Title: Piecing it Together
Rating: PG
Summary: Things are starting to fall into place.

"Nara?" The voice is soft, hesitant, and if Inara had been any less aware of her surroundings she wouldn't have heard it.

"Come in," she says, wondering what brings Kaylee to her shuttle this early.

"Sorry for botherin' you," Kaylee says, stepping inside. "Did I wake you?"

Inara smiles. "Not at all. Come sit down, mei mei. Would you like some tea?" Even as she heats water and strains the leaves, her mind is racing, trying to figure out what's wrong.

Kaylee sits down, accepting the cup Inara hands her. "Couldn't sleep," she says, sipping her tea.

"I know that feeling." And she does; Inara has had her share of sleepless nights, although you'd never know it to look at her. Then again, that's her job. A Companion never looks anything but her best.

Kaylee smiles a little. Inara sets her cup down, knowing that whatever's wrong with Kaylee isn't going to come out easily. "Would you like me to brush your hair?" she asks.

"That'd be nice," Kaylee admits.

"You really do have lovely hair." Inara gets her brushes and sits down beside Kaylee, running the brush through her hair gently. "I could braid it for you, if you like."

Kaylee shrugs. "Inara--why would someone want to hurt themselves?" she asks.

Inara's glad Kaylee can't see her face before she gets the surprise hidden. "Any number of reasons, I suppose," she says, brushing Kaylee's hair in a steady rhythm. "The most likely being that they feel they deserve pain or punishment of some kind. Sometimes people hurt themselves because it's easier to deal with the physical pain than it is to work through an emotional problem. Why do you ask?"

She's half-expecting it, so when Kaylee turns, crumpling into her arms, Inara holds her, stroking her hair. "What is it, mei mei?"

The words are a little garbled, and Inara has to ask Kaylee to repeat herself once or twice, but eventually the whole story spills out. "He was just so--he couldn't even *look* at me, Nara," Kaylee says. "Like he was that ashamed." She scrubs at her eyes, sniffling.

"He probably was," Inara says gently. "And it had nothing to do with you. This is a secret Simon's been keeping for a very long time, one he didn't want anyone to find out about." Inwardly, her heart feels as though someone ripped it in half, and she doesn't know if it's because of Simon--or because of Mal and Simon.

"I know." Kaylee sighs. "It just hurts, because he's all torn up about it and I can't do anything to fix him."

"Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to let them find their own way to heal," Inara tells her.

"Cap'n said not to blame Simon," Kaylee admits. "Course, that was after I decked him. Simon, that is--I wouldn't ever hit the cap'n."

"Why did he say that?"

"Cause it wasn't Simon who started this."

Inara's stomach twists painfully. She has no right to be upset and she knows it. God knows she's insisted there be nothing but a professional accord between herself and Mal since the beginning. Still, though--she couldn't help but feeling as though there was something more there. As if she and Mal could maybe, one day...

Well. No sense in going there. "Did he say why?" she asks, grateful to the training that keeps her voice even.

"Yeah." Kaylee pulls away, looking at Inara out of red-rimmed eyes. "Said there wasn't anyone else 'board *Serenity* that Simon'd accept help from. And he said that Simon needed help."

It makes sense, Inara thinks. Mal takes care of his own. He always has. "Just because they're together now doesn't mean they will be in future," she says, unsure who she's trying to reassure.

"Maybe." Kaylee doesn't look convinced. "But Cap'n never beds with the crew, Inara. So for him to be takin' up with Simon--it just don't make sense."

"Affairs of the heart seldom do," she says, puzzling over it herself. But Kaylee's right--it doesn't. Unless Simon was that far down--Inara keeps her distress from showing, but it takes more of an effort than she likes. Perhaps she'd better talk with Simon, find out what's going on.

"I guess." Kaylee shrugs. "I should go--Cap wants to make it to Demeter in a day, which means I gotta check the engines, make sure they can take the push." She hugs Inara briefly. "Thanks for listening, Inara."

