Title: Knight's Move
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Sometimes games don't go the the way you want them to.


The knock on Inara's shuttle door isn't a surprise; she's been expecting it. The only question is who's *at* the door--it could be Book, or Kaylee, or even Mal, although she doubts that. "Come in," she says politely, arranging herself on the couch in a welcoming fashion.

"You were missed at supper," Book says, carrying a tray. "I thought you might like some food."

She smiles graciously. "Thank you, Shepherd. I appreciate it."

Book sets the tray down, but makes no move to leave. "Is everything all right?" he asks.

"Why wouldn't it be?" Inara asks.

He shrugs. "I'm not sure. Call it a preacher's instinct. You missed some fun after supper, by the way."

"Oh?" Inara uncovers the tray, beginning to eat neatly. The food's good, for once, and she realizes Book must have cooked.

"Apparently Simon used to read to his sister when they were younger. It seems they've resurrected the tradition, only this time his audience is somewhat larger." Book smiles. "I must say, I never thought I'd see Jayne listening that intently to anything that didn't involve money."

Inara has to laugh at that. "Who else is listening? And please, Shepherd, sit down."

He inclines his head, taking a seat opposite her. "Everyone, actually--well, except for yourself. Apparently, River and Kaylee have convinced Simon to make this a nightly routine from now on."

It makes sense--Simon won't deny his sister anything if he thinks it'll help her, and this certainly can't hurt. And she doubts Simon can say no to Kaylee right now; he's too aware of having hurt her. Inara doesn't think Kaylee realizes this--she certainly wouldn't take advantage of it even if she did--but between the two girls, Simon doesn't have a way out. "Perhaps I'll listen in tomorrow," she says, knowing she won't.

"I think you'd enjoy it." Book smiles. "I know I did." For a moment, Book pauses, as if thinking how best to phrase his next statement. "May I ask you a question?" he says finally.

"Certainly."

"Were you--or rather, are you aware of the changed circumstances between the captain and the doctor?"

Now that was a question she wasn't expecting. Inara's grateful, once again, to her training; it allows her to nod without showing surprise or upset. "I was," she says. "Kaylee came to speak to me this morning."

"What do you think of it?" Book asks curiously.

*Oh, Shepherd, don't ask me that. I don't know.* "If they're happy together, then it's a good thing," she says calmly. "Both Mal and Simon have been alone for a long time."

"True, but not quite what I was asking." Book smiles. "Are you all right with it?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" Inara smiles back, sipping her water.

"I'm not sure...I suppose I was concerned over nothing." Book shrugs, rising to his feet. "I just thought I'd ask."

"Shepherd--do you know where I might find the captain?" Inara asks. She does want to talk to him about this, regardless of her personal feelings.

"The last I saw, he and Simon were headed for his quarters to play chess," Book says.

So much for that idea. "Thank you," she says. "And thank you for dinner."

He smiles. "It was my pleasure."

Left alone, Inara allows herself a moment of worry. *Mal, do you know what you're getting yourself into?*

____________________________

"Checkmate."

Simon stares at the chessboard, disbelieving, replaying the last few moves in his head. "Well, fuck," he says, shaking his head.

Mal smiles, gathering up the pieces. "You got distracted. Any reason why?"

*Yes. You're sprawled out on that bed like the living embodiment of sex and tzao gao, all I want to do is drink you in...* "No," Simon says. "I guess I just wasn't paying attention. Rematch?"

"No." Mal smiles, slowly. "Not in the mood for chess."

"Oh?" Simon puts the board on the floor, shifting to his knees.

"C'mere." Mal reaches for him, drawing Simon into his arms. "Thought we could both use this," he says softly, kissing the corner of Simon's mouth.

"Mmm." Simon settles against Mal's chest, one arm around Mal's neck. "You mean, have sex without you tying me up?"

Mal laughs and kisses him again, deeper this time. "Unless you'd rather I did."

"I think..." Simon closes his eyes, amazed at how good he feels, just from the simple comfort of being in Mal's arms. "Not tonight."

"All right." Mal bites his earlobe, making Simon shiver. "What do you want, then?"

Simon opens his eyes, leans forward and kisses Mal briefly. What he wants--he can't say it, can't say the words, so he slides down Mal's body, mouthing his cock through the fabric of his pants. "This," he says, reaching for the button of Mal's pants. "I want this."

"Simon--" Mal's voice is already ragged, and Simon hears him gasp when the pants get unfastened and pushed out of the way.

