Title: Black and Silver
Rating: R
Summary: The course of jobs never did run smooth.


"Okay, people, here's how it'll go. Zoe and I are heading out to see if we can meet a possible contact, name of Mat Chin. Doc, you and Wash stay with the ship first shift. Rest of you, be back in three hours. Zoe and I should be back long before then, in case you want to head into town." Mal aims the last at Simon and Wash, who nod.

"You wanna come wander with me, River?" Kaylee asks.

River tilts her head to the side, thinking about it. "Okay," she says after a moment.

Kaylee looks at Simon. "That okay with you?"

Simon smiles, nodding. "It's fine. I'll just catch up on some reading here."

"Or you could keep me company in the cockpit," Wash offers. "Not much else to do, but we've got a Chinese checkers board up there."

Simon's a little surprised at the offer, but he keeps it from showing. "I haven't played that in years," he says. Not since he stopped playing with River, so...over a decade.

"Don't hustle him too much, dear," Zoe says. She kisses Wash on the cheek before she and Mal head off, the rest of the crew dispersing as well.

"C'mon up," Wash says, gesturing. "I've got checkers, I've got some of Kaylee's wine--well, she calls it wine, I call it paint stripper." He grins and Simon can't help but grin back as they head for the cockpit.

There isn't really room for the checkers board but they make it fit somehow. Simon passes on the wine; he's tried Kaylee's inter-engine fermentation results before and prefers to have the lining of his stomach stay where it is. After looking at the jug for a moment, Wash sighs and puts it away. "Shouldn't drink on the job anyway," he says, setting up the board.

"I used to play this with River," Simon says, looking at it. "When we were little. But then I stopped."

"Why's that?" Wash asks.

Simon has to laugh, shaking his head. "Because I never won against her. She was *four* when I taught her to play."

"Ouch." Wash leans back in his seat. "Your move," he says, gesturing to the board.

Wash wins the first game, but by the second Simon's beginning to remember strategies and beats him. "Not bad for someone who hasn't played in years," Wash says, clearing the board.

"It's starting to come back to me. Play again?" Simon offers.

"Sure--not like we got much else to do." Wash glances at the clock. "Zoe and Mal should be back in an hour or so, if all goes well." He looks out the viewport. "Maybe less. Not too many ships around."

"Is that usual?"

"I'm not sure. Don't know that much about Astarte. But..." Wash frowns, thoughtful for a moment. "I thought I remembered Zoe saying something about them not being that self-sufficient. So they'd rely on trade more'n other planets. Given that--you'd expect to see more ships here."

"Maybe they've got a regular cycle and we showed up at the low point," Simon suggests.

"Maybe." Wash shrugs. "I dunno. We going to play?"

Simon nods, setting up the board. "You know--Mal's an asshole," Wash says, and Simon drops the pieces all over the floor.

"Uh, what?" he manages, rescuing them before they roll under the console.

"He is." Wash grins. "Complete and utter ass. He's arrogant, possessive as hell, stubborn as a mule--do I need to go on?"

"Uh, no, I don't think so." *Wash, where are you going with this?*

"Just checking." Wash looks at the board for a moment before nodding at Simon. "Your move," he says.

Simon moves automatically, still trying to figure out what Wash means.

"Course, he's an asshole, but he's also the best captain I've ever flown for--and I'm not saying that just because my beautiful wife can kill me with her pinky if she wants." Wash grins, leaning forward to take his turn. "And you know, in all the time I've been on this ship, I've never seen him take up with anyone for more than a night."

"Really." Simon's figured as much, but it's one thing to think it and another to have it confirmed. He moves absently, not really thinking about the game.

Wash nods. "Yep. Not one for involvement, is our captain." He eyes the board, thinking for a moment, before moving his pieces. "Which is why I think it's a good thing you and he are together now."

Simon gives up on the game and sits back in his chair, staring at Wash. "Come again?" he asks.

"He's been alone too long." Wash sighs, looking at the board. "Guess we're done, huh?"

"Uh, yeah. I think so."

"Oh well." Wash shrugs and gathers up the pieces, putting them away. "If you ever repeat this conversation to Mal I will deny it to the depths of my being," he says mock-seriously.

"I won't," Simon says hastily, holding up his hands. Frankly, it'd be too weird. *Mal...Wash thinks you're an asshole who's been alone too long.* Yeah, that'd go over really well.

"Never would have figured on you and Mal together," Wash says. "Nothing against you, I just thought he went for women."

"You and me both," Simon admits.

Wash laughs. "Sure you don't want a drink?"

"Actually--why not?" Simon digs out the jug while Wash gets two cups and pours carefully, handing one to Wash. "To the captain," he says, holding up his cup.

"Asshole that he may be." They clink glasses and slug back the wine--Simon's learned from experience it's the only way to get it down without choking.

"He's not that bad," Simon says--wheezes, really.

Wash pours them more wine. "Sure he is." They raise their glasses and down the liquor, gasping in unison. "But is the sex worth it?"

"I haven't had enough to drink to answer that," Simon says, reaching for the jug.

"S'okay, I'm not sure I really want to know, tell you the truth." Wash grins. "But I wouldn't say no to another belt of this anyway."

"Coming right up." Simon fills their cups again. "I just don't know what he gets out of this," he confesses, taking a drink.

"Who, Mal?"