"Anytime, mei mei." Inara smiles warmly as Kaylee leaves. Once the girl's gone, she rises, settling her skirts. It's early yet, but Simon's generally up by now.

____________________________

She's in luck; Simon's in the kitchen, reading a book. "Good morning," she says, pouring herself a cup of tea.

"Morning, at any rate." Simon smiles a little as she sits down, putting his book aside. "What are you doing up at this hour?"

Inara decides to be direct. "I just spoke with Kaylee."

"I see." Simon leans back, looking resigned. Inara sees the faint bruise on his jaw where Kaylee must have hit him. "I suppose she told you everything, then."

She nods, hands folded around her cup. "She's upset, Simon."

"I know." Simon sighs. "But there's nothing I can do."

"She's not upset with you," Inara tells him. "She's upset for you."

"Either way, I can't fix it."

There's something inherently sad about Simon and Kaylee using the same phrase with regards to the other. "Simon--" Inara hesitates, trying to find the right words. Before she can come up with them, Mal walks in. He nods at them both, going to fix himself some breakfast.

"I appreciate your concern, Inara, but it's really fine."

"What's fine?" Mal sits down at the table with a bowl of what looks like protein cubes in milk.

"Kaylee came to see me," she explains.

He nods. "She all right?"

"She will be." Inara sips her tea, using the pause to study Mal's body language. It's rather difficult, actually, which is a surprise--Mal's generally fairly easy to read if you know how to look. And Inara does; she's been looking since she rented the shuttle.

Today, though, all she's getting from Mal is a sense of concern, most likely directed at Kaylee and Simon. If she didn't already know what was between him and Simon, she'd be hard-pressed to identify anything more than the cordial relationship between the ship's doctor and its captain.

She rises, going to get more tea. "Will we be on Demeter long?" she asks, sitting down again.

"Shouldn't, no. We've got a line on a job once we get there that'll take us to Astarte." Mal raises an eyebrow. "Should be respectable enough for you."

It is, actually--Inara has a few clients on Astarte. She'll have to check and see about setting up appointments. "You're moving up in the world," she says sweetly, unable to hide the sting. "I must admit to being surprised."

Mal doesn't respond to her jibe, leaving Inara feeling vaguely ashamed. Something's off between them, which leaves her feeling strangely adrift. Mal's sarcasm is one of the things she's come to depend on, oddly enough, and if she can't count on it, she needs to rethink where she stands in relation to him.

Simon rises, picking up his book. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be in the infirmary," he says quietly.

The look that passes between him and Mal is so brief Inara would have missed it if she hadn't been looking for it. It's a question on Mal's part and a reassurance on Simon's, and it leaves her feeling even more unsettled than earlier. She's never seen Mal look at someone with that level of concern before; she's not sure what it means.

Simon leaves quietly, his book tucked under one arm. As he exits, Zoe and Wash come in, Wash even more rumpled than usual. "Ah, captain, my blessed captain," Wash says cheerfully, going to make himself some breakfast. "Have I mentioned yet how much I love this planet?"

Zoe laughs and gets herself something to drink, then slides into her seat at the table. "Where'd everyone go last night? We turned around and all of a sudden there wasn't anyone there but us."

"There was a bit of a fuss," Mal says briefly.

"Something happen?" Wash asks. "Everyone all right?"

"Should be now." Mal doesn't elaborate.

"Why do I feel like I'm missing something?" Wash asks the room in general.

"Probably because you are, sweetie." Zoe kisses him on the cheek. "Don't worry about it."

"Sure, don't worry about it. Just me, out of the loop as usual," Wash grumbles good-naturedly.

Inara sees the look pass between Zoe and Mal and knows that Mal will fill her and Wash in later. She rises, knowing it's her presence that's keeping Mal from saying anything. "I'll be in my shuttle," she says.

Mal nods. "We should reach Demeter in about twelve hours."