God, he hasn't done this in so long, not since medacad...Simon cuts off that train of thought, and focuses himself on Mal's cock. They've been sleeping together for over a week now and this is the first chance he's really had to see it. He knows, all too well, what Mal's cock feels like against him and inside him, but this is something different.

Something new.

He takes as much as he can, getting used to the feel of it stretching his mouth, closing his eyes to better focus on it. He hears Mal desperately trying not to make a sound and suddenly decides to make him lose that control, to make him moan. Simon backs off a little, reminding himself how to relax his throat--

--and swallows, his nose buried in the coarse hair at Mal's groin. "Yeh soo--" Mal can't hold back the curse, and it's a good thing Simon was expecting him to arch the way he did. His hands press down on Mal's hips, an unspoken warning to stay where he is. *Don't move, Mal, I'm not strong enough to hold you in place and I *really* don't feel like choking.*

Fortunately, Mal understands, although Simon feels him trembling with the effort it takes to remain still. *Good, oh, so good, Mal...* And it is, it's incredible to feel Mal like this, clinging to his control by the skin of his teeth and all Simon wants to do is push him over that edge, make him come so hard he sees stars.

"*Simon*--" The need in Mal's voice is so incredibly sweet, Simon can't help but respond to it, giving Mal as much as he can until Mal chokes out his name again and comes, pulsing down Simon's throat.

He swallows as best he can, managing not to gag somehow, and sits up, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Mal's sprawled against the bed, looking flushed and sweaty and rather debauched, if Simon does say so himself. "Clothes. Off. Now," Mal says, opening his eyes and sitting up to finish stripping.

Apparently, Mal ordering him around is a turn-on whether he's upset or not, Simon thinks. He swallows reflexively before undressing, barely getting his clothes off before Mal pins him to the bed, his thigh pressing against Simon's cock. "Do I want to know where you learned to do that?" Mal asks, nipping at his neck.

"Medacad," Simon manages, his head falling back.

Mal laughs and licks his throat. "Top three percent of your class in that too?"

"You tell me." Simon raises his hands to Mal's shoulders, running them down Mal's arms and back up again.

"Fishing for compliments?" Mal shakes his head, but he's smiling. "What am I gonna do with you?"

"Whatever you want." Simon leans up for a kiss, trying to pull Mal down on top of him.

"Whatever I want?" Mal grins, pinning Simon's wrists over his head. "Know what I was thinking about when you were reading earlier?"

He shakes his head. "What?"

Mal kisses him, hard and fast. "How much I wanted you like this. Naked and spread out in my bed, hard, just like this." His thigh is rubbing against Simon's cock, making Simon groan and thrust up under him. "Bet I could make you come just like this," Mal says softly. "Think I might, at that."

"Mal..." Simon closes his eyes.

"Oh, yeah," Mal says, keeping a steady rhythm that's almost enough--*almost*. "You gonna come for me, Simon? You gonna spill all over yourself from this? I think you are. I think I could probably talk you into coming, without touchin' you at all. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Like me to tell you what I'm gonna do to you, every inch of the way, so you can feel it before I even put my hands on you? I think I'll have to try that sometime--tie you up and don't touch you, just sit there and tell you what I'm going to do, and see how long it takes you to come. And you'd love every second of it. Maybe at the end I'd put my mouth on you, just so I could taste it when you come. Should I make you beg first? Make you ask me nicely to suck you? Would you like that?"

"Mal--"

"Yeah, I think you would. Just like I think you're gonna come for me now," Mal says matter-of-factly. "Now, Simon."

He doesn't know if it's the words or the rhythm but he comes, shuddering under Mal.

"Good," Mal murmurs, kissing him lightly. He moves off Simon, lying next to him.

"You said--" Simon half-complains when he can speak again.

"I said I wouldn't tie you up. I didn't say I wouldn't tell you what to do." Mal grins, kissing him.

"That's splitting hairs."

"Are you complaining?"

Simon tries to keep a straight face for about ten seconds before he laughs, shaking his head. "No, I guess not."

"Good." Mal picks up someone's discarded shirt and wipes off Simon's stomach, tossing the shirt back on the floor lazily. "Tired?"

"A little."

Mal nods, wrapping an arm around Simon. "Get some sleep. Maybe when you wake up we can have a rematch."

"Chess or sex?" Simon asks, yawning.

"Does it matter?"

____________________________

Jayne's up early, which isn't so unusual. He doesn't always get up before the rest of the crew, but sometimes he likes the peace and quiet of the ship when no one else is around. Not that he'd ever tell anyone that, of course.