Simon gestures with his cup. "No, the other captain of this ship I'm sleeping with."

For some reason, this strikes Wash as hilarious and he cracks up, snickering until he takes another drink. "Ah, that's better," he says, looking fondly at his cup. "Simon, if you want to know Mal's reasons for anything, you have to ask him, not me."

"I did ask him. I didn't get a straight answer." Simon stares at his cup moodily. "He just told me to trust him."

"Well, do you?"

Either the lining of his throat's gone or used to the liquor by now; Simon's able to take a sip of the wine without choking on it. "Wash, my *life's* in his hands. You think I'd sleep with him if I didn't trust him?"

"I don't know you well enough to say," Wash points out.

"Well, I wouldn't."

Wash shrugs. "Okay. So trust him on that one, then."

"I thought you said he was an asshole."

"I did. What's that got to do with you trustin' him?" Wash gives him a patient look. "I trust him, and I still think he's a hwun dan most of the time."

Simon blinks. He's sure there's a connection there somewhere, but he can't figure out what it is. "I don't know," he says, finishing his wine.

"Me neither."

Simon sighs, putting his cup down on the floor. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore," he blurts. "I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to give River the help she needs, I don't know if we'll ever stop running, I don't know *what* I'm doing with Mal, I don't know why he's with me--gorramit, Wash, I don't know if he even cares about me or if he's just taking care of a crew member!" Simon slumps back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his news. "He asked me to move into his bunk, you know."

"I'd take that as a pretty good sign he cares," Wash points out. "Truth is, Simon, I don't think I've ever seen him share that bunk with anyone--well, unless you count Saffron, which I don't."

"Yeah. That didn't exactly count." Simon releases his grip and looks up at Wash. "I just don't know--you really think he cares?"

"I--uh--think he's right behind you," Wash says, sounding a little strangled.

"Ta ma duh..." Simon buries his face in his palm.

"You're back early," Wash says to Zoe. "Meet not go well?"

She steps around Simon to give Wash a kiss. "Contact's not around today--we're stuck until at least tomorrow. Maybe day after, depending." She shakes her head. "Quiet out there--kind of eerie."

A hand lands on Simon's shoulder. "Hi," Mal says conversationally.

"Hi," Simon mumbles into his hand.

Mal squeezes his shoulder. "Zoe, Wash, you mind keepin' an eye on *Serenity* for a bit?" he asks. "I need some time."

If either Zoe or Wash answers, Simon doesn't hear it; he's too lost in his own embarrassment. Numbly, he lets Mal pull him to his feet and guide him to Mal's bunk.

"Have a seat," Mal says, and Simon drops down on the bed, looking down at his hands. "Relax, Simon, I ain't gonna hit you. I ain't even mad at you."

"Thank Heaven for small favors." Simon isn't exactly certain why Mal isn't mad at him, but thinking about it makes his head hurt.

The bed dips as Mal sits down next to him. "I ain't much good with words, Simon, you know that," he says.

"This from the man who can practically talk me to orgasm?" Simon's got just enough alcohol in his system that he's not really caring what he says. It's an interesting feeling, although he knows he'll regret it later.

Mal snorts. "That's different."

"Yeah, I guess."

"It is." Mal sighs, standing up abruptly. "I ain't much good at this. I told you that. But--truth is, Simon, I think we're good for each other, you and me. Don't ask me how, 'cause I don't know if I can say." He folds his arms over his chest, looking uncomfortable.

Simon gets to his feet, feeling the alcohol buzzing in his blood. It's two steps to where Mal is and no effort at all to uncross Mal's arms, to slide his own around Mal's waist. "Show me," he says, kissing Mal's jaw. If words won't work for them than he'll just find another way to get Mal to talk.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, Mal's arms go around him and he kisses Simon, deep and slow. They make it to the bed; Simon doesn't know or care how. "Show me," he repeats, beginning to unbutton Mal's shirt.

And later, when they're lying on the bunk, sweaty and sticky and sated, Simon realizes that it's the first time they've made love.

____________________________

"Think Simon'll want some of these?" Kaylee asks, swinging the basket full of berries.

River grins and steals a few; her mouth's already stained purple from the juice, as are her fingers. "He likes berries," she says around a mouthful.

"C'mon, then. Let's go see if we can find him." Kaylee takes another couple of berries for herself as they head for the lounge.

Only Simon ain't in the lounge, or the infirmary, or his bunk. Kaylee and River stop by the cockpit, where Wash and Zoe are all cuddled up together. "Ah--Simon and Mal went to talk, I think," Wash says. "They're probably in Mal's bunk."

Kaylee manages to keep the smile on her face as she offers Wash and Zoe some berries, which they take cheerfully. She's okay with this. Really.

"We havin' a party here?" Mal says behind her; Kaylee nearly drops the basket turning around.

"Hey, Cap," she says. "Want some berries? River and me picked 'em."

He smiles and takes a few. "Thanks, little Kaylee," he says. "These are good."

Kaylee grins. "Thank River--she's the one who noticed the bushes." Cap'n looks a little rumpled, but that could just be 'cause it's warm on board. She'll have to check the cooling system in a bit, make sure it's working okay.

"And thank you, River," he says, making her giggle and drop an oddly formal curtsey.

"What's going on in here?" Simon asks, and Kaylee feels her heart freeze when she sees him. He's all clean and pressed, like usual, but his hair's wet and there's a mark on his neck, just where the collar hits. If she hadn't been looking, she probably wouldn't have seen it.