"That's fine." She leaves in a satin rustle of skirts, taking her teacup with her.

____________________________

"So what happened?" Zoe asks once she's gone.

Mal leans back in his chair. He doesn't particularly want to tell this story but it has to get told. "Doctor's got some scars on his chest," he says, hoping he can do this without losing his temper. "Self-inflicted. Kaylee bumped into him in the water, felt 'em, Jayne didn't let it drop, and next thing you know..." He shrugs.

"Wu de ma," Wash says, looking horrified. "Doc's a cutter?"

"Was." Mal's tone is sharper than he wants it to be. He takes a deep breath and forces himself to relax.

Wash turns to Zoe. "You knew about this," he says, and Mal braces himself for a confrontation.

She nods, looking down at the table. "River said something and I put it together."

"And you didn't *tell* me because..." Wash trails off, waiting for her explanation.

"Wasn't mine to tell," Zoe says.

Wash mutters something under his breath, but subsides. "He gonna be all right?" he asks instead, looking at Mal.

"Think so. He's stronger than he looks."

"He'd have to be, to do what he's done," Wash says, shaking his head. "Poor guy."

The tension in the room is easing, much to Mal's relief. "Yeah. Wash, we can make it to Demeter in about twelve hours, right?"

"I'll have to check with Kaylee, but engines should be fine with it." Wash scrapes the last of his breakfast out of his bowl, swallowing quickly. "You want to take off soon?"

"Soon as possible. This job ain't paying us enough to dawdle on it and the one on Astarte looks to be a bit more lucrative." Mal smiles briefly. "Legal, even."

"Isn't that a change." Wash stands up, taking his bowl to the sink. "We should be able to lift off in half an hour."

"Good." Mal watches Wash leave and sighs to himself.

"He knows about you and the doc," Zoe says once Wash is gone. "Asked me about it yesterday."

"And you didn't see fit to pass on this information?" Mal asks tiredly.

"Didn't rightly get a chance, sir," Zoe points out. "Besides, Wash'll keep quiet. Not that there's much to keep quiet about anymore. Shepherd's the only one who doesn't know, isn't he?"

"I'm not sure what he knows," Mal admits. "And Jayne only knows about the scars."

"That won't last long," Zoe says dryly.

Mal sighs, nodding. "I know." *Just as well our next couple of jobs look to be smooth. Not much else on this boat is at the moment.*

____________________________

"Be with you in a moment," Simon murmurs to the unknown person behind him as he finishes the set of commands he's typing into the computer.

"No rush." The voice belongs to the shepherd, which is both a relief and a worry. Relief, because the shepherd's unlikely to be in the infirmary for medical treatment. Worry, for the same reason.

Simon hits enter and turns around, leaning back against the counter. "Something I can help you with?" he asks.

Book shrugs. "I'm not quite sure," he says. "I couldn't help but notice that you, Kaylee, Jayne, and the captain all left the beach rather abruptly last night. Is everything all right?"

He barely manages to keep from breaking into semi-hysterical laughter. *Shepherd, you have no idea.* "I believe so," he says instead.

"Mm." Book nods, making no move to leave. "The captain's a good man," he says instead, surprising Simon. "Very protective of what he considers his."

"Yes, I suppose so." *'You're part of my crew. And I take care of my crew.'*

Book nods again. "It would be...unlike him to get involved with a crew member--unless there were rather extenuating circumstances."

"I suppose it would be," Simon murmurs. The computer beeps, telling him it's done processing his data. He turns back to it with relief, seeing what it's come up with. Book's dancing around something and Simon just doesn't have the energy for verbal fencing this morning. He's tired; oddly, it's probably because he slept well last night. One night--well, two if he counts the night before--of good sleep don't make up for years of deprivation.

"Would you care to talk about them?"

"Pardon?" Simon says reflexively.

