BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II, Chapter 15
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mal gets a shiny new hat, though it takes some talking to get him to wear it. Then Simon tells his take on events with Kaylee. Little bit of S/K smut, but nothing that couldn’t be shown on TV. :)


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2422    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillips for the artwork.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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House of Huāzhù, Highgate

River was curled up in dark pink satin sheets, her hair making a black swirl above her face.

Simon tilted his head as he looked down at her. Oddly, the sight made him think of a bug burrowed into the petals of a rose. He smiled at his fanciful thoughts; the décor of this house was having an effect on him. Someone had taken the theme a bit too seriously, and the colors and flowers that filled the rooms – not a single bloom real – presented something of an affront to his sensibilities. Still, he supposed, at least the women of the house were trying to bring some cheer into this dull settlement. Kaylee seemed to enjoy it.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and lightly touched River’s shoulder, just to make sure she knew he was there.

“Are you sleeping?” he asked softly.

She didn’t open her eyes, but her arms tightened around her belly. “Mind tries. Stomach goes sideways. Ick.”

Simon couldn’t feel too bad for her. “Well… you did earn it.”

That got her to open an eye. She stared at him with a certain haughty disapproval that only a very intelligent teenager could achieve. “I had good reason,” she said stubbornly.

Simon sighed; he still hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about this, and it needed to be done. “I’m sure you thought you did. But River, everyone thinks they have good reasons, and bad things are being done constantly. You of all people should know that. You always have to be ready to look past your reasons to your actions. Do you really think that what you did was right?”

In reply, she rolled to her other side, burying her head in the satin sheets so all he could see was the fabric of her shirt twisted across her back. Her meaning was clear: this talk wouldn’t be happening now.

Simon wasn’t going to force it. The captain would be arriving at any minute, Book and Zoë with him, and Zoë wouldn’t be looking to settle down to a quiet cup of tea. She’d be wanting explanations. She’d left him in charge, and things were a mess: the ship taken, the five of them staying in this kind of house… But at least he was ready to treat Mal. He’d achieved his most important task.

He folded the dark pink comforter over his sister and was rising to his feet when a ruckus arose in the distance. He stepped into the hall to listen; the deep voice of the madam carried above the rest.

“This ain’t a gorramn bed and brunch! You best pay up, you wanna take any more a’ my rooms!”

The others had arrived then, Simon guessed, and the woman wasn’t pleased to have yet more lodgers who weren’t partaking of the house’s main business. But he stayed where he was; his interference wasn’t likely to help with matters. Besides, he heard Jayne’s heavy footsteps approaching from the back of the house. Over the past few days, Jayne had taken on the role of principle negotiator and keeper of the finances for Serenity’s crew. Ordinarily, Simon would have found this alarming, but it seemed to be working out all right, so far.

A haggling argument between the merc and the madam carried on in the distance, but the rest of the crew scurried into the hall, heading toward Simon. Wash and Kaylee led the way, followed by Book, Mal, and Zoë. As Simon might have expected if he’d thought it through, Zoë took charge without even a hello.

“Malcolm,” she said, a name Simon didn’t recall her ever using before, “this here’s the doctor I told you about. You do as he says.”

In all the rush of the past few days, Simon’d nearly forgotten that this would be necessary. But of course, Mal still wouldn’t know him. To Simon’s relief, Mal looked at him with something closer to curiosity than annoyance, and even, possibly, a bit of humor.

“Heya, Doc,” he said. “Interesting place you set up shop in here.”

Simon glanced about the hall, which resembled a sunny meadow full of daisies – as finger painted by a child. “Well, patients like… flowers.”

Mal wasn’t the only one who frowned at him.

“In here,” Simon said, changing the subject quickly and directing Mal into the second of the two rooms rented by Serenity’s homeless crew. Mal stepped through the open door and stopped next to the bed inside, his head raised as he took in the bunches of small purple flowers covering the walls. This, apparently, was the lilac room.

The captain turned to smile at Simon and declare expansively, “I feel better already!”

Simon ignored the sarcasm and stepped past him to take the cap – the Takara cap, as it was properly known, named after its developer – from the bedside table. He held it out and ordered in his most doctorly voice, “Put this on your head.”

Mal gave the web of silvery wires a close look, then his mouth curved in a grin and he shook his head. “I’m thinkin’ maybe not.”

Actually, it was a much milder refusal than Simon’d been expecting. He’d known that this would be a battle, and that he’d be needing help to win it. Book, Wash and Kaylee stayed in the hall, but Zoë came right in. She saw Simon’s need and spoke up firmly.

“We talked about this, Malcolm. Your mom trusted me to get you medical help for that bump and set your memory to rights, and this is it.”

She met Simon’s eye then looked to Mal’s head pointedly – the captain had a small bandage on his forehead. Simon frowned as he worked out her meaning; the bruise certainly wasn’t something to cause memory loss; it didn’t even require medical treatment. But if that was the story Zoë was using, he’d follow along.

“Yes, this will take care of that,” Simon said. “Heal it.”

Mal, however, wasn’t sold on the idea. “You’re sayin’ that this silvery hat’s gonna help with a bump on my head? You’re saying that coming to a house like this…” He looked around the purple room again, then focused on Zoë and lowered his voice. “You have noticed, right? Them ladies out there wearin’ naught but their skivvies, and a room like this… You know what kind’a house we’re in?”

Zoë nodded. “I do. You got a problem?”