He makes himself a cup of chai from his personal stash and takes it to the lounge, stretching out on the couch and relaxing. As he takes his first, satisfying swallow, he sees Simon's book and thinks about looking at it for a moment before passing. For one thing, Simon'd get all pissy if he found out Jayne was reading it, and Jayne's feeling just guilty enough about the whole lake thing to not want to piss the doc off. And for another--he kind of likes hearing Simon read it. Makes it more real, somehow.

About halfway through the cup, he hears footsteps coming from the direction of the crew quarters. He figures it's Mal--captain's usually up early--but to his surprise it's Simon, looking mussed and rumpled like he just tumbled out of bed.

Jayne blinks, looking at the doc a little more carefully. He's wearing his own pants, and he's barefoot, but his shirt's way too big for him and it's not all starched like Simon's shirts usually are. In fact--"Tzao gao," Jayne mutters. That ain't Simon's shirt, it's Mal's.

What the ruttin' hell is Simon doing in Mal's bed?

He takes a swallow of chai, trying to put it together. The best he can figure, Mal felt sorry for the doc because of the cutting. But he didn't think Mal would take up with someone just cause he felt sorry for them. So there's got to be something else there.

"Mornin'," he says finally, just to see how Simon'll react, and has to hide a laugh when Simon jumps, looking nervy as a cat.

"Ah--good morning," he says, pushing his hair off his face. "I was just going to make myself some tea."

Jayne can't hide the smirk. "Looks like you could use some caffeine," he says agreeably, watching Simon flush before getting himself under control. "Mal keep you up late last night?"

Simon freezes for a moment before sighing and putting water up. "I'm not going to dignify that with an answer," he says coolly.

"Lighten up, doc, I ain't askin' for details." It's not a bad idea, but he's on shaky ground with Mal at the moment and Simon-baiting isn't going to help him get off it, especially now that Mal's bedding the doc.

"Thank Heaven for small favors." Simon turns off the heat and makes himself tea, poking at the teaball with a spoon.

"There enough of that for me?" Mal asks, entering the kitchen. He looks less rumpled than Simon, which is a rarity. "Mornin', Jayne."

"Mornin'." Jayne finishes his chai in one long swallow but doesn't get up.

"Um--yes, I think so." Simon moves out of the way, letting Mal make himself some tea. "Sorry for borrowing your shirt," he says in a low voice, almost too low for Jayne to hear. "I couldn't find mine."

Mal smiles--an honest-to-ruttin'-God smile, which Jayne hasn't seen on his face in ages. "It's all right," he says. "Though I'd suggest you change if you don't want everyone on the ship knowing exactly where you were last night."

Simon shrugs, blowing gently on his tea before taking a sip. "Not like they don't already," he points out.

"Yeah, well..." Mal sighs, adding sugar to his tea. "Ship this size, secrets don't stay secrets for long."

"I know." Simon reaches out and touches Mal on the shoulder. "I'm not upset."

For a brief moment, Jayne thinks they're going to kiss. "Ruttin' hell," he says under his breath. Isn't it enough with Zoe and Wash always bein' all gooey? Do the captain and Simon really have to do this?

But they don't kiss. Simon just squeezes Mal's shoulder, once, and lets his hand fall. "I'm going to go change and check on River," he says. Mal nods, sipping his own tea.

Jayne notices Simon's tea mug, still almost full, sitting on the counter after he's gone.

"So," Jayne says, watching Mal take a seat at the table. "You and the doc, huh?"

Mal sighs. "Yes, Jayne." He leans back in his chair.

"This a casual thing or what?"

"Does it matter?"

Jayne shrugs. "Just wonderin' how it's gonna affect the crew if it ends."

"It won't."

"End? Or affect the crew?" Jayne really should know better than to push Mal, but that was just too easy.

"It won't affect the crew," Mal says, each word crisp as one of Simon's collars. "Let it drop, Jayne, it's none of your business anyway."

Jayne hasn't heard Mal that defensive since--well, ever, he thinks. *Tzao gao...Mal, don't you dare go falling in love with him. He's a fugee and he's gonna get us all killed someday, if that sister of his don't do it first.*

Inara glides in before Jayne can say anything. "Good morning," she says, going to make herself some tea. "Captain, I was hoping to speak with you at some point today, if that's possible?"

Mal nods. "Sure. When?"

She thinks for a moment, satin whispering against silk as she fixes herself a mug. "Now would be convenient, actually. In my shuttle?"

He stands, picking up his mug. "Lead on."

____________________________

"What's goin' on?" Mal asks as soon as the door closes behind them.

Inara sits, gesturing for him to take a seat. "I was hoping we could talk about Simon," she says.