"The extenuating circumstances that led to you and the captain becoming involved. Would you care to talk about them?" Book asks. He sounds like he's discussing the possibilities for dinner. *Molded protein or molded protein? And by the way, why are you sleeping with the captain?*

"We're--we're not--" Simon stops, turning around. "Where did you get this information?"

"Your sister said something to me last night, and although it was rather cryptic, it made sense once I had the proper context."

"What was that context?"

"I happened to see you climbing down the ladder to the captain's bunk last night."

Simon sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Lovely," he mutters. He knew this was coming--a ship the size of *Serenity* doesn't lend itself to keeping secrets. Especially not with the particular crew of this ship.

It still doesn't mean he has to like it.

"I'm not going to lecture you, unless you'd rather I did," Book says. "I just thought you might want to talk about it."

He has to admit, he's tempted. The shepherd's a good man, one who won't judge him for his actions. But talking to Book would involve explaining the scars, and Simon just can't bring himself to do that again. "No, thank you," he says, dropping his hand. "I'm fine."

Book nods. "All right." He frowns a little. "What happened to your jaw?"

Simon raises a hand to the bruise a little self-consciously. "Kaylee happened," he says wryly.

"Oh dear." Book's eyes widen momentarily. "I take it she wasn't pleased to discover the news?"

"She wasn't, no." Simon forces himself to lower his hand again. "But I think we've reached an understanding."

"I hope so. For both your sakes."

"As do I."

Simon falls silent, hearing the click of the comm. "All right, folks," Mal says, "we're takin' off. Should reach Demeter in about twelve hours if everything's smooth." The comm clicks off, replaced by the rumble of *Serenity*'s engines as she prepares for lift-off.

"I'll be in the lounge if you wish to talk," Book says, turning to leave. Simon nods, although he has no intention of taking the shepherd up on his offer.

____________________________

Kaylee bites her lip nervously and thinks about going to the infirmary. Simon's not mad at her, which is something, but she doesn't think he's all that comfortable around her either. She wants to fix it, but Simon ain't like *Serenity*. Not like her girl, where it just takes a little ingenuity and some grease and she keeps flying. Simon's all sorts of complicated and she just doesn't have what it takes to make him better.

Cap'n does, which is something. It hurts, she ain't gonna pretend that it doesn't, but it's also some sort of comfort. The cap's been alone for a long, long while--since before she came on board, that's for sure. Sometimes Kaylee wonders if there was ever anything between him and Zoe, during the war, but she doesn't think there was. She's glad he found someone, even if he and Simon are both insisting that's not what it is.

So she's glad, sort of. Mostly. If she ignores the part of her that still wishes Simon had come to her bed, instead of letting the captain into his.

"Story time?" River asks, popping into the engine room. "Simon never read more last night."

"No, he didn't," Kaylee agrees. "Think we should go find him, make him read to us?" She's grateful for River's presence; it's jolted her out of her own thoughts and made the thought of talking to Simon much easier.

River nods. "He read me the story when we were little, but I don't remember it." River looks down, scuffing one boot against the floor. "I don't remember lots of things and some of what I do is all wrong."

Kaylee wraps an arm around River's shoulders, hugging her. "So we'll just get him to read it again," she says. "C'mon."

River flashes her a grin. "Race you!" She takes off, giggling, and Kaylee has to laugh as she chases after her friend.

"Simon!" River calls, stopping just outside the infirmary. She won't go in there unless she absolutely has to--not that Kaylee can blame her. "Simon, read to us!"

He comes to the door, looking distracted. "What, mei mei?"

River folds her arms across her chest. "Read to us," she insists. "You said you would."

"Ah--so I did. Just give me a second, here..." Simon trails off as he types something into the infirmary computer before shutting it down. "Do you have the book?"

"It's in the lounge."

The three of them settle down in the lounge, River in Simon's lap and Kaylee curled up on the other end of the couch. "Will we disturb you, Shepherd?" Simon asks.

Book smiles. "Not at all, if you don't mind me listening in."