He shook his head, but his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his coat and he fidgeted. His discomfort was clear. “No. Not at all. I’m just wonderin’ how comin’ here and puttin’ on a funny hat is gonna fix my missin’ memories.” He glanced at Simon, then leaned into Zoë and lowered his voice even further, like he was trying to be polite. He didn’t succeed; Simon could plainly hear his words. “And I’m wondering what kind of doctor this is, exactly. Workin’ in a place like this and offerin’ a chintzy gadget like that –”

Simon raised his chin and interrupted. “I was trained at the MedAcad on Osirus,” he said with complete confidence. “Top three percent of my class. I specialize in trauma medicine, surgery, mostly, but your condition isn’t anything I can’t handle.”

He held out the cap again, but Mal only stared at it like it might bite him.

Simon drew himself up, taking on a tough doctor air that he’d found useful when a patient wouldn’t listen to him. “Have you ever hit your head hard enough to lose memories before?”

Mal looked at the floor and shrugged. “Well… no.”

“That’s why you’ve never seen one of these. It’s standard procedure in the Core.”

Mal shook his head and huffed. “No way. Ain’t no way! This is some kind of joke, ain’t it? This whole thing.” He glanced at the three in the doorway, then at Zoë. “Reg put you all up to this, didn’t he?” He raised his voice and looked toward the hall. “Hey – Reggie! Where you hidin’?”

Zoë stood firm. “Ain’t a joke at all. Just listen to the doctor.”

“Yeah, right. Some doctor. I’m sure you’ll all be gettin’ a good laugh out’a this.” He looked to the crowd in the door again, then to Zoë. The good humor he’d come in with seemed all used up. “And how exactly do you know these folks anyhow? Who are they, takin’ an interest in all this?”

To Simon’s surprise, Zoë’s patience snapped. She lit into Mal like he was an uppity child. “They’re a traveling circus, all right? Look, it don’t matter how I know them. You’re gonna do as the doc says and put the gorramn cap on and I won’t be hearing another thing about it. Dŏng ma?

For a second, Mal’s jaw set stubbornly, and Simon thought there was going to be a problem. But then Book spoke up.

“No need for an argument,” the Shepherd said in a warm, calm voice. “You can trust the doctor, Malcolm. He’s a good man and a smart one. Even if his methods may seem… mysterious, he’s concerned with nothing but your welfare. He’s put some work into setting up your treatment, and it can’t have been easy for him.”

The words made Mal back down; he even looked a bit sheepish. He took in deep breath, giving Simon a chance to nod his gratitude to Book.

“Sorry, doc,” Mal said. “Guess all this has got me wound a bit tight.”

“It’s understandable,” Simon said, and he held out the cap again. Mal finally took it. He turned it in his hands a few times, then gave a to-hell-with-it shrug and flipped his head down to pull the thing over his skull like a wig. When he straightened, a light gaffaw came from the doorway. Mal looked over sharply; Kaylee was standing with a hand over her mouth, her eyes full of apology that she’d let her reaction be heard. Or maybe she was sorry for finding humor in this situation at all.

Not that Simon could really blame her. Mal did look quite silly, with bits of hair sticking out between the silver wires covering his head. But he didn’t seem too bothered about it. In fact, he was quite good-humored.

“Quick, take a capture,” he told Kaylee. “I want record a’ this.”

Kaylee dropped her hand from her mouth, seeming encouraged by Mal’s attitude. “And who wouldn’t?” she said with a wide smile.

Zoë wasn’t amused by the chatting. “Leave him be, Kaylee.”

“What? It’s cute is all.”

“Yeah, real cute,” Mal said. “Momma was right about Core folk. You got odd ways of doin’ things, even the doctors, I guess. Hey – can I pick up cortex radio with this thing?”

He started picking at the wires behind his ears, but Simon stepped in to stop him. He pushed Mal’s hands away and straightened the cap, making sure the nodes connecting the wires made tight contact with Mal’s skin, then he tapped the controller panel on the back of Mal’s neck. He set it to run the quick initializing sequence, lining up the position of the nodes with the image he’d already uploaded – the high-detail 3D scan of Mal’s skull and brain.

“Hey, that’s real nice!” a gruff voice called from the doorway. Simon turned back toward it – Jayne had squeezed his way in to get a look, and was grinning at Mal. “Maybe that’ll keep all the aliens from talkin’ at ya –”

“Jayne,” Zoë warned bluntly. “Shăo luō suō.”

Mal started turning to get a look at the newcomer and Simon had to set a hand on the back of his head to hold him still. The initial scan was done already, so he keyed in the sequence to start up the cap’s cycle.

“Who’s that?” Mal asked Zoë without moving his head.

Zoë smiled; this chance was clearly too good for her to pass by. “Every circus needs a bearded lady.”

“Hey!” Jayne said in protest.

Mal snorted. “You people are somethin’. I gotta tell my mom about the folks she set me up with, `cause she can’t possibly… oh… whoa….”

He held out his hands like he’d just gotten dizzy. Simon grabbed one and Zoë the other, and they helped him sit down on the bed. Mal was quick to pull a hand free and raise it to the cap.

“Don’t touch it,” Simon said, pulling Mal’s hand away.

“But... it tickles!”

“Leave it alone,” Simon insisted.

“But it’s just... it’s…” Mal stuttered a bit, then he broke into something like a giggle.

“Is he okay?” Wash asked from the hall in a worried tone. Simon glanced over; Wash, Kaylee, Book, and Jayne were looking on with something like shock on their faces. Even River had left her nest to join the fray; she peeked through the lower part of the doorway with wide eyes.

“The settings are… a little too high maybe,” Simon said, then he turned his attention back to the cap’s controller. He lowered the intensity, but it didn’t take immediate effect. The captain giggled again; this one lasted a bit longer and reached a higher pitch than his first.