"The girls brought us back some berries," Mal says. "You want some?"

"May I?" Simon asks, and Kaylee nods, holding out the basket. He smiles and takes a few, half-closing his eyes when he eats one. "Oh, these are good," he says, swallowing. "Thank you."

River grins and takes another couple berries. "Not poisonous," she says, making Simon laugh.

"I should hope not!" He wipes juice off his chin, licking the side of his hand where it collected, and Kaylee suddenly can't stay there anymore.

"I'm, um, gonna go check the cooling system," she says, hastily shoving the basket into River's hands. "Does it seem warm to you? Cause it does to me, and I might as well check it out while we're on-planet and I stand a chance of being able to fix it..." She realizes she's babbling, shuts her mouth, and runs off, angrily rubbing tears out of her eyes. "Don't you cry, girl," she tells herself. "Don't you *dare* cry."

Working on the cooling system takes more time than it should because her vision keeps getting blurred with tears. "Gorramit!" she swears after she loses track of the main power line for the third time in a row.

"Kaylee?"

She jerks at the sound of the captain's voice. "Yeah, I'm here," she says, knowing that from her position under the engine he can't see her.

"You wanna come out so we can talk?" he asks.

*No, not really.* But Kaylee recognizes that tone of voice--it's his 'I'm gonna stand here and wait you out' voice--so she sighs and crawls out, scrubbing her hands on a rag.

"Kaylee--" Mal stops, looking down briefly. "You gonna be okay?"

She opens her mouth to say yes and horrifies herself by starting to cry. Even more embarrassing, Mal doesn't leave. He crosses the room to her and hugs her, stroking her hair. "C'mon," he says gently. "Let's sit down, okay?"

They sit down on the floor somehow; Kaylee can't make herself stop crying long enough to figure out how. "I'm sorry," she chokes out, but he only hugs her tighter.

"I'm the one who should apologize, mei mei," he says.

"I ain't mad at you, but--" Kaylee finds a semi-clean rag in her pocket and scrubs her face, sniffling. "Why you? Why not me? Why can't I be what he needs?"

"Kaylee, if you could give Simon what he needs, I'd have some serious work to do huntin' down whoever in your past hurt you that bad," Mal says quietly. "Listen to me, okay? There is *nothing* wrong with you. It ain't you at all. Simon needs someone who's been where he is now, who's been down there. And you--you're a ray of sunshine on this boat. You make all of us smile."

She nods. "I understand, Cap. I do." Kaylee sighs, resting her head against Mal's shoulder. "I just wish..."

"I know."

From somewhere Kaylee gets back some of her energy and sits up, managing a grin. "So how's the sex?" she asks, not sure if she really wants to know.

Mal shakes his head, grinning. "I am not discussing that with you."

"Aw, come on, Cap. Give me *somethin',* here," Kaylee teases. Now that she thinks about it, she does want to know. Not that she ever wanted the captain that way, but she likes a bit of gossip as much as the next girl.

"Kaylee..." Mal gives her a Look.

"C'mon, Cap. I ain't asking for details or nothing, just curious. What's it like?"

Mal groans. "It's good, okay?"

"Just good?" Kaylee's on a roll now. "The sex I had with Bester was 'just good'. You *got* to tell me it's better than that."

"You know, I really didn't want to think about you havin' sex with Bester," Mal grumbles.

"It's how I got on board," she reminds him. "So?"

"So it's great, okay? It's better than great. It's mind-bogglingly fan-rutting-tastic!" Mal glares at her. "Will you stop asking me now?"

Kaylee's giggling too hard to answer him. "Oh, Cap," she gasps out eventually. "Your *face*!"

"Wu de ma..." Mal stands, crossing his arms over his chest. "One of these days, xiao mei mei, you're going to go too far."

Kaylee can't stop giggling long enough to take him seriously. Besides, he's not really angry at her; she'd know it if he was. She gets to her feet, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek. "It's worth it, then?" she asks, ignoring his last statement. "Bein' with him?"

Mal puts an arm around her shoulders and hugs her. "Yeah," he says, kissing the top of her head. "I think it is."

"Then be happy, Cap'n. You deserve to be happy." She wraps her arms around his waist, resting her head against his chest. "So long as he treats you right."

"You defending my honor now, little Kaylee?"

"Long as I don't have to fight any duels." She grins up at him, and he laughs, and for a moment everything's just the way it should be.

____________________________

Normally when they're on planet for a job, at least the first night, they all go to dinner together. It's not an official rule, just a tradition, one Mal likes. But Wash and Zoe wanted some time to themselves and Jayne met someone in town (the details of which Mal doesn't want to know), so it's just the five of them heading out to dinner.

Finding a place to eat is easier than he expected, but half the town seems closed down. He supposes it makes sense--with the spaceport being damn near empty, there probably ain't much custom. The question then is, why's the spaceport so empty? It shouldn't be; Astarte relies too much on offworld business.

He doesn't like it much. He doesn't like it at all, really. But he's not quite sure what to do about it yet, so he looks around the table instead, at his people. Simon's on his left, with River next to him, Book next to her, and Kaylee between Book and Mal. It puts Kaylee and Simon across from each other, which makes Mal a little wary, but they seem to be doing all right with each other.