"He reads real pretty," Kaylee says, smiling a little at Simon. To her relief, he smiles back before opening the book.

Kaylee's vaguely aware of other people coming into the room while Simon's reading, but most of her attention's focused on the story and the way Simon makes it come alive, making River giggle with the different voices he uses. Her pa used to read to them after supper but it was usually Bible stuff, nothing like this.

Eventually, Simon stops, claiming his throat's too dry to continue. Kaylee looks up, realizing that everyone except Inara's in the room, all listening intently. Even Jayne's there, although he leaves in a hurry when Simon looks at him. "Where'd you say that story was from again?" Mal asks, leaning against the wall.

"Ah--it's a fantasy story. From Earth-that-was. Written sometime in the twentieth century, I believe."

Mal nods. "Wouldn't mind hearing more of it," he admits.

"Neither would I." Zoe gives Simon a brief smile.

"Ah--well--if you're interested, I suppose I could read more after dinner," Simon says, his face turning pink.

"That'd be shiny." Kaylee grins at the thought, seeing Simon return her smile a little hesitantly.

"But until then..." Mal looks around meaningfully. Wash grumbles but he and Zoe head for the bridge.

"River, you want to help me out in the engine room?" Kaylee asks, getting to her feet. She likes River's company and the other girl is pretty good at fixing things--or at least pointing them out so Kaylee can fix them.

River nods, smiling. "Shiny," she says, getting to her feet. Kaylee laughs and the two of them leave, playfully jostling each other on the way.

____________________________

Simon puts a marker in the book and closes it, setting it aside until later. When he looks up, Mal's still standing there, leaning against the wall. "Is something wrong, Captain?" he asks, keenly aware that Book is still there, even though he seems to be engrossed in his Bible.

"I'd prefer it if you and your sister stayed on the ship when we reach Demeter," Mal says. "There's an Alliance presence there and I'd just as soon not risk trouble. We won't be there more than a few hours anyway, but I'd rather not tempt anything."

"Of course." Simon flinches inwardly, wondering if he'll ever get over the instinctive terror that the word 'Alliance' strikes in him. The thought of falling into their grasp again, of them getting their hands on River--he shudders, trying to push it away.

"Ain't nothing gonna happen," Mal says, seeing the shudder. "Just being careful."

"What about Astarte?" Simon asks. His voice is steady, thankfully.

Mal thinks for a moment, tilting his head to the side. "Astarte's kind of self-governed. Last I heard the Feds weren't taking much of an interest in it. Don't know how long we'll be there, though--depends on what kind of price we get for the cargo on Demeter and what we'll be taking there."

Simon nods. The plan, as far as he understands it, is to take their current shipment of cargo to Demeter, sell half of it for hard coin and trade the rest. What they do trade they'll take to Astarte, where they can get a better price for it. "What are we transporting, again?" he asks.

"To Demeter?" Mal looks surprised at Simon's interest. "Seeds, grains--crop stuffs, mainly. And some supplements for the soil."

"And to Astarte?"

Mal grins. "Whatever we can trade for on Demeter that they'll have use for."

"So in other words, we don't know yet," Simon says wryly.

"Pretty much," Mal agrees. "Though I have some thoughts. Astarte does all right for itself in terms of food, but they're a metal-poor planet. So anything along those lines fetches a pretty high price--ore, refined metal, even scrap."

It makes sense, which isn't surprising. Mal's instinct on lucrative jobs is good; it's just everything else that gets in the way. "We've still got a while before we reach Demeter," Simon says, not sure why.

"That we do." Mal sits down at the table, one arm draped over the back of his chair. "You play chess?"

Halfway through the third game, the comm clicks on. "Mal, we could use you up here," Wash says.

Mal's out of his chair before Wash finishes speaking. "Everything okay?" he asks.

"Yeah, we just got a wave from Jen Yao's people. Didn't think we were close enough for that, but what do you know?"