“Dope him?” Zoë asked. She looked a little frightened.

“No,” Simon said. “Medicated sleep won’t work – he needs to be free to dream. But it’ll be taken care of… anytime now...”

Sure enough, the cap’s cycle was already bringing on unconsciousness. Mal’s eyes quickly grew heavy, and he stretched back on the bed to burrow into the pale purple sheets with a contented smile on his face.

“Ge’ the lights, will ya?” he mumbled, then he hugged a pillow and, with one more boyish chuckle, was out.

Simon stood still for a moment, not sure what to do. All in all, that had gone exactly as it should. He just hadn’t expected it to be so… odd.

The Shepherd clearly wasn’t bothered. “Well, that is a good site to see,” he said. He was beaming into the room as if it made his day to watch the captain grinning into his lilac pillow.

“I guess,” Wash replied doubtfully. “Although… I would prefer something closer to… sanity.”

Zoë gave her husband a short look of rebuke.

“What. You’re telling me that that was sane Mal?”

Zoë ignored him. “We done here, Simon?”

“Yes. Nothing to do but wait and see how he is when he wakes.”

She nodded. “All right then, it’s time we talk.”

They all managed to stuff themselves into the pink room where River had spent the day sleeping off her nausea. Simon offered the one chair in the room to Book, who refused. The preacher took a pillow from the bed and settled onto the floor next to Jayne. So Simon took the chair. It seemed proper; he was the one in the hot seat, after all.

Kaylee, quick to forgive a transgression and offer comfort rather than blame, sat at the head of the bed with River curled up beside her, a comforting hand on the girl’s back. Wash and Zoë took the other end of the bed. Zoë looked taut and focused, all her attention on Simon, but when her husband’s arm curled tightly around her waist, she let Wash pull her back against him. After their days apart, it seemed that the couple was set on staying in physical contact. It made Simon feel a little awkward, and he wondered if he should making some kind of overture to Kaylee. But their affair wasn’t known to the crew and it was best not to push it right now. There were other things to be dealt with.

When Zoë spoke, it was with the kind of firm tone that Simon was dreading. “Doc, tell me you weren’t so stupid as to go meet with this lady.”

Kaylee spoke up quickly to explain. “I got `em caught up as to my first visit to the clinic, and settin’ up our meeting with Tori. It’s all yours from the Salty Tongue on.”

Simon nodded, then he couldn’t help but respond defensively to Zoë. “What option did I have? Take the ship to another system? Hope I’d get lucky and just happen on what we need?”

Zoë acquiesced his point with a small nod. “Well, it appears you got the captain cared for, and you ain’t locked up. That’s something. But I still ain’t heard what happened to the ship.”

“I’ll get to that,” Simon said. “First things first.”

* * *

Fifty hours ago, Mining colony, Highgate

The walk to the Salty Tongue was quiet; dark had descended on the little mining town, and in the stillness voices would carry. The townsfolk sitting out to enjoy the cool evening air would hear every word, so Simon kept his thoughts to himself.

He wasn’t wearing his usual neat clothes. Kaylee had warned him of the attention that would draw. He had put on one of Mal’s shirts, letting it hang over his pants; it was too big on him to even try tucking in. At first, he’d objected to borrowing the captain’s clothes, but eventually he’d accepted it as the only option. Wash’s and Book’s stylings were eye-catching, and Jayne’s t-shirts were completely unacceptable, hygienically speaking.

Kaylee had also changed – into something close to her usual workclothes – and she seemed happy about it. Simon glanced at her; she did look better like this. More comfortable, much more herself. She hadn’t seemed right before, tidied up and standing stiffly, trying to look like a denizen of the Core. Formality didn’t suit her.

She noticed him looking at her and smiled, then reached out to take his hand. At first, her firm, confident grip calmed his nerves, but then he began to feel awkward about it. He’d never been much of a hand-holder. And after what had happened last night….

Simon hadn’t expected that, not at all. It seemed a dream to him now, a hazy cloud of sensation and release that continued to escape his efforts at understanding. Making love to Kaylee was something he’d been wanting to do for some time, but now that it’d happened, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it. It defied his attempts of definition, and that was a rare thing for him.

He’d always considered sex to be a craft, an artform not very unlike medicine in principle. It had defined steps, a process to reach a goal and checkpoints along the way. As with everything he did, Simon meant to excel at love-making, and took pride in his ability to please his partner. He’d always tried to make full use of his classroom knowledge of the workings of the female body, details the average man wouldn’t be aware of. Admittedly, he hadn’t practiced sex as much as he had surgery, since his studies limited him as far as romance went, but he’d tried to make the most of the chances he’d had, and he was confident in his abilities.

But he hadn’t thought about any of that during the night just past. He was surely out of practice, but that wasn’t the reason. He’d been exhausted. He’d been nearly out of his mind with tiredness and need, and his acts with Kaylee had lacked any kind of finesse or orchestration.

In fact, he felt more than a little embarrassed about it. That kind of loss of control wasn’t like him, and it didn’t fit his idea of sex as a form of fine art. Honestly, he was expecting Kaylee to show some sign of disappointment or even ridicule at how he’d acted, but all she did was smile at him and squeeze his hand. Maybe she was trying to encourage him, keep him confident and optimistic so he could carry out this business for Mal. If so, Simon was grateful for her tact. It was kind of her.

He tried to turn his thoughts aside. If he continued to focus on the events of last night, he wouldn’t be able to look Kaylee in the eye, much less talk business with her next to him. Both shame and lust seemed ready to overwhelm him; his state was as confusing as it was distracting.