"He's a grown man, Inara. He makes his own choices." Mal sits, but it's obvious he doesn't want to.

"I'm well aware of that." Inara sips her tea, stalling for time. "I spoke with Kaylee yesterday, as you know, and our conversation left me rather--worried about Simon."

"So why are you talking to me instead of him?"

Good question. Inara really doesn't have an answer to that. She doesn't want to talk to Mal about Simon, she wants to talk to Mal about *Mal*. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" she says finally.

Mal sets his mug down. "Somehow I don't think you want to talk about Simon," he says evenly.

She sighs. "Mal, I'm worried about both of you. Simon's very fragile right now, and--"

"Why does everyone say that?" Mal interrupts. "He's not, Inara. He's just hit a rough patch."

"Be that as it may, I'm still concerned. It wouldn't be healthy for Simon to transfer all his emotional needs to you."

"And what makes you think that's what he's doing?" Mal asks.

His tone is mild, which unsettles Inara more than his anger would have done. "Simon hasn't had anyone to lean on before, from what I can gather," she says, composing herself. "It would not be...unusual if he turned to you for everything now that he knows he can depend on you." She watches Mal carefully, looking for a reaction and not finding one. "Mal, surely you can see that--"

The door to her shuttle opens and Simon walks in, looking coldly furious. "Jayne told me you were here," he says, folding his arms across his chest. "Normally I wouldn't come in without asking but I figured that if you were going to discuss my life without me I had some small right to be here."

Inara rises. "And what makes you think we were discussing your life?" she asks, equally coolly.

Simon raises one eyebrow. "Weren't you?"

She has no response to that.

"As I thought. In the future, Inara--if you want to ask me about my life or my choices? Ask *me*. Not Mal. He's not my keeper and I don't appreciate you going behind my back like this."

Inara has never seen Simon this angry--he's absolutely furious, she can see it in his eyes--but his control is staggering. It frightens her, more than a little, especially as she thinks of where he must have learned it. "All right," she says, projecting apologies. "I apologize. I shouldn't have asked to speak to Mal and I can reassure you it won't happen again."

"No," Simon says coldly. "It won't." He turns and leaves as abruptly as he entered.

"Fragile, hm?" Mal asks, standing. "I don't think so." He leaves, going after Simon.

Inara's left standing in the middle of her shuttle, wondering exactly how that went so wrong so quickly.

____________________________

"Simon!" Mal finally catches him outside the infirmary.

"Mal--not right now. I need to calm down first." Simon takes a deep breath, practically vibrating with anger. "I'm not angry with you," he says, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes. "I'm just upset in general."

"Why aren't you angry with me?" Mal asks. Simon has every right to be and the fact that he *isn't* worries Mal a little.

"Because I know you." Simon drops his hands, giving Mal a wry smile. "You would have been too polite to tell her you didn't want to talk. Although I'm not entirely clear on why you stayed."

"I was trying to stop her from prying," Mal admits, slightly relieved.

"Did it work?"

Mal shakes his head. "You know Inara. If one tactic doesn't work she'll just try another."

"Companion training," Simon mutters in disgust. Mal blinks in surprise; Simon's never expressed a negative opinion about Inara's choice of careers before.

Then again, she's never tried to interfere in Simon's life quite like this before.

"Seems she's not the only one who's done some interferin' lately," he points out. "Her, Jayne, Zoe--you gonna snap their heads off too?"

"At least Zoe talked *to* me, instead of *about* me," Simon counters. "And Jayne--" He shrugs. "What's done is done."

"That it is." Mal studies him for a moment. "You regrettin' any of this, Simon? Because if you want out, all you have to do is tell me. You know that, right?"

"I know." Simon sighs and steps closer to him. "And if I wanted out, I'd let you know. But I would think that after last night you'd realize I don't." He smiles a little. "Or do I need to suck you off again to prove it?"

It's always a surprise to hear Simon talk like that--he's so refined and cultured most of the time that it never fails to startle Mal when he loosens his tongue. "Not right now, I think," Mal says. "I have...captainy things to do." And if he doesn't, he'll think of some.

Simon smiles again. "I'm sure you do. Just like I have doctor-y things to do as well."

Neither of them moves for a long moment. "Mal--do *you* want out?" Simon asks when it looks like neither one of them is going to move. "This can't be easy for you--I'm a crew member, not to mention a wanted fugitive, and--"

Mal puts a hand over Simon's mouth, effectively silencing him. "You let me worry about that," he says. "If I wanted out, I'd have told you by now."

Simon pushes Mal's hand away. "All right." He smiles a little. "Go do your captainy things. I'll see you at lunch."

