off his mind, but her lucidity had brought on a new problem which all his medical expertise and developing abilities as a trauma psychiatrist were no match for.
River had decided to grow up, and there wasn’t a thing that was going to get in her way.
Simon rubbed his eyes, trying to focus enough to think it through. His little sister was reaching adulthood. She would be eighteen soon – in less than a week, in fact. Eighteen, but not eighteen. Years of being locked up at the Academy with little or no social interaction had left her far behind the usual developmental state of an eighteen year old.
However, the – Simon disliked using the word, but – the boyfriend she’d briefly had on Niflheim had started a few wheels turning in her head, and likely in other parts of her body. As her older brother, Simon really didn’t want to think about that. As her doctor, he had to. He’d spent days studying the scan he’d taken of her brain on Ariel. With her amgydala stripped, she was easily overwhelmed by any emotion she felt. Add to that the imbalances that came with puberty and the discovery of her own sexuality, and what he had was… a big brother’s nightmare. Especially considering that, with her fugitive status, the only people River had available for exploring her new interest were the ones on this ship.
There were eight people aboard now that Inara was gone, which left River seven options. He could obviously rule out himself, Zoë, Wash, and the Shepherd. As for Mal, River might look up to the captain, but as a father figure and hero, not a lover. And Mal certainly didn’t view River as an option for romance; Simon was confident of that. River had never shown any signs of preferring women, so Kaylee seemed highly unlikely. As for Jayne, that was so far beyond imagining that…
Simon’s eyes snapped toward the fore hatch as the big man himself came down the stairs, stomping heavily as usual. The mercenary walked past the seating area without a glance at River, but it was obvious that she was very aware of his arrival. Simon watched her straighten in her chair, holding her chin up and shoulders back. The graceful posture of a trained dancer immediately transformed her from an awkward, bored girl to a poised young woman – that is, if the messy hair and wrinkled dress could be overlooked.
“Got any brew left, Doc?” Jayne asked with a nod toward Simon’s mug.
“It’s tea,” Simon answered shortly.
“Tea is brewed,” Jayne replied with a snort. “Thought you was supposed to be smart.”
Simon didn’t reply. He was caught up with watching River; she rose from her chair and stepped around the corner toward the galley, then leaned against the bulkhead, her eyes fastened on Jayne. Simon gripped his mug again, fingers tightening.
“Have to heat up water,” River told Jayne helpfully. “That’s how you make tea.” She tipped her head against the wall in a move that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but flirting.
Except if you’re Jayne.
“I do know that, moonbrain,” the man said with a dismissive glance.
“The water should still be hot,” Simon said hastily, hoping to head off further discussion between the two of them. This was appalling – Jayne? The barely literate man-ape, singled out by River? And not for stabbing, which Simon would much prefer.
But he wouldn’t let it happen. There were medications that made it impossible for men to… well, perform. Simon would get one of those and slip it into Jayne’s brew before he let the Neanderthal get anywhere near his little sister.
River turned to Simon suddenly, her eyes narrowed and her expression cold enough to chill his tea. It seemed that she was “listening” now, and not pleased. She glared for a few seconds, then turned away and moved to the galley island, standing where Simon couldn’t see her.
“So… you like tea?” she asked Jayne lightly. Simon could see Jayne’s reaction; the man’s face wrinkled up in confusion.
“What?” he asked.
“Tea,” River said, her voice wheedling. “Do you like it?”
Simon pushed his chair back. “River,” he said sternly as he stood up, “you have things to do. Elsewhere.”
She peeked around the galley, her face tense. “No, I don’t…” she said through clenched teeth, then she looked sideways at Jayne and bared her teeth in an attempt at an innocent grin. The effect was actually rather creepy.
Simon grabbed her arm. “Yes, you do.” He towed her along behind him and was about to make a clean getaway through the aft hatch, but a gruff voice stopped him.
“Hold it right there, Doc.”
Simon turned to see Zoë in the fore hatch, leaning against the frame, her eyes puffy and squinting as if the soft lighting was painful.
“You got… any… ” She paused and winced, lifting a hand to her forehead. Apparently, her own voice hurt her as much as the lighting. “…hangover fixes?” she finished.