Yes, it was better by far to think about the matter at hand.

They reached the southern edge of town – the Drop, as it was called, and took a left turn to head east. Apparently, a sharp cliff lurked just a few dozen meters to the south, though he could see nothing of it in the dark. All he could feel was a wave of heat coming up from the lowlands beyond. It was unpleasant to be sure, but the upside was that no townspeople passed the late evening hours on this end of town. He could risk conversation.

“How do you think she knew about me?” he asked Kaylee, keeping his voice low.

“I dunno,” Kaylee replied. “She’s just smart. Or maybe she’s like River with all the…” She raised her free hand and wiggled her fingers at her head. “…the knowin’ things.”

“That’s impossible!” Simon said, but then he thought about it. With the way his life had gone in the past few years, he couldn’t rule anything out. “I mean – it should be impossible. But after everything thing else I’ve seen…. Do you really think – ”

“No! Of course not!” Kaylee laughed at his confusion and reached across herself to slap his shoulder playfully. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t play you like that. It was my fault she figured it out. I used her name.”

“Her name?”

“She said she ain’t gone by ‘Tori’ since med school. That, and me askin’ about the cap, must’a been enough for her to make a guess. And after that, I really should’a played dumb. But when she said to bring you, I just gaped like a little girl.” She looked away from him and sighed. “Maybe you was right that I shouldn’t’a gone by myself. I just ain’t no good at lyin’.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Ain’t it?”

Simon didn’t answer; they had reached the saloon. They had to circle around and enter from the east side – the south wall was solidly covered in something that shone metallic in the dim light of the distant moons. It may have once have been shiny and smooth, but now it was pitted and marred, as if it’d been beaten by years of debris blowing on the winds. Winds coming up over the Drop, Simon reasoned.

The battered sign over the door showed a mouth hanging open, a long tongue hanging out to wrap partly around a frosty pint glass. Simon understood the meaning; the air carried a salty dust which had already coated the inside of his mouth, and a sudsy beverage would be just the thing to break through it.

The inside of the bar wasn’t in any better shape than the outside. It was as dark and dusty as one would expect of a saloon in a mining town. The wall to his left, the one backed with the shielding against the winds of the Drop, was one long bar populated by a handful of well-settled regulars and a pair of bored prostitutes. Tables were scattered through the middle of the big room, and booths with waist-high dividers lined the wall on Simon’s right. The windows behind the booths were covered over with ragged tar paper, as if to keep the outside world out as much as possible.

“Come on,” Kaylee whispered. Simon realized that he’d been standing in the doorway long enough to draw a few curious stares. There weren’t many people here, but the few seemed eager for something – or someone – new to look at.

“There she is,” Kaylee added with a nod toward the second booth down where a single person was seated facing them.

It was Tori all right. She’d aged in the three years since he’d seen her, and cut her hair short. She was wearing a rough overcoat that hid all of her body and some of her face from view, but he saw as he drew closer that her dark eyes had grown even more direct in their stare and her face had thinned, losing the softness of her youth. Her dull clothing suited his memory of her. She hadn’t ever been as showy and designer as most of the students at MedAcad, preferring coarse clothes made of natural fibers and t-shirts with political messages that earned her more than one enemy amongst the students and staff.

Tori’s sense of fashion – well, her intentional lack of popular fashion – had made her stand out at MedAcad. But it was clear that she no longer wanted to be noticeable. Not tonight, anyway. She stayed seated, hunched in the shadows, as they approached.

“Simon,” she said softly when he reached the table.

He nodded. “Tori.”

He slid into the booth across from her, his back to the door, and Kaylee sat down next to him.

“Hey, Dr. Zhou,” Kaylee said cheerfully. Tori gave her a brief nod and returned her attention to Simon.

“How did you know?” he asked. “How did you know I was here?”

“I’ve always had this feeling you’d come looking for me. There can’t be many others you can turn to. Not in your situation.”

“You know my situation?”

“Nothing in detail. I know you’ve been bad, Simon Tam, and I know you’re hiding.”

She said this playfully, almost flirtatiously, and Simon snuck a glance at Kaylee. He hadn’t mentioned the nature of his past relationship with Tori because it just hadn’t seemed important. Now, given the events of last night, it suddenly was. He hoped he wouldn’t end up regretting the omission.

“They asked me about you,” Tori said, “about where you might have taken your sister.”

Simon put aside the captain’s business for a minute – this was worth hearing. “Who asked about me?”

“A few extremely creepy men wearing suits. And gloves. Blue gloves. I was on a purchasing trip to Osiris last year. They showed up at my hotel and demanded that I tell them where you’d gone. I had no idea what they meant. It wasn’t until after their visit that I dragged the news out of a few gossips.” She narrowed her eyes at him in accusation. “Did you really kidnap River?”

Simon tensed. Tori should know him better than that. “Of course not.”

Kaylee piped up, asking Tori, “But why they’d ask you?”

Tori seemed to resent the intrusion on her conversation with Simon. Her eyes moved to Kaylee slowly, as if it was work. “The same reason Simon trusts me enough to show up asking for my help. It’s no secret that I don’t think much of the central government, not like he used to.” Her eyes shifted back to Simon. “And I do hope you plan on explaining to me what happened to change your mind, make you go from card-carrying member to wanted fugitive.”

“It’s not relevant to the business at hand,” Simon said softly.

“Also,” Tori went on, glancing at Kaylee again, “it’s public knowledge that we were involved at one time, and in study groups together for a few years after. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that I’d abet him in his lifestyle change.”