"Be right up." Mal clicks off the comm. "Finish this later?" he asks, already halfway out the door.

____________________________

The rest of the ride to Demeter is quiet; Mal sets up a meet with Jen Yao and her people fairly easily, for which he's glad. Yao has a reputation for being like poisoned honey if you get on her bad side. Mal has no intention of getting on her bad side; he's got goods for her, she's got platinum for him. No tricks, just a simple deal. Hopefully she'll see it the same way.

"Zoe, you'll come with me. Don't think we need Jayne until it's time to move the cargo," Mal says when they're about to land.

She nods. "Sounds good, sir."

"Everyone else'll stay on board. We're only going to be here an hour, two max. Just long enough to refuel and make the deal." Mal rubs the back of his neck. "Alliance planets make me itchy," he mutters.

"You're not the only one, sir," Zoe tells him.

"And we are clear to land," Wash says, interrupting. "Three, two...and down."

"Nice landing." Mal hits the comm. "Okay, people, we're here. No reason for anyone to leave the ship, so don't. Jayne, get the cargo ready--Zoe and I'll be back for it once we get paid." He clicks it off and turns to Zoe, who pushes away from the console. "Ready?"

Jen Yao's headquarters look like nothing so much as a brothel, Mal thinks to himself. Satin drapes and cushions everywhere--does the woman not believe in actual furniture? He sits on a fat cushion, Zoe preferring to stand at his shoulder.

"Captain Reynolds," Yao says with a slow smile. She's stretched out on a low couch, one hand holding an enameled cigarette holder. Her dress is green satin and harmonizes with the blue of the couch cushions--Mal wonders absently if she did it on purpose. "Welcome to Demeter."

He nods. "Thank you."

Yao takes a long drag of the cigarette and sits up, her dress falling open to reveal a slit nearly all the way up her left thigh. Mal pointedly doesn't look. "Ah, a gentleman," she says lightly. "I appreciate that."

Mal hides a smirk. It's not that he's a gentleman, it's that he's smart enough to recognize a test when he sees one. Yao might have traded on her body to get where she is now, but Mal's certain that if he had looked at it she would have found a reason to cancel the deal. He's suddenly glad he didn't bring Jayne along.

Abruptly, she hands the holder to one of her flunkies, her mood changing in an instant from languid to complete business. "I am prepared to offer you twenty-five platinum for each case of seeds and twenty for each case of soil supplements," she says briskly.

It's a fair deal, but Mal knows the rules. He shakes his head. "Thirty-five for the seeds and thirty for the supplements," he says. "And you'll trade us the remaining cases for iron ingots."

Yao laughs. "You have forty cases in total--thirty of seeds and ten of supplements. I will trade for five of each at that price."

Something's not right here, Mal thinks uneasily. The deal's too good. He decides to push it a little more, seeing what he can get out of it. "If you'll trade us for ten cases of seeds and five of supplements, I think I can go to thirty and twenty-five," he says. "But it's a case for a case."

Slowly, Yao nods. "For iron ore, yes. For ingots, no."

Astarte will still take the ore, Mal knows--not necessarily for as much, but they'll take it. "Iron ore it is, then," he says. "Do we have a deal?"

"We do indeed, Captain Reynolds." Yao holds out her hand and they shake briefly. Mal can't shake the nagging feeling that he's just made a mistake somewhere, but he doesn't know what it is. The deal's a good one--better than he'd expected, actually.

Maybe that's it. He's not used to having deals go this smoothly or this well.

"My associate Kim will assist you in the transfer of cargo," Yao says. She motions with her hand and a tall man steps forward, face impassive.

"Payment first," Mal says.

"Coin now. You'll get the ore once I get the goods." Yao opens a small box, counting stacks of platinum into a velvet bag. "There," she says in satisfaction, handing Mal the bag.

He hands the bag to Zoe, who tucks it away. "If you'll follow me, then," he says to Kim, standing as gracefully as he can.