“Yes, I do,” Simon replied, impatient at being stopped over this. “It’s called not drinking.”
Zoë glared at him. “Doc, you say one more thing that ain’t Take this and you’ll feel better, and I will shoot you dead.”
Her hand went to her hip – to Simon’s relief, there was no gun there, but he wasn’t in the clear. Zoë’s glower fixed on him again, her eyes hard but thoughtful, like she had plenty of other methods of inflicting pain and death and she was having trouble picking her favorite. She started reaching down toward her boot, but was stopped by her husband.
“Let me help, dear,” Wash said from the corridor behind her. He snaked his head under her arm, then held her around the waist and guided her to the table. As they walked, Wash silently mouthed words at Simon: Please, pretty pretty pretty please! Simon shrugged, and out of pity for the pilot as much as self-preservation, decided to help. He could at least take River with him. He tightened his hold on her wrist and started toward the hatch again.
“Staying here!” she hissed, and pulled her arm away with a deft move that surprised him. Before he could grab at her again, Zoë spoke up.
“I know you two ain’t gonna start fightin’ now.” Her glare was dark enough that Simon gave up on his plans to rush River away. Anyway, with Zoë in this mood there wouldn’t be any mischief happening in the few moments he’d be gone.
He wasn’t quite right about that – when he returned from the infirmary, Jayne had settled in the alcove with his tea, leaving the table for Zoë and Wash. River was seated right next to him. She had her legs bent in front of her, her skirt hiked up to show quite a but of thigh as well as some plaid boxer.
“River!” Simon snapped. She looked up at him with wide innocent eyes, a sure sign that she was up to something. Before Simon could call her bluff, he heard a couple metallic clicks, a sound he’d come to recognize in his time out in the Black.
Zoë had her head down on the table, but her near arm was held out rigidly. She was pointing a small gun at him, a gun that she’d just cocked.
“Uh… take this and you’ll feel better,” Simon said uncertainly, holding up a pill bottle and rattling it a little so she could hear.
Still without looking, Zoë adjusted something on the gun – the safety, Simon hoped – and reached under the table to slip it into her boot. Then she held her hand out, palm up, and Simon walked over and gave her two pills, then one more just to be sure. They disappeared behind the veil of frazzled hair, as did a mug that Wash was offering from her other side.
Simon went to the alcove and tried to grab at River’s arm, but she eluded him, moving to a further chair. Maybe it was her dance training, but she could be slippery when she chose. Simon sighed, and rather than risk Zoë’s wrath, took a seat where he could keep an eye on the situation.
With Zoë’s condition and associated bad mood, it was best to keep the chatter down. Everyone seemed to understand that except River, who aimed a string of softy voiced but cheerful questions at Jayne.
“What kind of music do you like?” she asked.
Jayne glared, but River wasn’t put off.
“Do you ever dance?”
Jayne’s frown deepened.
“What’s your favorite color?”
Jayne looked at her steadily for a moment before he answered. “Sure as hell ain’t red.”
River’s mouth pursed, as if Jayne was in poor taste to mention that whole he-looks-better-in-red thing. Simon was actually quite pleased that the episode with the butcher’s knife was still on the merc’s mind.
But River didn't give up. She tapped her fingers against her leg while she thought, then smiled sweetly and tried again. This time she chose a subject closer to Jayne's heart.
“How many guns do you have?”
To Simon’s relief, Jayne looked at River like she was an overgrown gnat which he really needed to swat. The mercenary glanced at Zoë, who was starting to look a little more alive, then at Simon, who tried to appear as hostile and threatening as possible.
Apparently, Jayne decided his best option at this point was to cut and run.
“I got stuff to do,” he said gruffly as he stood up.
“I’ll help!” River offered.
“No!” Jayne and Simon ordered in unison. They shared an uncomfortable look, but before Simon could speak, Jayne continued.
“Chores. I got chores… swab the deck. Gotta do it… alone… or I’ll be in loads a’trouble.” He pointed at River. “You. Stay.” He turned his back and practically fled from the room, muttering something that sounded like sā dàn nú.
For a few minutes, there was nothing but silence. Zoë gradually recovered, and when she was able to sit up somewhat straight in her chair, Wash went into the galley to fix breakfast. A while after that, the captain made his own entrance.