Mal sighs inwardly. When this had started with Simon, he hadn't thought about the possible problems of the crew finding out; he'd been arrogant enough to think they could keep it quiet. And he hadn't thought about Kaylee at all. *Some captain you are--you forgot you had seven other crew members to worry about. This is why shipboard relationships are no good.*

He glances at Simon, who's nodding at something Book said, and sighs to himself again. He should have known better than to think he could keep this quiet. On the other hand, no one on the crew even *suspects* about him and Zoe--not that there really is a him and Zoe, but it's close enough that he doubts anyone would care.

But what's done is done, and Mal can't change it even if he wants to. And he doesn't, really--Simon needed him, still needs him, and he can't turn away from that. Especially not now, not when--Mal shakes his head mentally, cutting off that train of thought before it can get started.

Simon leans over, his voice low enough that no one else will hear it. "Stop thinking so hard," he says; Mal can hear the laughter in his voice. "You're going to hurt something."

"Thank you for that professional opinion, Doctor," Mal says wryly. "I'll remember it in future."

Simon smiles, sitting back and turning to his sister when she tugs on his sleeve.

__________________________

"I think I'm gonna head back to the ship," Kaylee says after dinner. "River, you want to come with me?"

River nods, yawning. "Tired," she says. "Too many people."

"Are you all right, mei mei?" Simon asks, worried.

She smiles and pats him on the cheek. "Just need some sleep. Go wander."

"I'll check on you when I get back, okay?" He kisses her temple, watching her and Kaylee wander off.

"Did you want to look around some?" Mal asks. They leave the restaurant, into the cool night air; Simon takes a deep breath, enjoying the fresh taste of it. He's used to *Serenity* by now, but there's nothing quite like fresh, clean air.

"Sure," he says. "I didn't get to earlier."

Mal smiles, and there's a flash of heat in his eyes that makes Simon shiver. "You want company?" he asks.

Simon considers it for a moment and nods; he doesn't know Astarte at all, and he'd rather not have a repeat of Jiangyin. Besides, it'll be nice to have Mal's company. "Sure," he says.

"I wouldn't linger too long, were I you," Book says. "Something doesn't feel quite right here."

"How's that, preacher?" Mal asks.

Book shakes his head. "I'm not quite sure."

Simon glances at Mal to see if this will change their plans, but Mal just nods. "Thanks for the advice," he says.

"Anytime." Book inclines his head and leaves. Once he's gone, Mal sighs, rubbing at the back of his neck.

"Great," he mutters. "Just what I needed."

"Mal, would you rather head back to the ship?" Simon asks. "I don't mind." He doesn't, actually; being caught in the middle of--whatever might be going on doesn't appeal to him in the slightest.

Mal seems to consider it for a moment before shaking his head. "No. Things can't be that bad or we would have noticed by now. Besides, if he's right I want to see for myself."

*You knew he was going to say that.* "All right."

____________________________

For an hour and a half, Simon watches Mal grow more and more tense as they explore the town. He doesn't know why; Ishtar seems a nice enough town, if quiet and a little too fond of black for his taste.

But Mal's surface calm is slipping away with each stall they visit in Ishtar's open-air market, until he's practically vibrating with tension. Simon sighs to himself--so much for enjoying the evening. "Do you want to head back?" he asks in a low voice, turning to Mal.

"You ready to go?" Mal asks, sounding surprised.

"Aren't you?"

Mal sighs, rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah. But if you want to stay longer--"

"It's fine. Let's just go, okay?"

Mal nods and they start walking toward the ship. As they leave the big square market, a man shoves a flyer into Simon's hands. *Probably some entertainment thing. I'll throw it out when we're back on board.* He doesn't look at it, just sticks it in his pocket.

They reach *Serenity*, Mal muttering something under his breath at the sight of the cargo bay ramp being lowered. He hits the comm as soon as they're inside. "We're back," he says brusquely. "Anyone not here?"

"Just Jayne, but he said he wouldn't be," Wash says with a yawn.

"Good--lock it up for the night." Mal closes the ramp, and Simon knows he's not imagining the slight relief of tension that runs through Mal's body when the doors are shut.

"I need to check on River," Simon says.

"Yeah. Meet me in my bunk, when you're done?" It's a half-question, half-order, and Simon smiles.

"I'll do that," he says.

River is tucked into bed, seemingly asleep; Simon doesn't want to wake her, so he just kisses her hair and leaves the room, sliding the door shut behind him.

Mal is partially undressed when Simon drops off the ladder. "River okay?" he asks, pulling off his shirt.

"She's fine. She was pretty much asleep when I checked on her." For a moment, Simon is amused by how domestic the whole scene feels, especially when Mal crosses over to him and kisses him briefly.

"What's this?" he asks, taking the flyer out of Simon's pocket.

"Oh! I forgot that was there. I have no idea," Simon says. "Someone gave it to me as we were leaving the square. I figured it was some sort of entertainment ad."

Mal unfolds it, looking at the black paper and white writing. "No," he says slowly. "Not entertainment."

"What is it, then?"

"Trouble." Mal hands him the flyer silently and Simon reads.