Jayne's got the cargo loaded on the mule; once Mal and Zoe get back on the ship, Jayne and Kim head off to trade it for the ore. "I don't like it," Mal says when they're gone. "Something doesn't add up here."

"It added up fine to me, sir," Zoe says, handing him the bag. "One thousand twenty-five platinum."

"Yeah, that's the problem. She should have paid us less than that." Mal shakes his head. "Check the Cortex, would you? Find out if there's some sort of problems on Astarte."

Zoe's expression says that she plainly thinks he's an idiot, but she nods and heads off.

Maybe it's nothing. Maybe there are problems on Demeter he doesn't know about and Yao was more desperate for the goods than he'd thought. Maybe he's just making a big deal out of nothing.

But he can't stop himself from pacing impatiently, waiting for Jayne to get back. He should have gone with Jayne, made sure the cargo's what Yao said it would be.

And where the hell is--no, not time to worry yet. Jayne's only been gone ten minutes, not nearly enough time to exchange goods and come back. Mal forces himself to take a deep breath and tries to shake off the feeling that he's just done something incredibly stupid. Even if he has, there's nothing he can do about it now.

It's about forty-five minutes later when Jayne returns, the mule driving slower than usual due to the weight of the cargo. "I checked 'em, Mal," Jayne says, swinging off the mule and hitting the ramp closure. "Iron ore, good quality, all of 'em. You wanna help me get 'em stowed?"

"Yeah." Mal doesn't waste time helping Jayne get the cargo put away, a process that takes a little more time than usual simply because the ore's ruttin' heavy. Once it's done, Jayne goes to put the mule away and Mal hits the comm, wiping sweat off his forehead. "Wash, we ready to go?" he asks.

"On your say so," Wash says cheerfully.

"I say so. Let's get moving."

____________________________

The trip to Astarte will take about a day and a half--Wash pegged it at about forty hours if all goes well and they don't have to make any detours. They've been in space less than two, and Simon's currently wondering how he's going to survive the next thirty-eight.

"Captain!" he says finally, stepping out of the infirmary. Mal starts, turning around to face him. "That's the sixth time since we've taken off that you've passed by. Is there something I can do for you?" *Mal, what the hell is wrong?*

"No, it's--" Mal sighs. "Just jumpy. Something about the deal on Demeter--it's giving me the creeps."

"Why?" Simon's a little concerned; Mal can normally hide nerves better than this.

"Not sure. It went smooth--maybe that's the problem."

"It's about time *something* around here did," Simon points out. Oh, they're in trouble if a job going well makes the captain ready to jump out of his skin.

His dry comment makes Mal smile. "I suppose," Mal admits. "Maybe that's it."

"We--still have a chess game in progress," Simon says. "Would you--would you like to finish it?"

Mal smiles again; Simon can feel the warmth of it. "It's almost dinnertime," he says instead. "Shepherd's cooking tonight so it might even be edible."

"I can only hope," Simon says, glad to see Mal relaxing a bit. "It certainly can't be worse than Zoe's attempt."

"She never could cook." Mal steps closer to Simon, reaching out with one hand and brushing fingers over Simon's cheek. "I'd like to finish that chess game," he murmurs. "In my bunk."

For an instant, Simon freezes. This is new territory for them--they haven't slept together just to sleep together since this started, and Simon's not sure what to make of it. "I--I'd like that," he says, realizing it's the truth. It would be nice to be with Mal, to make love with him without the restraints and the commands.

"After dinner?" Mal asks, and Simon manages a nod.

"Oh--I said I'd read to River and Kaylee and everyone," he says, remembering. "So--after that?"

"Okay." Mal leans down and kisses him, surprising Simon. It's a brief kiss, almost chaste, but Simon can still feel the warmth of Mal's mouth on his when Mal stands up. "C'mon," Mal says lightly. "Let's go find out what Shepherd came up with for dinner."
 
   
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