Mal looked just as rough as Zoë had. Simon expected that Zoë would show some sympathy, but she just grinned.
“How you feelin’, captain?” she asked.
“Shit,” Mal said, without explaining whether he meant that as a description or an order or something else entirely. He held his hand over his forehead, but Simon could see that his eyes were puffy and red.
“Doc – meds,” he ordered as he stumbled toward the table.
“Of course,” Simon said with a sigh. He set a few pills on the table in front of Mal’s chair, Wash put a mug next to them, and Mal made short work of the medication.
“Decent whiskey ain’t supposed to give such a gorramn bad hangover,” Mal mumbled a few quiet minutes later.
“How much did you have?” Simon asked.
“Me and Zoë damn near kicked the bottle,” Mal admitted. “Big bottle.”
“I thought the point of decent whiskey was to enjoy the taste,” Simon suggested, earning himself nothing but hate-filled stares. He gave up and the room sank into silence. River stayed in the alcove, bored again now that the object of her flirtation was gone. She stretched across several chairs and stared at the ceiling; Simon couldn’t help but suspect that she was plotting.
“Where’d I get that stuff, anyhow?” Mal eventually asked the room in general. He had finished his tea and was beginning to look slightly more human. No one answered, and he focused on Zoë. “And why’d we go to drinkin’ so much?”
Zoë’s jaw tightened as she stared at Mal. “You don’t recall?” she asked.
Mal put his hands to his forehead. “It’s all kind of… blurry.”
Zoë gave Simon a quick look that clearly said nán dù.
“You remember what we talked about yesterday?” she asked Mal, speaking slowly as if it’d help him understand. “About Oeneus – about how they messed with your head?”
Mal squinted at her from the arch his hands made in front of his face. “Oeneus?”
“Sweet Oeneus,” Wash said dreamily from the galley. “The land of gun trafficking and new Alliance bases. And let’s not leave out the fish.”
Mal gingerly turned toward Wash.
Apparently, that only applied when Zoë wasn’t in a mood.
“Mal’s gettin’ worse by the day,” she told Simon, her face and voice fierce enough to make him back away from her. “The ‘leave him be’ method ain’t workin’.”
“Zoë, it’s all I have,” he replied lamely.
“You’d best get something better, and you’d best get it now!”
“What do you expect me to do? I’m not a magician! I can’t see inside his head!”
Simon felt his back touch the wall, but Zoë kept on, stepping up until she was right in his face. “Doc, let me be clear. I am not gonna sit by and watch that man disappear. Anything that can help him, anything that you need so you can do your job like you’re supposed to, figure it out.” Her voice rose, desperation coming through as a bit of shakiness that she couldn’t steady. “You are gonna suss out what’s happening to him, and make it stop! You understand me?”
Simon was momentarily speechless. He’d never heard Zoë talk with that kind of passion, and he felt himself completely unequal to it.
He'd chosen his profession carefully. He liked medicine, and loved surgery. It carried with it all the satisfaction of solving problems and helping people, but more than that – it was neat. It was tidy, with each step clearly defined and the challenges lined up in front of him like well ordered dominoes, ready to fall one by one as he completed his tasks.
People were different. Not only patients, but their families and loved ones, the teary mob in the waiting room looking for good news and hope. Those were entirely unpredictable and immovable in their grief and protectiveness. Simon’d gotten used to facing their impassioned pleas for reassurance with dry medical facts and details of surgical procedures, but he’d never been able to comfort and reassure. He just didn’t have that talent.
“I can’t do anything unless I know more,” he said, struggling to maintain his usual calm, professional manner. “And I don’t mean research. I’ve tried that, and it’s not helping. I need to know more about Mal. I’m… I’m flying blind.”
To his relief, Zoë backed off, giving him space to breathe. She paced across the room once, then turned back, more in control of herself. “Fine,” she said. “So what’ll fix that?”
Simon glanced around the infirmary. “I don’t have enough here. It’s so limited – ”
“Anything, Simon. Anything you say, I’ll make it happen.”
Suddenly, it all clicked into place, and Simon knew exactly what he needed. “A scan,” he said. “A very good one. We’ll be going in to the Core, right?”