Simon kept his eyes down on the table but he felt Kaylee stiffen beside him. He knew she was looking at him, her eyes asking: and you were going to share this… when?

“What did you tell them about me?” he asked Tori.

“The truth. That we were classmates and not much more. Maybe we dated for a while, but I dumped you because you were too conservative, too safe–“ She stressed the word with some humor in her voice; clearly, she was well aware of the irony. “–and that if they really thought Simon Tam would turn outlaw and kidnap his little sister, they couldn’t be very good at their job. I guess they were right and I was wrong, hmm?”

Simon couldn’t help but smile; her words may have been admitting a mistake, but her tone was the opposite. She may as well come right out with those four lovely words: I told you so.

“You used to go on with your conspiracy theories,” he said. “Crimes done by secret branches of our government that we never hear of. I thought you were crazy.”

Tori turned her black eyes on Kaylee, and it made Simon nervous. He felt in trouble enough already; he didn’t need Tori’s forthrightness, which appeared to have increased over the years, to dig a deeper hole for him.

“What I wanted to talk to you about – ” he started, but Tori interrupted him.

“You seem a friendly, social type of girl,” she said frankly, staring at Kaylee.

A hesitant smile slowly warmed Kaylee’s face. It was her nature to take the statement as a compliment, although Simon didn’t think it was meant in quite that way. “Could say that,” she replied.

“Then why don’t you go charm those men at the bar. I need Simon to myself.”

Kaylee’s smile disappeared. She glanced at the bar, then at Simon.

“It’s all right,” he said. It’s only business, he wanted to add, but he didn’t. She had to know that, didn’t she? But when she nodded and slid out of the booth, her movements were timid and stiff.

As soon as Kaylee left, Tori waved two fingers at the bartender, who nodded in return and began drawing two mugs of ale from a tap.

“You seem comfortable here,” Simon said.

“You’re surprised? A spot in a high brow hospital on Osiris never was what I wanted. You know that.”

“But I never expected you to…”

“Be able to sacrifice? You thought I would be an activist as long as it was an easy thing to do? Maybe you don’t know me so well after all. I applied for the funding as soon as I finished MedAcad, but it took some serious arm-twisting to pull it off.” Her voice took on a hard edge and her finger pounded the table. “It took commitment, Simon. The company running these mines doesn’t like their system to be interfered with, no matter that it’s horrendous. Before I got out here, they had a single mobile care unit that visited each settlement once a month, tops. It’d be laughable if it wasn’t such a tragedy, given the conditions these people work in.”

Two mugs slapped down on the table, dropped off by the bartender in exchange for a few coins Tori handed him. Simon glanced across the room; Kaylee was sitting stiffly at the bar, her back resolutely to them. Was that a statement of trust, or anger?

“They brew it here,” Tori said. He turned back to see her wiping a line of white froth from her upper lip. “The woman who runs this place grows her own barley and hops. The garden plots are north, away from the Drop. There’s too much salt here, blown up from the Flat. But you have to figure, anyone breathing salt dust all through a twelve hour shift down in that hell will be in need of a decent beer when they come back up.”

“The Flat?” Simon asked.

“Haven’t you seen it?”

“We came in late last night, and I haven’t been off the ship since. I was… I needed sleep.”

“The company geologists say this was a nice beach a few million years ago, before the sea dried up. The Flat is what used to be the bottom of it, and now those lovely salts and minerals are all that’s left. And you really don’t care about any of this, do you?”

Simon’s attention had indeed been wandering. “I’m… in a bit of hurry. Someone’s depending on me.”

“So your girlfriend said. She is your girlfriend?”

He glanced at Kaylee again, who hadn’t moved. “She’s not my… I’m not sure what she is. It’s pretty... new.”

“She’s a sweet girl, that’s what. As wholesome and smalltime as they come. I don’t know where you found her, but I’m sure she thinks the world of you.” She snorted a laugh. “You always were clueless about these things Simon, so I’ll give you some advice: clear things up with her. She hasn’t twitched a muscle all the time she’s been sitting there. Mad as a hen.”

Simon finally took a taste of his beer. It wasn’t the best ale he’d ever had, not by a long shot, but it was more than he’d have expected of this place. And that wasn’t the only unexpected thing – he couldn’t believe he was sitting in a dingy bar in a dingy mining town on Highgate, getting romantic advice from Victoria Zhou.

“Could we get to business?” he asked as he set down his mug.

“Ahh, yes. Business. Here’s the business, Simon: I make a difference to the people on this world. They travel here from all the other settlements, and the backlog I’ve got is insane, impossible. I’m trying to bring in more funding so I can open more clinics – if the company doesn’t block me. And that’s the thing. They don’t like me here.” She leaned forward across the table and lowered her voice to a careful whisper. “When your girl came in this afternoon asking about… what she did, I wasn’t sure if she was a trap, sent by the company.”

“Why would they want to –”

Her face turned fierce, and her whisper took on a bit of a hiss. “Because they don’t control me, and it makes them crazy! I established my clinic with funds from a Parliamentary earmark, and they can’t touch it. I have my own means, for a while at least. I’m independent. I can send back reports, telling exactly what I see here, and the company hates that. They’d love to charge me with smuggling or dealing illicit substances or anything they can come up with, just to get me kicked off this world before something I say catches the attention of the Core public.”

She glanced aside, as if afraid she was being overheard, and for a second Simon was tempted to dismiss her passionate words as conspiracy theorist paranoia, something she’d had a bit of in school. But his own experiences of the past few years wouldn’t allow him the luxury of ignoring her fears.