"Right." For a moment, Mal debates kissing him, but in the end he just leaves the infirmary quietly, shutting the door after him.

____________________________

Something at lunch isn't adding up and Zoe can't quite put her finger on it. For one thing, Simon's sitting as far away from Inara as he can get, even though it meant taking the seat next to Jayne's. For another, Jayne keeps looking between Simon and the captain like he's trying to figure something out.

Okay, so that one at least makes sense--Jayne found out about the two of them. She can understand that. But she doesn't understand why Simon is so pointedly ignoring Inara and why it's making Mal so edgy. Zoe looks at Kaylee but gets a wide-eyed shrug in response; apparently, Kaylee senses what's going on and doesn't have a clue about it either.

"Too much noise," River's mumbling, fidgeting in her seat. Zoe has no idea what she means; if anything, lunch is quieter than usual.

"What, River?" Simon puts his fork down, turning to his sister. "What's wrong?"

"Too much noise," River complains again. "Jagged and sharp and discordant. No harmony." She presses her hands over her ears, shaking her head. "Too loud, too much...shut up!" she cries, jumping to her feet. "Can't think, can't hear..." She almost knocks over her chair as she runs out of the room.

Simon pinches the bridge of his nose for a brief second before putting down his napkin and standing up. "I'm--" He looks like he's about to apologize for a moment, but doesn't, just goes after River.

"What the hell was that all about?" Jayne grumbles. "Now it's too loud even when it's quiet?" He shakes his head, taking a bite of food.

Zoe has a feeling that it wasn't the verbal noise River was referring to, but she keeps that to herself. The girl's possible psychic ability isn't a topic the crew likes to bring up.

"Nara, you said you got a client on Astarte?" Kaylee asks, trying to lighten the tension in the room.

Inara nods, but she looks distracted. "Depending on how long he contracts for, it may be easier for you to return for me," she says smoothly.

This is generally Mal's cue to make some dismissive comment about Inara's line of work, but he just nods, making Zoe *really* wonder what's going on. "Shouldn't be a problem," he says. "Although depending on how things go on Astarte we may be there for a day or two."

They don't have a contact on Astarte for their goods--it's not somewhere they usually do business. It doesn't mean they won't sell the cargo, it just means it may take longer. *At least Astarte's not a Fed planet. Don't want to think about being stuck on one of those, especially not with the doc and his sister on board.* Zoe puts her chopsticks down, suddenly wondering just what the new dynamic between the captain and the doctor will mean if they run into Alliance trouble.

It's a train of thought she doesn't like.

"Something on your mind, Zoe?" Mal asks, and she realizes she must have let something of what she's thinking show on her face. Also not a good thing.

"Just wondering how long it'll be 'til we hit Astarte, is all," she says casually.

"Another day or so, maybe a little less." Mal's eyes are sharp and she knows he didn't buy her lie, but he'll let it pass for now. "Eager to get there already?"

"I wonder if Astarte has lakes," Wash muses cheerfully.

"Not ones you'd want to swim in. They have to filter all their water to make it safe for drinking--otherwise it's toxic," Inara says.

"Crushed again!" He sags dramatically in his chair. "My heart bleeds at this horror."

Simon, of course, chooses that moment to return. "He's just acting, right?" Simon says, looking at Wash warily.

"My heart has been trampled," Wash proclaims. "There are no lakes on Astarte. No beaches." He sighs theatrically.

"In other words, nothing's wrong." Mal leans back, hooking one arm over the back of his chair. "How's your sister?"

Simon shrugs, sitting down again. "She's all right. I think I convinced her to take a nap."

"You look like you could use one yourself," Kaylee says sympathetically. "Tired?"

Jayne snickers. "Yeah, Doc had a late night." He claps Simon on the back. "Need to work on your stamina?"

Simon drops his head into his hands. "Would anyone *else* like to lecture me, make jokes about my life, or otherwise interfere in it today?" He raises his head, looking directly at Inara. "I'm sure you didn't get to finish your oh-so-concerned speech from earlier--would you like to do it now, so everyone else can agree with you? Or do you just prefer to talk about people when they're not around?"

"Simon!" Kaylee gasps at the same time Inara stands up.

"That was uncalled for," she says, her smooth voice showing traces of anger. "I already apologized for my actions of this morning. If you chose not to accept that, it's your business." Inara leaves, back perfectly straight.

"Simon, that was mean of you," Kaylee says angrily. "I thought Inara was your friend!"

"I don't appreciate being talked about," Simon tells her.

"I'm sure she didn't mean to--" Kaylee begins, but Simon shakes his head.