The glint in Zoë’s eye said that she knew exactly what he meant.
Everyone had dinner on their own, on Simon’s orders; it was best that no one make conversation with Mal until they got filled in. There was no argument, since no one was in much of a mood to be social.
Finally, Mal headed off to his bunk. A half hour later, the rest of the crew gathered together in the dining room. Zoë took up a spot just outside the fore hatch, where she’d hear Mal’s bunk open if the captain decided to come out for a late night snack. The others sat around the table; Book was the first to ask the question that must have been in all of their minds.
“Have you made progress with the captain?”
“No,” Simon admitted. “Not anything meaningful. I believe there was some sort of physical damage done to him on Oeneus, and it’s taken time to manifest. That seems obvious. But here's the thing… it appears to be getting worse.”
“Worse?” Kaylee asked, the word coming out low and tired. Simon heard her weariness but didn’t allow himself to dwell on it, nor did he look directly at her while he replied. Right now, he had to keep his focus on the captain.
“Yesterday, he didn’t know about the hijacking on Niflheim, and as of this morning he no longer recalls being held by the Alliance on Oeneus.”
“But how can that be?” Book asked. “So many things have changed since then. We have the new mule in the cargo bay – how does he explain that?”
Simon shrugged. “I’m not sure. He might not even notice it, or see the inconsistency. A mind in a state of delusion can rearrange facts, alter observations, and ignore anything that doesn’t fit. Even if it makes no logical sense.”
“So how can we explain it to him?” Book asked.
“Post a calendar in his bunk,” Jayne suggested with a sneer. “Circle the gorramn day.”
“No,” Simon interrupted firmly. “It’s the same as I told you all before – that would be dangerous. You can’t force a damaged mind.” He couldn’t stop himself from glancing at River, who was watching from her chair in the lounge. She was managing to stay upright this time, but didn’t seem overly interested in the discussion.
“We gotta do something,” Kaylee said. “We keep leavin’ him alone, and he keeps gettin’ worse.”
Simon looked down at his hands. It wasn’t often that he was powerless to treat a patient. “Anything I try could increase the damage. I don’t really understand what’s happening to him.” He looked up to glance at Zoë. “Which is why I need to know more.”
Zoë gave him a small nod – it was time for her to take over and explain the plan. She motioned to her husband; he took her place by Mal’s bunk so she could come into the room.
“I know y’all recall Ariel,” she said. “Well, we’re gonna do it again.”
Jayne snorted. “Yeah, `cause that worked out well.” The merc figured out too late that he shouldn’t have brought that up; he met Simon’s eye for barely a second, then looked down at the deck and clammed up.
Zoë ignored him. “This time we ain’t out to steal medicines. We just need to get Mal to an imager, see if we can’t figure out what’s going on with him. It ought’a be simpler `cause we don’t need to take River, and Simon thinks we can do it without him too, if we get someone else to run the scanner. We walk in, get it done, and walk right back out.”
“The hospital we’re going to is part of a research institution on Londinium,” Simon said. “I went to a conference there once; they have a holo-imager, but since it's on a campus the security isn’t very tight. They weren’t checking identification when I was there, at least, not of visitors who looked somewhat respectable. The EMT suits we have from Ariel should be enough.”
“We got at least a few days `fore we get there,” Zoë said. “Simon has plenty of time to work out the details. Meantime, what the rest of you need to concern yourselves with is the captain.”
Zoë crossed her arms, and her face took on that look that no one was stupid enough to argue with. No one except Mal. And, on occasion, Wash.
“This is what you’re all gonna do,” she said. “Watch what you say around him. There could be somethin’ we’re doin’ to make it worse. So keep the talk to what’s happenin’ in the here and now. Makin’ dinner. Workin’ on the ship. Little things. And don’t argue with him, no matter if he starts sayin’ things that make no sense.”
“I don’t agree with this,” a deep voice said, and everyone turned to Book. “It seems like we’re encouraging his – delusion or whatever you want to call it. The captain I know wouldn’t want that. He’d expect the truth, cold and hard as it may be.”