He bent forward over the table and spoke just as quietly as she had, though no one in the bar was close enough to overhear. “What I’m asking isn’t illegal.”

“It’s unethical.”

“I won’t tell.”

She tilted her head. “Gee, that’s comforting.”

“Do you even have what I need?” he asked, still maintaining a careful whisper.

She narrowed her eyes at him, but gave in. “A Takara cap? Yes, I do. If I can find it. It’s an old thing. It can probably be made to work, but it would take time. That’s time that I don’t have.”

Simon looked toward the bar again. Kaylee was still sitting on her stool with her back ramrod straight. There was a beer at her elbow, maybe bought by the men sitting a few stools down who were watching her curiously, but she wasn’t turning her head to make conversation.

“Kaylee can help,” Simon whispered. “She’s the ship’s mechanic, and very good at what she does.”

Tori glanced toward the bar, doubt in her eyes. “Even if she is, I’d have to show her what to do and help her get started. Simon, there are sick people sleeping in my clinic’s waiting room right now. I can’t take a day or two off to hold her hand.”

Simon sipped his beer thoughtfully. “Do you have any reason to believe the Alliance is still watching you here? Looking for a connection with me?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never seen them – and I do pay attention.”

“Okay. So you work with Kaylee and I’ll see to your patients.”

It seemed an obvious solution to him, but Tori clearly wasn’t expecting it. She straightened and blinked in surprise. “If a fugitive was identified in my clinic…”

“I’ll disguise myself.”

“Like you are now? Come on, Simon. That haircut screams Core-world doctor.”

“I’ll wear a hat. Just for one day – who’s to know?”

She took a drink of her beer, then leaned against the booth back and sized him up. “Are you sure you can handle it?” she asked in a soft voice, giving up the whisper. “This isn’t MedAcad or AMI. I’ve got the best equipment money can buy, but the patients are… well, they bring their favorite good luck charms along and try to convince me that their variant angina is controlled by the second moon’s phase.”

Simon thought back to the hill people on Jiangyin. “I’ve gotten used to that kind of thing,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ve been on the Rim for a while now.”

She smiled and relaxed further into her seat. “You must have had an interesting few years. Are you going to tell me about it?”

Simon’s humor faded. “No,” he replied firmly.

That made Tori’s smile disappear. She looked toward Kaylee again.

“Mechanic?”

Simon nodded.

“And you think she can handle this?”

“Of course she can,” Simon replied quickly. Then it occurred to him that Tori’s question might have had more then one meaning, but it was too late to ask. She pushed her unfinished beer away and slid partway out of the booth.

“I’ll see you both at the clinic tomorrow morning at seven. I’ll need time to show you around before we open. Eat a big breakfast before you come; you won’t have time for a break until lunch, and that’ll be brief.”

* * *

Simon and Kaylee walked in silence once they left the bar. Simon wasn’t sure where to start, and Kaylee seemed intent on not asking. She didn’t try to hold his hand.

He took in a deep breath and decided to take Tori’s advice. “I just… I didn’t think it was important to tell you,” he said. “It wasn’t, really, until last night. And there hasn’t been time today….”

Kaylee gave him a questioning look, like she had no idea what he meant. He couldn’t believe that. She had to be wondering, no matter that her face was blank.

“Look, Tori and I only dated for a few weeks. It was during my first year. A friend set us up and, yes, she was the one who broke it off. But it was clear that it wouldn’t work. We couldn’t have been more different. I did see her a lot for a few years after that…” Simon caught himself – that hadn’t come out right. “I mean, I saw her around, not saw saw her, not like dating. We had classes together, labs and study groups. It was clear that she didn’t like me much, and I… honestly, I found her a little annoying. And not very good at surgery. She’s brilliant as far as classwork and incredibly driven, but she just didn’t get surgery.”

Kaylee interrupted him coolly. “Simon, you’re ramblin’.”

“Oh – am I? I’m sorry. I just… I want you to know that what happened between me and Tori is in the past. It isn’t important at all.”

“Course it ain’t important,” Kaylee replied, finally with some expression in her voice. She sounded nothing but amused, and she tossed her head back to smile at him.

Simon found her reaction confusing. “Are you sure?”

“I told you last night – this ain’t gonna get complicated. Got no need for it.”

She took his hand again as if to prove it, but his time her grip was loose and hesitant, allowing him to pull away if he chose. He tightened his grip; that earned him another smile.

“You do think too much,” she said. “We had fun. I’m up to havin’ more fun if you are. Don’t mean nothin’ but that.”

Simon looked at her closely; she seemed sincere and untroubled. And it did make sense. It’d been clear to him for some time that Kaylee had a different view of sex than he did, a much freer one. Still, he couldn’t make himself take her completely at her word. He’d learned the hard way that the things women said often had more meanings than he could see.

“I wonder if Jayne’s back yet,” she mused. “With platinum linin’ his pockets and all.”

“Oh – well, we may not need it,” Simon replied.

“How’s that?”

For the rest of the walk, Simon explained the deal he’d made with Tori. Kaylee’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully, but she only smiled when he finished. “That’s good,” she said. “I’ll be glad to do somethin’ to help the captain, make some use of myself.”