"Stand up for her all you want, but do it once you know the facts," he says wearily. "I don't care what she *meant* to do, Kaylee--I care that she went behind my back to speak to the captain about me. If Inara has concerns about--" He stumbles for a moment, looking for a word. "--about this," he says finally, gesturing to himself and the captain, "then she should have come to me. She didn't." Simon pinches the bridge of his nose, looking down. "So. Anyone else want to say something?"

There's dead silence in the kitchen; Simon glances around, looking at everyone, but no one says anything. Even Jayne is uncharacteristically subdued, not meeting Simon's eyes.

"In that case--I find I've lost my appetite." Simon leaves.

*Mal, I don't envy you. You've got your hands full and then some with him.* Zoe sighs to herself. She hopes Mal's up to it--she sure as hell wouldn't be, in his place.

Mal doesn't say anything, just stands and goes after Simon, leaving the rest of the crew to sit around the table. After a minute, Zoe stands and begins gathering plates for lack of anything else to do. Wash gets up to help her and the rest of them disperse, still silent.

____________________________

Simon's lying on his bed, facedown, when he hears the footsteps. "Feel better?" Mal's quiet voice asks; Simon feels the bed shift as Mal sits down on it.

"Not really." He sighs, not looking up. "I owe Kaylee and Inara apologies."

"Probably." Mal rests a hand in the middle of his back. "As captain, I'd appreciate it if you did. Last thing this crew needs is more tension onboard."

"And as Mal?" Simon rolls over, dislodging Mal's hand.

"I'd still appreciate you apologizing to them--Kaylee, at least." Mal smiles a little, brushing Simon's hair off his face. "Inara and I have had enough run-ins that I'll leave that one up to you."

Simon sits up, rubbing his hands over his face. "Unfortunately, I think this time the captain's preferences take precedence."

"You don't have to go right now," Mal points out.

"I wasn't planning on it." Simon leans forward, resting his head against Mal's shoulder. Mal's hand strokes his hair, the back of his neck, and he sighs again, letting Mal's touch soothe him. "Trying to put me to sleep?" he asks after a moment.

"Depends. Are you tired?"

"No. Just frustrated." Simon laughs and sits up, pushing his hair back. "And angry, and upset. And I'm trying to stay calm because I think River feels it when I'm upset and it upsets her."

"You think that's what she meant at lunch?" Mal asks.

Simon nods. "I do. It's--it's a little hard for me to accept, frankly, but it's the only thing that seems plausible." *And what I know about empathy and psychic ability you could fit on my thumb. River, what am I going to do?*

"Hey," Mal says softly. "Take it easy." He catches Simon's jaw in one hand, bending down to kiss him. "Don't get yourself tied in knots over this, okay?"

"Why not?" Simon asks, trying for humor and not really succeeding.

"It ain't worth it." Mal pulls Simon into his arms, settling him against his chest. "Just take it one step at a time."

"Yeah." Simon rests his head against Mal's shoulder. "I know."

"Knowing and doing are two different things," Mal says mildly.

"I know that too." Simon closes his eyes. "Don't lecture me, Mal, okay? I'm just not up for it."

"Wasn't going to lecture you. Just pointing it out." Mal kisses the top of his head. "I was wondering about something," he says after a moment.

"Yeah?" Simon tilts his head back, looking up at Mal.

"Couldn't help but notice that you were out cold last night. And the night before that. When was the last time you slept straight through the night like that?" Mal asks.

"I...don't remember," Simon's forced to admit. "But--wait, how'd you know? I seem to remember you being pretty sound asleep as well."

"That's how I know," Mal says. "If you'd been awake I would've felt it." He smiles. "Anyway--I had an idea."

"Oh?"

"Seems that you sleep better if I'm there and I did say I liked having you in my bunk," Mal says matter-of-factly. "And since this ain't exactly a secret anymore..." He trails off, but Simon sees where he was going.

"Oh," he says, thinking about it. "Ah--well--"

"Don't need to answer now," Mal interrupts. "Just think about it."

"Okay. I will."

After a minute or two, Simon pulls away reluctantly. "I'd better go apologize to Kaylee," he says.

"Yeah. Just be prepared to duck--if she's truly mad at you she has a tendency to throw things, and that engine room's all full of things you don't want connecting with your head."

"She just hit me last time," Simon points out.

"She goes with what's handy." Mal's voice indicates that he knows this from personal experience; Simon doesn't ask how.

"I want a chess rematch," he says abruptly, standing up. "Later this afternoon?"

"Lounge or my bunk?" Mal asks, also getting to his feet.