“I told him, Shepherd,” Zoë said, suddenly sounding tired. “Why d’you think we got drunk last night? It’s `cause I told him and he believed it was true, and it tore him up to know what was happening. But this morning, it was gone, out of his head like I never said a word to him. Now maybe you got the time to be givin’ Mal the talk every day and the heart to watch what it does to him, but I don’t.”
“And I wouldn’t let you,” Simon added. He’d spoken softly, but everyone looked at him as if he’d just issued a command. He realized that he had, and he meant it. His voice strengthened. “I won’t allow anyone to do anything which could further damage the captain.” He glanced around the table; Kaylee met his eye and looked away quickly. Everyone else seemed busy with their own thoughts, except for Zoë, who gave him a nod of approval.
“So that’s the plan,” she said. “`Cept for one more thing. Given how Mal is, it don’t seem wise to be following all his orders without givin’ it a thought or two. I’ll try to stay near him as much as I can. Y’all need to look to me – not openly, if you can help it at all – but look to me to make sure that whatever he’s saying is all right. I’m the final word from now on.”
This hadn’t been her idea; Simon had suggested it. He’d expected her to argue, but she’d seen the logic of it right away. They couldn’t have Mal making decisions when he wasn’t able to understand the situation.
Jayne gaped at Zoë for a second before he spoke. “Hang on – you’re takin’ over for the captain?”
“Without even tellin’ him?”
“Ain’t that mutiny?”
Zoë gave the merc a straight, hard look. “Call it what you want, but this is how it is. You got a problem we need to work out?”
Jayne pursed his lips to one side and narrowed his eyes, but then his face broke into a smile. “Aw, hell,” he said, “this could be fun. `Specially if he figures what you’re up to. Anyone wanna lay a bet on who’d win the fight?”
He looked around for takers, but no one shared his amusement. Simon felt a second’s temptation to sedate the mercenary, to drug him and lock him up for as long as possible to keep him away from Mal. And from River.
“You stick to spectatin’, Jayne,” Zoë said in a dangerous voice. “You mess with Mal at all, you’ll be wishing he was still in charge, and not me. Dŏng ma ?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jayne muttered. “We done?”
Zoë looked over the crew. “We’re done. Everyone all right with this?”
“No!” Kaylee answered quickly. “I ain’t all right. Not a bit of this is all right!”
Zoë’s stance, and her voice, softened. “I know, Kaylee. But there ain’t no other way.”
No one had anything to add. Simon sat still as the crew slowly and silently scattered. He watched Kaylee leave, looking lost, her arms wrapped tight around her middle as if she was hugging herself. He wished he could explain this better, make her see that he was doing the best he could. Maybe it wasn’t good enough, but it was all he had.
He glanced toward her retreating back one more time as it occurred to him – maybe he was missing out on even more than he’d thought, failing on yet another front. Two weeks ago, Kaylee had shot a man, and watched him die right in front of her. She wasn’t one to do that and set it aside, not like the captain and Zoë and Jayne.
Simon blew out a sad breath; he should be trying to help her. He should be talking to her, somehow walking her through the guilt and remorse that must be a horrible burden. But he just didn’t know how.
He felt a touch on his shoulder and raised his head. The room was empty, except for River. She stood next to the table, looking down at him.
“Lonely,” she said softly, her eyes boring into him like she trying to explain something very important. Then she shook her head and left.
Had River been talking about herself, or him? Maybe the word should have been needy. He couldn’t be that, not now. Until he found somewhere safe for River, he couldn’t think about the need. He couldn’t let himself remember the way that Kaylee had pressed him against the bulkhead, about the firm grip of her hands on his shoulders, the warmth of her breath on his neck…
His blood started going to a place which would be of no help to his research, and he tried to reason the feeling away. Whatever Kaylee had done that day, she certainly hadn’t meant to get this reaction from him. If she had touched him out of desire, why would she have quit talking to him immediately after? Why did she hardly ever look him in the eye anymore?
Clearly, she saw what she’d done, understood that he was attracted to her, and now she was trying to warn him off. Because she wasn’t really interested after all. Not like that. He tried to shake off the ache that the thought caused, pulling up an article that he’d abandoned the night before.
After two paragraphs, he found himself staring off into empty space again.