When they got to the ship, they went straight to the galley to check in with everyone else. “Everyone else” turned out to be only Wash and River; Jayne was still out doing his job as a salesman. Since Simon had been effectively absent for most of the day as well – he’d done little but catch up on missed sleep – River had been Wash’s sole company for several hours now. This had apparently had an effect on the pilot; he jumped up and offered lukewarm leftovers of rice soup as soon as Simon and Kaylee came in. The pilot was clearly eager for new company at the dinner table

River was less willing to socialize. She turned away from the remains of her own soup to sit sideways in her chair while Simon told of his meeting with Tori. Simon watched his sister as he spoke; she was restless, and kept turning side to side and uncrossing and recrossing her feet, like she wanted to jump up and start dancing like a fiend.

“Tomorrow, then?” she asked as soon as he finished telling the news. “Done tomorrow?”

“I hope so,” Simon replied.

River looked down at her hands. “Hurry,” she said in a small voice. “Have to hurry. Time is precious.”

“Of course, honey…” Kaylee said. She reached out to touch River’s arm, but River was up already. She rushed out the aft hatch with her head down and her hands clenched at her sides, disappearing toward the dormitories.

Wash was called away not much later by the comm system, an unusually complicated pattern of chirps. The pilot perked up as soon as he heard it. “That’s Zoë!” he said, then he shook his head. “She’s not supposed to wave…” He hurried out the fore hatch.

Which left Simon and Kaylee alone, sitting next to each other at the table, empty soup bowls in front of them. It might have been awkward, but Simon was too busy watching after Wash, waiting to hear if some emergency had prompted Zoë’s wave. The minutes ticked by and the pilot didn’t return. It must have been just a check-in call, a need to chat.

Awkwardness descended.

“We’ll have to be up early tomorrow,” Simon said. “It’s been a few long days for you. You must be tired.”

Kaylee shrugged. “Ain’t a big deal. I been without sleep before. How `bout you? You catch up on your z’s today?”

“Yes. I napped… for most of the day, actually.”

“So you ain’t tired now?”

Simon wasn’t sure if that question had more meaning than the obvious, so he only shrugged, unwilling to commit either way. He couldn’t deny that he’d welcome a second chance with Kaylee, a repeat of last night with a bit more awareness and control on his own part, but he’d understand if she was having second thoughts. The meeting with Tori must have bothered her; he couldn’t imagine that it hadn’t, no matter what she said. Anyway, perhaps it wasn’t the best time to be carrying on with this. Tomorrow would be an early day and a long one, and likely to add even more stress to the situation. Tori wasn’t an easy woman to get along with.

Kaylee, it seemed, suffered from none of Simon’s indecision. Despite his lukewarm response, she pushed her chair back and rose so she could step over his knees and slide between him and the table. She settled right onto his lap, straddling and facing him.

“Well, ain’t I lucky?” she said. “I got me a doctor who ain’t tired.”

There’s definitely something to be said for decisiveness, Simon thought as Kaylee’s mouth devoured his. It was a relief to have this issue settled for him, his doubts swept aside by Kaylee’s confident hands and mouth and the press of her thighs against the outside of his. Just like he had last night, he reveled in giving in to her, to not having to reason things out. Kaylee wanted to do it – who was he to argue?

As for this happening here, in the dining room… it made him feel like a teenager, making out carelessly where they might get caught. In his former life, this was something that only the “bad” kids would risk, and it was certainly nothing he’d have ever done himself. Oddly, he found that he liked it. He liked it a lot, until Kaylee reached down and started opening his pants.

Simon gasped and pulled away from her kiss. “No…. Not here!”

Kaylee only grinned at him. “Why not?”

Why not? Are you serious? What about Wash?” He tried to gently push her hands away. She took it as a game.

“Busy. Talkin’ to his wife. Now let me just – ”

He didn’t let her; he held his pants tightly closed. “Jayne could come back!”

She gave up and leaned forward to nibble his ear; her breath tickled him as she laughed. “Seein’ something like what I got in mind would probably make Jayne’s day.”

He didn’t think she was serious (he certainly hoped not), but still Simon didn’t find her words near as humorous as she did. In fact, it completely horrified him, enough to mar his enjoyment of her teeth working his earlobe. He battled to control his body’s reaction, to inject some sense into this situation.

“Are you… are you insane? This is not… this is definitely not something I want to share with Jayne.”

Kaylee pulled back again. “Oh come on. It ain’t like you’re the one needin’ to get nekkid to make it work.” She put her a hand to her own belt as to make it clear what she meant, and, despite himself, the picture that came to Simon’s mind had an immediate effect on his body.

Still, he caught her wrist to stop her. He felt like a killjoy, the boring, controlled one as he’d so often been in his life, but he knew his own limits. Kissing was one thing, but he wasn’t about to have sex at the dining room table.

“We can’t,” he said firmly.

“But don’t you wanna?” she asked. She slid her free hand down his stomach, but he caught that too. He knew what she was out to do – answer her own question. She got to him anyway. She pressed her body flush against his and slid her hips forward.

“Hmm, Doctor Tam. I thinkin’ if you say you don’t wanna, I got proof the other way.”

He couldn’t deny it, and he couldn’t refuse another heated kiss. His body was certainly happy with this stage of things, the kissing and the touching and the… rubbing. The imagining what could come next if Kaylee had her way. He liked all of that, liked how it made him feel light-headed and out of control.

But actually doing it? Actually carrying through with this? Good lord, what if River walked in?

The thought broke through Simon’s lust like a dull blade. Only a few days ago he’d been telling River that sex was something personal, something special. It wasn’t to be done lightly. What if his sister saw him here, mostly clothed, rutting away at the dining room table? Like some mindless slave to his hormones?

“Simon?” Kaylee asked. Her voice was serious now, and she pulled back from a kiss that he realized he hadn’t been returning at all. “Simon, you all right?”