"Your bunk. I don't want an audience if I lose." Simon heads for the engine room, Mal's laughter trailing after him.

____________________________

"Kaylee?"

She doesn't answer right away; she's lying on her back, under the engine, and if she talks she'll get a mouth full of grease and other crud. Besides, she doesn't know what to say to Simon; she's too mad at him to be nice.

"Kaylee--I--I came to apologize," Simon says. "I shouldn't have said--"

She sighs and pushes herself out from under the engine. "Ain't me you should apologize to."

Simon looks at her warily. "Please tell me you're not going to throw that at me," he says, indicating the wrench she's holding.

"Waste of a good wrench if I did." Kaylee sits up, putting the wrench down. "Inara was just tryin' to help, you know."

"But she didn't talk to me. She talked to the captain, and that bothers me." Simon pauses, giving Kaylee a chance to really look at him. He looks tired, and his hair's rumpled, and she *thinks* there's a faint shadow of a bruise on his neck, mostly hidden by his shirt. Then again, it could just be a trick of the light. She'd rather it was, actually--knowing Simon and the captain are bedding each other is different from having to see the results.

"I shouldn't have said what I did to you," Simon says finally. "I was angry with Inara, not you, and I shouldn't have snapped at you the way I did."

One of these days, Kaylee's going to learn how to *stay* mad at someone. "Yeah," she says, standing up. "But--maybe I was a little quick off the mark there too." She's not going to apologize; that'll have to do for Simon.

"You were defending your friend." Simon doesn't seem to think she needs to apologize, which is good. "Can you forgive me?"

"You gonna apologize to Nara?" Kaylee asks, scrubbing her hands on a rag.

He nods. "I'm going to her shuttle next, if she'll see me."

"She will. She might give you the cold shoulder, but she won't ignore you or nothin'. Inara's too nice for that." Kaylee sighs, stuffing the rag in her pocket. "Don't worry about it, Simon. It's all right."

"Okay." Simon hesitates again. "I wish--things could be different," he says.

Kaylee shrugs, pushing hair out of her face. "Yeah," she says. "But..."

"Yeah." Simon sighs, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I know."

"Simon--" Kaylee catches him right before he leaves. "Are you happy?" Maybe she doesn't have the right to ask but she's going to anyway.

He smiles a little, but it's twisted and Kaylee doesn't know what to make of it. "I don't even know what that is anymore," he says, leaving before she can say anything.

____________________________

Inara's making tea; without saying anything, she pours Simon a cup, handing it to him and motioning for him to sit down. He takes a sip before speaking, enjoying the flavor of the tea--smoky and rich, reminding him of home--Osiris. *Not home anymore. It hasn't been home for a long, long time.*

Osiris is another life, one he hadn't truly lived since he got River's letter.

"I came to apologize," he says, setting the cup down. "I had no call to speak to you the way I did at lunch, and I am sorry for that."

She nods and puts her own cup down. "I understand. Consider it forgotten."

Forgotten but not forgiven? Simon wonders about that. "You were being a friend, and I overreacted," he says.

Inara smiles a little sadly. "I wasn't being as good a friend as I should have, I'm afraid, or I would have come to you first."

"Consider it forgotten," Simon tells her wryly, making her laugh.

"Simon--truly, are you all right?" Inara asks. She leans forward, her eyes intent on his face. "Is this what you want?"

*Ask the easy questions, why don't you?* "I think so," he says, looking down at the amber tea. "I--he's good for me, Inara. I know that."

"Why?"

Simon shrugs. "Mal is--I don't know what we have, and I'm not sure I'll figure it out any time soon. But--" He stops, trying to find the words he wants. "When I first came on board," he says, "I--probably wasn't entirely sane. I'd spent so long looking for River--it had become my obsession, to find her and get her out. I *knew* that it wasn't healthy, the way I was handling it, but I didn't have a choice." He's surprised at how much he's opening up to Inara, but he's sure she's heard worse.

She nods sympathetically. "I understand."

He's not sure she does, but Inara's very empathetic. Even if she doesn't *know*, she can probably put herself in his place if she wants. It's a different kind of understanding from Mal's; the captain understands Hell from the perspective of someone who's lived through it. Inara understands it from the perspective of someone who's imagined it and seen it in others.

It's an interesting contrast.

"I lost something, in that time," Simon says. "Part of my sanity, my mind--call it what you will, but the only thing keeping me together was the thought of getting River out. And once I did..." He shrugs again, stopping to take a sip of tea. "Then I had a whole other set of problems. But at least she was out."

Inara nods again, not saying anything.