It seems to be aimed at the "Black" faction, whatever they are--given the phrasing and the terms used, Simon guesses they're the working class, the farmers and the small traders and such. "No longer will we be enslaved by those purporting to be our betters," he reads aloud. "It is time for us to take back what is ours, what the silvers have stolen from us." He looks up. "There are a lot of references in here to the silvers--whoever they are--having stolen something, or hoarding something that should belong to everyone. Do you know--"

"Metal," Mal says shortly. "Astarte's metal-poor, so they're mostly a farming planet. They don't have the resources for technology. But you can't farm without machinery and you can't keep machinery running without parts. Them as control the metal supply on Astarte control the money."

*And we're here with fifteen cases of high-quality iron ore.* "Tzao gao," Simon whispers. The flyer falls to the floor.

Mal's smile is tight and humorless. "That about sums it up."'

"That's why the spaceport's so empty," Simon says, thinking aloud. "Astarte's usual suppliers must be steering clear for fear of inciting a riot."

"And we sailed right into it." Mal's hands clench at his sides. "Yao must have known--it's why she paid so much. Her usual contacts must be avoiding this place."

"So what do we do now?" Simon asks.

"Nothing." Mal sighs, sits down on the bed. "Nothing we can do. Hopefully, we'll be able to make the deal and get off-planet before anything happens."

"Wonderful." Simon sits down next to him. "Just wonderful."

"Longer we're here, more likely it gets that nothing'll happen," Mal says, but Simon's not sure who he's trying to reassure.

"Okay." *This is not good. Problems like this cause riots. Riots bring the Alliance, and they--let's just change the subject now, shall we?* "I thought about your offer," Simon says to distract himself.

"Oh?"

"I don't know if I'm comfortable with the thought of being so far away from River during the night." *Now you want to think about her, after conveniently forgetting about her for the last few nights?* Simon hides a wince at the flash of guilt.

Mal nods. "Be easy enough to rig up a monitor of some kind," he says matter-of-factly. "If you wanted."

"A--monitor?" Simon repeats. Of all possible responses, he hadn't thought of that one.

"Kaylee could probably do it in a few minutes." Mal shrugs. "If you wanted."

"I--no, it's just that I hadn't thought about it." Simon feels Mal's amusement, like sunlight, and reminds himself not to flush. "I'd have to ask River," he says. "Make sure it's all right with her."

"That's fair."

"But--" Simon stops, thinks for a moment. "She's been fine the past few nights I've been here," he says. "I could probably leave her tonight as well."

"So you're staying here, then?"

"If you want me to."

Mal shrugs. "Wouldn't have invited you if I didn't, Simon. You know that."

He does and he doesn't, but Simon decides to let it go. "I need clothes," he says. "I don't want to borrow your shirt again in the morning."

"I don't mind." Mal smiles, leaning over to kiss Simon. "Looks kinda sexy on you, actually."

"I mind." Simon smiles and stands up. "I'm just going to go back to my bunk and pick up a few things. I'll be back in a few."

"All right."

____________________________

River wakes, or thinks she does; she's not sure she was ever asleep. But there is sound where there was none before, and she can feel Simon moving around in his bunk, next to hers. She climbs out of bed and leaves her bunk, entering his and sitting down on the bed. He's putting a few things together--shirt, her brain supplies. Pants. Shorts. "Puzzle pieces," she says, sitting down on the bed.

"I'm just spending the night with Mal," Simon says. "Do you mind?"

She tilts her head to the side. She knows what she wants to say but she has to make sure it comes out the way she wants, and that's more difficult. "Puzzle pieces," she says again, picking up his brush. "It fits."

"I'll take that as a no." Simon sits down next to her. "River, are you all right with this--with the situation?"

"Dummy," she says, leaning against him. "I'll be fine." Fine is a relative term and its meaning is mutable. Like truth, like justice, like concepts she remembers learning when she was little. Before.

River's life is divided into Before and After now, but those categories are fluid as well and things she remembers from Before didn't always happen the way she thinks they did. It's her own puzzle, and she is all the pieces. Unlike Simon, where some of his pieces are missing and he needs the captain to fill in what's gone.

Or maybe it's the captain that's missing pieces and Simon can fill in. She's not sure, and there's no real way to tell. "No picture on the box," she says out loud.

"What, River?"

She doesn't ignore Simon so much as she doesn't hear him.

"There's a card game going on in the lounge if you're interested," Mal says, appearing in the doorway. "Decided to get something to drink and saw it."

"My luck with games isn't so good lately that I'm really willing to play, but maybe I'll watch," Simon says.

Mal nods, looking around. "Not one for having things, are you?" he asks, still not entering the room.

River frowns. She remembers Simon's room back on Osiris, full of books and objects and pretty things. He had a collection of carved animals someone had given him that she used to play with. But now Simon's life is bare; the room looks like no one lives in it. "What happened to the horse?" she asks.

"The horse?" Simon looks blank for a moment before he smiles. "Oh--you mean the stone animals you used to play with when you didn't think I noticed?"

She laughs, pleased that she remembered correctly. "Didn't notice, either," she teases him, bumping against his shoulder.

"You never put them back correctly." Simon looks up at Mal. "Back on Osiris--someone, I forget who, gave me this collection of carved stone animals. I think I was about eight. I had no use for them, but River loved them. She used to sneak into my room whenever she could and play with them."

"What happened to them?" Mal asks.

"I have no idea." Simon looks thoughtful. "They're probably still back there, I guess."

"You liked the panther," River says, a little uncertain.

"I did," Simon agrees, and she grins.