This is a problem I can’t have, he told himself sternly. I need to be able to concentrate. I have to be at my best.
So maybe it’d be better if he dealt with it, faced up to this thing that was eating at him. He rubbed his hand over his eyes. It wasn’t just sex, although there was that. Like a hum in the background of his body, the desire was there. Kaylee had stirred up something he’d kept deeply buried for a long time, and it wasn’t easy to shut down again.
But Simon was not a man to be ruled by his libido; he’d tried that once, and he knew now that it wasn’t his way. The distraction of his body’s unmet needs, while problematic, wasn’t the real difficulty. He sighed, because he knew exactly what the problem was.
He hadn’t realized, until he lost it, what a boon and a comfort Kaylee’s company had been. He didn’t quite understand why that was; she was completely different from him and everyone he’d ever known. Her background and education, the way she dressed, the way she spoke, the way she viewed the `verse – all were strange to him.
At the same time, there were a few similarities between them. Kaylee was a surgeon in her own way, operating on the ship with a level of natural genius to rival his own. She had a way of losing herself in her work with a single-mindedness that he knew well. Unlike him, however, she did it with a sense of ease and humor that he’d never been able to match. Her warmth and playfulness was natural, unforced. She didn’t try to be anything but who she was.
Now that he found himself lacking her company, now that he could to only watch her from afar, Simon realized that he had grown to admire Kaylee. He could learn from her. She could show him how to be a warmer, kinder person, without giving up his professionalism.
And then there was the way she looked. A woman covered in grease and wearing baggy overalls, in his prior experience, wasn’t supposed to be alluring and sensual. Maybe that’s why it had taken him so long to really see her, and maybe that was why he’d come to rely on her more than he should have. Kaylee had just slipped in, getting close without him realizing it. It surprised him, really; he hadn’t even considered the possibility when he’d first met her.
He started when he realized that River was standing in the hatch, looking into the infirmary like she’d lost her way. She repeated her earlier comment, her voice soft and forlorn.
Simon smiled sadly. Yes, he was. “I know, mèi mei.”
River’s face turned hard and her voice rose. “Then why are you trying to stop me!”
Simon took a deep breath. If there ever was a time he wished she was reading his thoughts, it was now. He really didn’t want a battle. But the issue she raised was something that needed to be dealt with, and they might as well get to it.
“River, you don’t realize what you’re doing.”
“I’m not stupid!”
Simon needed only one word to challenge that assertion. “Jayne?”
“Nearly eighteen,” she replied. “I can choose. I choose him.”
Simon let his face express his disgust. “But… Jayne?”
“He’s a very… good and…good man.” She cast about for something better to say, but gave up with a frustrated harrumph. “No other choice!”
“You should wait until you find someone… halfway decent,” Simon argued, trying to keep his voice calm and reasonable. “Sex is not about having it as soon and as much as possible.”
She folded her arms and tipped her head. “Once would be nice.”
“It would – if it’s with the right person. It’s not about just the physical act. It’s about sharing something very… personal. And if that’s not possible, you need to wait.”
Her eyes snapped at him. “That’s not fair! You didn’t have to wait! Did it when you were seventeen!”
“How did you – ”
River crossed her arms. “Cynthia Jenson. Mom and dad’s room. After school.”
Simon felt his face heat up. “You were watching?”
“Could hear. From the closet. You didn’t last long.”
“You are…” Simon stammered. “River! You had no business –”
“Neither do you!” She pointed her thumb at herself. “Eighteen in four days! Independent. On my own. You can’t tell me what to do!”
Simon threw his hands out to his sides. “Great. So you’re an independent eighteen year old fugitive. I’m sure you have lofty plans.”
River’s lips pinched together, then she whirled around and disappeared.
He sat down on the bed, leaning back against the wall. He was far beyond his abilities, with Kaylee, with Mal, and most certainly with River. She should have her parents to guide her through this, or at least someone who knew the right things to say.
What did he know about forming relationships? What did he know about having a healthy, fulfilling sex life? The experiences Simon had to share fell strongly in the what-not-to-do category.
Eleven months ago
A black-haired woman leads him through a doorway in the back of the parlor and up a flight of wooden stairs. Simon follows, weaving slightly from the drinks he’d choked down at the saloon next door, several shots of something nasty that still burns in his stomach. But it’s given him the courage to go through with this.