"And now--River needs me, and I have to do everything I can to help her. But what I'm starting to realize is that she needs me to be whole, to be strong for her. And--" Simon stops, fighting to get the words out. "I just can't do it alone anymore, Inara," he whispers.

"Oh, Simon--" Inara puts her hand on top of his. "You don't have to."

"I know. But--that's why I--why Mal is good for me," Simon says. *Can't say it, hm? Can't admit out loud that you need him.* "He--I don't have to pretend to be strong when I'm with him."

He can't tell if her eyes are bright with tears or if it's just a trick of the light. She squeezes his hand before sitting back, picking up her tea.

"I don't know what I can give him," Simon admits. "I don't know what he needs."

"Maybe all he needs is you," Inara suggests quietly. "Someone he can relax and be himself with, much the same as you can with him."

"Maybe." Simon's not entirely convinced, but that's a problem for another time. He smiles weakly, sipping his tea. "Thank you for listening," he says at last. "Especially after--"

"Simon." Inara takes his hand again, her fingers soft and warm against his. "We're friends, aren't we?"

He nods. "I hope so."

"Then don't worry about it." Inara smiles, and Simon knows it's a real smile, not just her training. Apparently, she has forgiven him. "Would you like some more tea? Or some biscuits?"

____________________________

"Cortex isn't reporting anything going on Astarte, sir," Zoe says. "Looks to be calm."

Mal nods, still uneasy. "We have any leads on possible contacts?"

"One--no, two. We're not close enough to wave either of them--it'll be at least twelve hours before we're in range."

He nods again. "Let me know when we are," he says, turning to leave the cockpit.

"Will do, sir."

*Always hated this part of a job. Too far out to get anything done, all that time just wasted.* Mal shakes his head absently, wondering if Simon's up for a chess rematch.

Simon's not in the infirmary, or the lounge, or his room. Mal's about to check Inara's shuttle for lack of anywhere else to look when he stops, thinks for a moment, and heads for his bunk.

"Hi," Simon says, rolling over on his side. He's stretched out in Mal's bunk, shirt off but pants on, and Mal isn't sure whether to kiss him or be afraid that he'll pass out if he does.

"What're you doing here?" Mal asks casually. It's not that he minds, but he's not entirely certain why Simon's there.

"I had a long talk with Inara," Simon says, sitting up. He shakes his head, looking like he's not sure whether to laugh or cry. "After which I decided that I wasn't going to be able to concentrate unless someone's life was on the line and maybe lying down for a bit wouldn't be such a bad idea. So..." He shrugs. "Here I am."

"It went that well?" Mal asks.

"Actually, it didn't go badly. I apologized, she offered me tea, I somehow ended up spilling my soul..." Simon laughs, pinching the bridge of his nose in what Mal's realizing is a habitual gesture.

"Why do you do that?" he asks, sitting down on the bed, next to Simon.

"Do what?"

Mal demonstrates for him. "That."

"Oh." Simon shrugs. "It's a headache thing. Acupressure--pinch there, or here--" He shows Mal, gripping the flesh between thumb and forefinger. "It relieves tension."

"You get headaches often?"

"No." Simon shakes his head, smiling a little. "More of a reflex, these days."

*Which means you used to.* Mal nods, not saying anything, but he slides his hand up Simon's back, kneading the muscles in his neck. There's less tension than he'd expected but still more than Simon normally has.

"You're going to put me to sleep if you keep doing that," Simon mumbles, his head dropping forward.

"If it's what you need..." Mal shrugs.

"Mal--wait." Simon pulls away, turning to look at him. "I want you to tell me something."

"What?"

Simon sighs, and Mal gets the sense that he's looking for words. "What do you get from this?" he asks, shifting so he's sitting cross-legged. "Because--I said it before, and I meant it. This only works if it goes both ways."

"It does," Mal tells him. "Trust me on that."

"How?"

*I knew that was coming. Wu de ma, Simon, can you just trust me on this one?* "I don't know if I can explain," he says. "But--I wouldn't have started this if it was one-sided, and I sure as hell wouldn't have asked you to move in here if it was."

Simon looks at him for a long moment before nodding. "All right," he says. "But someday you're going to have to explain it."

"That's fair. Just--let me think about it."

Simon nods again and leans forward, brushing his lips over Mal's. "It's Kaylee's turn to make dinner tonight, isn't it?"

"Last I checked. Why?"

"You still owe me a chess game."

"Want to make it a little more interesting?" Mal asks, leaning down to get the board.

"How?"

Mal grins, beginning to set up the pieces. "You ever play strip chess?"
 
 
 
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