She looks at Mal and frowns, seeing him but not him. She sees him go into a store, sees him emerge with a panther, sees him put it on the bed for Simon to discover, but she's not sure if what she's seeing will happen or if she's just seeing a wish on Mal's part--or her own.

"Can I move here?" she asks.

Simon frowns. "I didn't--do you want me to switch rooms?" he asks.

"You're moving," she says patiently. Hasn't he left already? She's momentarily confused; she thought she saw him leave. But like so much else, what she sees isn't necessarily what happens. River points at Mal. "With him."

"I--hadn't decided yet," Simon says.

"Had too. You just didn't want to." River puts the brush down. "You're already there," she says. Simon has moved; he just hasn't packed up his things yet.

"Why do you want to move here?" Simon asks.

River shrugs, knowing that whatever words she finds will come out wrong. The room feels like Simon, feels comfortable and familiar. It makes her more certain of herself. But if she tells Simon that he will not want to move, and he has to. It makes the puzzle fit. Besides, it's not *him* that she wants, exactly. It's just the feel of him.

"You gonna be all right without your brother?" Mal asks.

"He won't be gone," she says absently. She gets up, knowing that Kaylee is in the lounge. She will talk to Kaylee, tease her into playing tag or jacks or something out of sight, because it will only hurt Kaylee to see Simon and Mal together and she doesn't want Kaylee to be hurt.

Mal moves aside as she crosses to the door, but she stops, looking up at him. "You see," she says softly.

He nods, somehow understanding her. "I do."

"Will you let him see?" River asks.

"That's up to him," Mal says, pretending not to know what she means.

She shakes her head. "No it isn't." She reaches out, puts her hand on his chest. "You don't want him to," she says. She feels the pain/anger/hurt/fear flash through him and closes her eyes, tucking it away so she can look at it in future. "But he will."

"See what, River?" Simon asks, but she is already gone.

____________________________

"Do you know what she meant?" Simon asks Mal.

"No," Mal says, not sure if he's lying or not.

Simon looks at him intently for a moment before he shrugs. "Did you want to join the card game?" he asks, standing and slinging his bag over his shoulder.

"Wouldn't mind. You?"

"As I said, I'll watch."

Mal nods and they head to the lounge, where Wash, Zoe, and Book are finishing up a round of cards. Wash has apparently won and is raking in the 'pile', such as it is. "Gonna join us, Mal?" he asks, grinning. "Simon?"

"I'll pass, thanks." Simon sits down on the couch, opening a book.

"Deal me in." Mal slides into a chair, picking up the cards Book sends his way.

Two hands later, a soft thud catches everyone's attention. "Sir--what did you give him to drink?" Zoe asks; Mal knows she's about two seconds away from laughing.

"I didn't--what?" Mal turns, seeing the cause of the thud easily enough--Simon's book lies on the floor, pages ruffling a little. Simon himself is sprawled on the couch, on his back. One arm's folded across his chest, the other's hanging off the side, and he's sound asleep.

"I don't believe he's drunk," Book says thoughtfully. "Just tired."

"Wear him out already, sir?" Zoe asks sympathetically. Next to her, Wash cracks up, not even bothering to hide the laughter.

Mal glares at her and gets out of his chair, crossing over to Simon. He looks down at the doctor for a moment before resting his hand on Simon's shoulder. "Simon," he says, in the guaranteed-to-get-his-attention voice.

It never fails. Simon sits bolt upright, blinking. "What?" he asks. "Is something wrong?"

"Maybe you should go to bed," Mal says, ignoring Wash's snickers.

"Yeah, all that wild sex takes its toll after a while," Wash offers.

"Now, honey," Zoe says sweetly. "I seem to recall you falling asleep on me a few times."

He snatches her hand and kisses it theatrically. "Me? Never! I have the stamina of a--"

"You don't need to finish that," Mal interrupts. "In fact, I'm ordering you not to."

"I think I'm going to bed," Simon says hastily. He stands, picking up his bag and his book. "I'll see you all in the morning."

Later, when Mal goes to bed, Simon's already asleep. Mal nudges him over and climbs into bed next to him, Simon automatically curling up against his side. Mal drapes an arm over him, falling asleep to the soft, even sound of Simon's breathing.

____________________________

The next day passes quietly--their contact hasn't returned yet so there isn't much they can do. But Mal's brief trip into town is enough to make him edgy. "Tension's running high," he says at lunch. "Too high for my liking. Stay on the ship if you can help it."

"Got to get some supplies," Kaylee says. "We're low on food."

"Shepherd, you go with Kaylee. Don't want anyone going anywhere alone." Mal looks at Book, who nods. "Zoe, Jayne, Wash--I'd like to see you after lunch." Mal picks up his cup, takes a long drink. "Simon, how much do you know about this sort of thing?"

His question startles Simon, but it really throws Zoe for a loop. She recovers quickly; Mal doesn't think anyone else saw her nearly drop her fork. He shrugs to himself, thinking she might as well get used to it. Simon's crew now, and crew gets included in discussions.

He deliberately doesn't think about how his timing might look.

'Some," Simon says, a little hesitant. "I mean, I know what I learned in school. But it's not much."

Mal nods, thinking for a moment. "Join us anyway. With your background, you might have a perspective we don't."

"All right." Simon looks startled, but agrees.