No – not courage. Nerve. Moxie. Brass. Balls. Yes, balls. He’ll be living on the Rim from now on, hiding amongst the criminal fringe. Time to toughen up and stop worrying about being well behaved. Rules and manners and proper words won’t mean a thing in his new life.
The final step has been taken. Just over a day ago, he walked into a restricted Alliance institution and stole his sister. For a few precious minutes he saw River, talked to her, but only until they got aboard a vessel crewed by men and women he hardly knew. They took her from him, kept her aboard while they left him at a transportation hub a quarter of the world away. Within an hour, Simon found himself on an interplanetary transport on his way to Persephone, his sister lost to him again. Hopefully, for only a few days this time.
He’d known that as soon as he took her out of that place the life he'd once had would be over. Now it’s done, and he can never go back. Since he arrived at Eavesdowne Docks, he’s had nothing to do but dwell on this new reality and wait for a package which might never come. A package that will, if they didn’t lie to him, contain his sister. Boxed up like frozen cargo.
What had seemed the easiest part of the rescue is the one that he can’t take. The waiting is unbearable, the not knowing if he’s thrown his life away for nothing. He gave most of his remaining money to the people piloting that ship; he has no other option now. And even if they come through, there’s no guarantee as to River’s condition. He’s gone over those few minutes he spent with her, trying to recall every detail. Gods – what they had they been doing to her in that place?
Coming to this house was the only thing he could think of to get him through. He had to get drunk before he could enter and make a choice; the woman he selected, the one now leading him to a private upstairs room, has silky black hair hanging in a straight sheet to her shoulders, and a fine delicate body. Simon chose her for that, for her appearance and the way she stayed in the background, sitting across the room watching him patiently instead of parading herself in front of him like the others. She seems classy.
The room she leads him to is scant – a narrow bed and a rough wooden table and lamp are the sole furnishings, but the bedding looks clean, and there are no unpleasant smells. It isn’t as bad as he expected it to be.
“You got a name?” she asks as soon as she closes the door behind him. Her voice doesn’t match her appearance; it’s bold and her border accent is rough.
Simon shifts uncomfortably and doesn’t answer.
“Don’t have to be your real name, Johnny,” she says. “It’s just good to have somethin’ to call ya by.”
“Oh – uh… John will do.”
She smiles at him like he’s prey that she’s about to consume. “John, you are. So, how d’ya want it?”
Simon stammers and can’t reply – he isn’t expecting her to be so direct. She seems to find his awkwardness cute, if a little pathetic, and steps closer. She sets her hands on his shoulders and presses her body against his. Through a haze of drunkenness and mortification, Simon feels a rush of arousal.
“D’ya like to kiss?” she asks, her face tilted up toward his. He still can’t speak, but nods. She puts a hand behind his neck and pulls him down to meet her.
She isn’t shy. Of course she isn’t shy, you idiot, he thinks to himself as her tongue pushes into his mouth. She’s a whore.
No matter who or what she is, her arms around his body feel so good that he wants to melt into her, and he pulls her closer and opens his mouth to the kiss. She immediately traps his tongue, wrapping her lips around it and sucking as if it’s a preview of something else she’ll be doing soon.
It should be incredibly erotic. It should add to the thrill that’s been warming his groin ever since he decided to do this, but a part of him can’t get past the ruse; her actions feel hurried and false. Maybe she wants this over quickly so she can get to her next customer. Or maybe she doesn’t like it, or it bores her. How many times has she had a new man come in, fumbling the way Simon is, but so burning with need that he can’t stop himself?
His thoughts are interrupted by her hand clutching the front of his pants, and he gasps. A sham it might be, but he needs this. He’s been on his own for so long, ever since he gave up his place at the hospital and the life that went with it. He’s human; his body has needs. He has every right to do this. It isn’t even illegal – as if breaking laws will ever be a problem to Simon Tam again. He’s a fugitive now. It’s best that he get used to it.
He pushes the whore onto the bed and crawls on top of her, then feels her hands on his belt. Yes – she’s in a hurry, and he is too. He wants to do it quickly, get what he needs so he can leave this horrible place. He lifts his body to give her access, and her hand slides inside his pants.