He met her eyes and saw genuine worry; the change in his mental state hadn’t passed her notice.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just… not here, all right?”

She nodded earnestly and rubbed a hand on his arm gently, like she was comforting him. “I’m sorry. I was just playin’. I didn’t mean to push you too much. We can go to my bunk – it’s plenty private there.”

“It’s okay. Give me a minute. You know…” He nodded vaguely down toward his lap.

Kaylee smiled and laid a hand on his cheek. “Simon. Ain’t no one gonna see. And even if they did, that ain’t a thing to be embarrassed over.”

“Kaylee… I just…” I don’t have sex like this! he thought, but he didn’t know how to say it without sounding judgmental. I use a bedroom. I don’t announce it. I don’t show off. I don’t share the details with the crew, with my sister…

Oh, shè jì shàng. River’s a reader.

“Come on,” Kaylee said. She climbed off his lap but kept ahold of his hand to pull him after her.

What if right now she’s aware, she’s…

He couldn’t even think of it; even the possibility made him sick. His sex life should be private. His sex life had to be private – especially from his own sister.

His mood was pretty much ruined, but Kaylee pulled him toward her bunk and he followed. What else could he do? How could he refuse her without it being an insult?

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate “So?” Zoë asked.

Simon cleared his throat. “So Tori agreed to give us the Takara cap,” he explained, “if I’d see her patients and Kaylee would help with putting the thing together. We got back to the ship that night, and Jayne wasn’t back yet. We went to bed. It was going to be an early morning at the clinic.”

He raised his eyes to Zoë. No doubt, she saw right through him.

“And how’d that go?”

That was an alarming question. “Uh – what?”

“Working with this Tori woman. How’d that go?”

Simon blew out a quick breath and wiped a hand over his face. He met Kaylee’s eyes and she smiled at him. He’d managed, that night. He hadn’t recaptured the abandon he’d initially felt at the dining room table, but he’d managed. Maybe he’d even done all right, in the end. He’d had his knowledge to fall back on, after all. His expertise.

“I was the one to work with Tori,” Kaylee said, speaking up into the silence. “Maybe I ought’a tell about it.”

Simon felt nothing but gratitude when Zoë’s focus shifted. He had time to recollect himself while Kaylee told of the second of three days that Serenity’s crew had passed on Highgate.

* * *

Translations

dŏng ma: understand?
Shăo luō suō: shut up
shè jì shàng: gods above
* * *

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COMMENTS

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 8:02 AM

MAL4PREZ


Long time no post. Actually, I went a few weeks without looking at my fic or thinking about plot issues at all, which is rare! I’ve been very, very busy. I tried to get back into it yesterday but I’m completely stuck with certain events that happen a few chapters from now. Wish I could just skip them! I may yet, if I can find a way…

Anyhow, I don’t know what’s up, but everytime I write a chapter from Simon’s POV it gets really long and involves sex angst. OK, this is only the second Simon chapter I’ve written, but still. It’s very odd! I guess he just seems so uptight. I can’t see that good sex would just happen for him.

After the last chapter, Platonist asked: “Is Mal’s memory loss due to a virus, a drug, an implant, or did having sex with Inara simply blow his mind (no pun intended)?” That would be some sex LOL! Nah, it was the Fish Job mindfry thing, which Simon kind of got into explaining at some point many many chapters ago. Somewhere in Book I. Who can remember, it’s been so long! I will get back to Mal’s condition, eventually.

“Is Simon going to fix him, and will Inara ever get to see him alive again?” I won't be answering this LOL! Except to say that I’m trying to get back to Inara, really I am! It’s the block I got in chapters 17-18 that’s killing me! Must get past it....

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 12:45 PM

COZEN


"If you're willing to take chances, risk ridicule, and push the envelope, and if you've managed to hold on to your imagination (the single most important quality a writer can possess, even slightly more important than an itchy curiosity and a sense of humor), then you can dissolve any so-called block simply by imagining extraordinary, heretofore unthinkable solutions, and/or by playing with around uninhibitedly with language. You can imagine or word-play your way out of any impasse. That's assuming, of course, that you're talented in the first place."

- Tom Robbins

You're talented. QED

- cozen

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 12:48 PM

COZEN


Um, "around with", yeah.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 1:00 PM

KATESFRIEND


Poor Simon. He tries soooo hard to please everybody but himself. Kind of surprised Zoe lost patience when she did, and glad Book was there to cover for her. This is the first time in a very long time that Mal is actually getting some help. This chapter could have been twice as long to answer the rest of the questions you have up in the air right now. Good luck juggling your time!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 4:41 PM

HOMESPUN


>“And how’d that go?”<
asldkfjsldkfjsdlfkj!

I'm sorry you're having blocks. The combination of blocks and writing Simon got me stuck for seven months, I feel your pain. I love adult Zoe handling "young" Mal, and I could see her snapping at him. And I love that it's Kaylee he turns to for an eye-rolling partner.

>He looked around the purple room again, then focused on Zoë and lowered his voice. “You have noticed, right? Them ladies out there wearin’ naught but their skivvies, and a room like this… You know what kind’a house we’re in?”<
Oh, young Mal. Thanks for providing the amusement amidst the the angst and drama. Always do a happy dance when you post.

Thursday, February 7, 2008 2:37 PM

LEIASKY


Hmm, why do I think Tori's 'concern' for Simon's relationship with Kaylee is fake? She rubs me the wrong way!

I get the feeling Simon's got a lot of loosening up to do being involved with Kaylee. Communication works well . . .

So - how long will it take for the 'cap' to work on Mal?


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