"Cap'n, is it all right if River comes shopping with us?" Kaylee asks. "I mean, if you want to," she adds, turning to River. The girl smiles and nods.

"You'll keep an eye on them?" Mal asks Book.

He nods. "We won't be long, I'm sure."

"Good idea."

That seems to be the cue for lunch to be over. Kaylee and River start cleaning up, helped by Simon and Wash. Mal stays where he is, trying to organize his thoughts. He's got a few options and isn't sure what he thinks of them.

"Sir?" Zoe prompts him, and Mal drops back into reality, seeing just the five of them.

"We got trouble," he says shortly. He takes out the flyer and puts it on the table, where Zoe picks it up. "Go on, read it aloud."

He doesn't listen as she reads; by this point he knows what the flyer says. Instead, Mal looks around the table, seeing worry and confusion on Jayne's face and concern on Wash's. Zoe's face is expressionless, as is her voice--never a good sign. And Simon...is so controlled it's like looking at a robot.

Briefly, Mal wonders which is worse--Zoe looking that stone-faced or Simon doing the same thing. He's not quite sure.

Zoe finishes reading and puts the flyer down, looking almost like she wants to wash her hands. "Well, that was a fun bit of entertainment," Wash says cheerfully. "Anyone for an encore?"

Mal ignores him. "Anyone got something to say?" he asks.

"I don't like it," Jayne says brusquely.

"Don't think any of us do," Zoe says. "What are our options?"

She knows as well as he does what they are, but she won't admit it unless asked. It's a trait Mal appreciates. "Got a couple," he says. "Stay here, make the deal, hope nothing goes south. Or we leave and find somewhere else to trade."

"Do we know of anywhere else that would take the ore?" Wash asks.

"Off the top of my head, no. Zoe?"

"Maybe Nuu Shen. Other than that?" Zoe shakes her head slowly. "Ore ain't that valuable most places."

"Nuu Shen won't give us near as much for it," Mal says. "And it's on the far side of the quadrant. Probably wouldn't make enough off the deal to cover the expense of getting it there."

"But is it better than getting caught in a riot?" Simon asks quietly and all four of them turn to look at him, startled.

"You think that's what's gonna happen?" Jayne demands.

Simon nods. "I know it is. The question is when." He shrugs, looks down at the table. "It depends on a few things."

"Like what?" Zoe asks.

"Who's in charge. The flyer makes it relatively obvious that the black faction is the working class, the farmers, while the silver faction are those of money. But who's controlling the government?"

"Probably the silvers," Mal says. "Those with money always do."

"In that case..." Simon shrugs. "Back on Osiris, there was a similar situation, before I was born. But the government cracked down on the equivalent of the black faction before anything could get started, so nothing really happened. That hasn't happened here, which means they're either unaware or not taking it seriously."

"And you think they should?"

Simon shrugs again. "Desperate people will do anything, and it all depends on how desperate the black faction is." He sighs. "I saw the aftermath of a riot once," he says quietly. "There had been a well-publicized court case, extremely controversial, and the ruling went against public opinion. The government declared martial law within two hours, but it didn't help. The hospital called everyone in and we worked until we were almost falling asleep standing up. The damage was...there are still sections of the city that haven't been rebuilt yet."

"So you're saying we should leave, not chance it," Zoe says slowly.

"I'm saying I don't know, and it's not my decision in any case." Simon glances at Mal briefly. "I'm afraid I can't offer any more insight."

Mal nods, thinking on what Simon said. "Well, looks like we got ourselves a puzzle here," he says at last. "Either we leave, lose the money and get saddled with a load of cargo we might not be able to sell, or we stay and take our chances. Thoughts?"

No one speaks for a moment. "How much do we stand to make off this if it goes through?" Jayne asks.

"Somewhere around a thousand platinum per case," Mal tells him. "Astarte's got no resources to speak of and with most of their usual business stayin' away..."

"You mean we could clear fifteen thousand from this deal?" Jayne asks incredulously. "Shit, I'm in."

"What about Nuu Shen?" Wash asks.

"Don't rightly know, but probably closer to a hundred platinum per case. If that."

"We need the money," Zoe admits reluctantly.

"Don't we always." Mal sighs. "So you want to stay?"

"Didn't say that." Zoe shrugs. "But...yeah. I think we should take our chances."

"Wash? Simon?"

"Fifteen thousand's an awful lot of platinum," Wash says, serious for once. "I vote we stick around."

Mal nods, looks at Simon. "Doc?" he asks.

Simon looks down at the table, tracing the grain with a finger. "How badly do we need the money?" he asks.

"We're almost in the red," Mal says.

"Then there really isn't much choice, is there?" Simon looks up, but his eyes are shuttered; Mal can't read them.

Then again, he doesn't need to. Simon thinks this is a bad idea, and part of Mal agrees with him. But Simon's right; they don't have much choice. There's no guarantee Nuu Shen will even deal. "Okay. We'll stay. But there's a few rules. No one goes anywhere alone, and no one goes into town unless it's unavoidable. I'd like to bury the cargo but moving it might attract attention, so we'll leave it for now. Zoe, Wash--see what we need and what Kaylee picked up when she gets back. We've got enough coin to stock up, so we might as well. Meanwhile, I want someone in the cargo bay at all times." Mal looks around the table. "Any volunteers for first watch?"

"I'll do it," Jayne says.

Mal nods. "Good." He stands, pushes his chair in. "Let's get to work."