Simon feels a harsh jolt when she makes a disappointed clucking sound. He looks down at her hand – it isn’t possible. He’s never had a problem…
“I… I’ve been drinking,” he says lamely as his face floods with heat. He’s unable to look at her.
“Don’t you worry,” she says. “I’ll fix it.”
He doesn’t resist as she pushes him onto his back and pulls his pants down over his hips. She fulfills the promise she made earlier when she worked on his tongue, and Simon stares blindly at the ceiling, his arms lying limp beside him. He tries to lose himself in fantasies of other women in other places, soft sheets in decadent bedrooms, heat and passion and heady release. But the eager mouth on his cock doesn’t fit the images in his mind, and the harder the whore tries, the more his body becomes numb to her efforts.
He focuses his eyes on the shabby ceiling, at the peeling paint and cobwebs. Suddenly, he's overcome with a sense of disbelief, an abrupt clarity that separates him further from his body and what’s being done to it. How has he ended up here? It’s as if the successful young man he was a few years ago has walked into the room to see this older version of himself engaged in this farce.
Simon raises his head to look at the woman – not just a whore, but a woman, a person – and with a disconnect that borders on panic, he realizes that this can’t happen. Never, never, can he use someone like this. He puts his hands on her head and pushes her off of him, whimpering when her teeth scrape against his sensitive skin.
“Hey!” she protests.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” he mumbles. He rolls off the bed and pulls his pants up over his hips.
“No need to give up, Johnny,” she says as she leans on her elbow on the bed, watching him with a flicker of amusement in her eyes. “Just tell me what ya want.”
He turns away, and his fingers fumble as he tries to fasten his fly. “It isn’t right,” he says, more to himself than to her. “I can’t do this.”
“There ain’t no refunds,” she says, her tone less light now. “Ain’t my fault if you can’t –”
“Keep it,” he says before she can finish. “Keep the money.”
She laughs. “It’s your coin, honey.”
Her words and her mocking tone follow him, ridicule him as does every face that he sees on his hurried way out of the whorehouse. Is it his imagination, or are they all laughing at him? Yelling after him, their voices resonating with the self-contempt that fills his chest and sours the booze in his stomach…
Rich boy, he imagines them saying in disgust. Thought you were better than us, but now you lost all your money, and you’re not so high and mighty, are you? Now you’re nothing, worse than nothing, because you can’t make it out here. You have no life with us. You’re weak. You’re soft.
Soft! Ha! Run, poor soft boy, run…
He just makes it to the alley outside before he falls to his knees and vomits.
It was horrifying to think that River might have “overheard.” She was in her room, just across the hall. Probably sleeping – but maybe she was sitting wide awake, the knowledge of what he’d done, of how her big brother had tried to use a woman for his own pleasure and relief, sinking into her mind.
But wasn’t that part of growing up? Learning that adults weren’t all they seemed? It was bound to happen sooner or later; River would understand that he was human and flawed, and she would want even more to be on her own. It was inevitable. He couldn’t be her hero forever.
It might be worth the shame, if he could be sure that his memory would help River to make better decisions. He didn’t want her accepting an undeserving lover just so she’d have a body, giving herself away solely to meet her physical needs. She was worth so much more than that.
Please wait, River, he begged, hoping she’d hear. Don’t be so hurried. It’s not worth it.
He clutched the pillow still as he rolled onto his side, closing his eyes and waiting in vain for sleep to take him.
Monday, May 07, 2007 4:28 AM
Monday, May 07, 2007 5:01 AM
Monday, May 07, 2007 6:58 AM
Monday, May 07, 2007 7:20 AM
Monday, May 07, 2007 7:48 AM
Monday, May 07, 2007 12:41 PM
Monday, May 07, 2007 2:06 PM
Monday, May 07, 2007 4:27 PM
Tuesday, May 08, 2007 1:49 AM
Tuesday, May 08, 2007 2:20 PM
Wednesday, May 09, 2007 2:11 PM
Thursday, May 10, 2007 9:26 AM
Thursday, May 10, 2007 9:57 AM
Thursday, May 17, 2007 3:06 PM
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