____________________________

Simon tries to concentrate that afternoon, but only succeeds in frustrating himself. He can't focus on anything--finally he gives up in disgust and takes himself to the lounge to read. While he's there, Book, Kaylee, and River return, laden with packages and bags.

"Hey, Simon," Kaylee says cheerfully. "Want to help us put this stuff away?"

"Sure." He puts his book down and stands, going to help them with the foodstuffs. There's more fresh food than usual--some vegetables and fruit, even some meat. "How did you manage to get all this?" he asks, storing the meat in the chiller.

"I'd like to attribute it to Kaylee's wonderful bargaining skills, but the truth is that the prices were so low we didn't have to bargain much," Book says. He puts the fruit away, leaving out some peaches.

"We'll be eating good for a while," Kaylee says in satisfaction. She tosses Simon a peach, which he manages to catch.

"I wouldn't advise going out into town," Book says. "There's an increased presence of local authorities."

"They were everywhere," Kaylee agrees. "But they didn't bother us. Kept stopping people dressed in black."

"Silver for the metal, black for the soil," River says absently. "Can't have the silver without the black but they forget that." She takes a bite of her peach, swallows and looks at Simon. "Put silver and black together and you get red."

Simon feels a shiver run down his spine and wills himself to ignore it. "When's Inara due back, do we know?" he asks Kaylee instead.

She nods and wipes peach juice off her mouth. "Should be back around dinnertime tonight, I think."

All four of them hear the muffled thud of a shuttle docking. "Or sooner," Kaylee says with a grin. "I'm gonna go say hello." She picks up another peach and skips off.

____________________________

The next morning, Mal and Zoe head off to meet their contact. They return just before lunch, looking wary but satisfied. "It's a fair deal. We'll clear twelve thousand off it," Mal says.

"What's the catch?" Jayne demands.

"Just be ready to move the cargo--fast." Mal looks around the table. "I want everyone in the cargo bay in an hour."

The rest of lunch is quiet. Normally they'd all be talking about what to do with their share, but both Mal and Zoe seem on edge and their tension carries over to the rest of the crew.

By the time they meet in the bay, tension's crackling so much Simon half-expects to get shocked when Mal brushes by him. "Contact'll be here in half an hour," he says brusquely. "Wash, I want us ready to lift off in forty-five minutes."

Wash nods. "Where are we headed?"

"Away from here, out of Alliance space."

"Right." Wash turns and heads for the cockpit.

"Shepherd, I'd appreciate you helping us load the cargo. It's heavy and the sooner we can get it off here the sooner we can leave."

Book nods. "Certainly."

"Kaylee, why don't you take River and stay in the engine room? I don't want you around if something goes south."

She nods. "Sure thing, Cap. C'mon, River."

As the girls leave, River glances back at Simon, her face grave. He gives her an encouraging smile, but he doesn't think she buys it.

Mal doesn't give him specific instructions and so Simon decides to stick around. He doesn't know what good he'll be should anything happen, but hopefully that won't be an issue. So he finds an empty corner and leans against the wall, watching Mal.

About twenty minutes later, there's a cloud of dust that resolves into three men on a cart, riding toward them. There's a larger cloud of dust in the distance but Simon can't see what it is.

"Morning," one of the men says, standing up on the cart. He's tall and gaunt, with a Chinese cast to his features. "You have our cargo?"

"Depends," Mal says evenly, standing at the top of the ramp. "You have our money?"

The man smiles and tosses Mal a fat wallet. "All there, as we agreed."

"Simon." Mal tosses him the wallet. "Count it." He smiles politely at the man. "Not that I don't trust you, but I don't trust you."

"Understandable."

Simon counts quickly, bills flashing through his fingers. He ignores the expectant looks of everyone around him, making sure he's accurate. "Twelve thousand, Captain," he says when he's checked it.

"Good." Mal nods at Jayne and Book. "Move it," he says shortly.

They begin the slow process of carrying the cases down to the cart, one at a time. Simon's a little surprised that Mal and Zoe don't help, but he supposes they want their hands free.

About halfway through, Jayne and Book stop for a minute, catching their breath before resuming. Simon looks outside, noticing that--"Captain," he says sharply.

"What is it?" Mal asks.

Simon points at the cloud of dust that's turning into a large crowd of people, running straight for them. "I think we have trouble," he says, amazed his voice is even.

Mal curses under his breath. "Did you know about this?" he demands of their contact.

The man turns and looks. "No," he says tightly. "I did not."

Jayne and Book are working faster now, but there are still five cases to go when the crowd reaches them. "That ore is ours," one man shouts from the crowd. "It belongs to the people of Astarte!"

"What you do with it is up to you," Mal says steadily. "But we ain't done nothing to you, and we'd like you to return the favor."

Three cases left. The crowd is stirring restlessly and Simon moves aside,tucking the wallet under his shirt.

Two cases. Maybe the crowd will wait until all the cases are off the ship and they'll be able to get away. Maybe. Simon's fists clench at his sides.

And as Jayne and Book put the last case on the cart, the crowd explodes, descending on it in a frenzy. The buyers have their guns out in an instant, but the crowd doesn't even seem to notice. Simon hears shots fired, hears someone yell, and has to force himself to stay where he is. He doesn't have any of his equipment--there's nothing he can do.

Mal and Zoe have their guns out but aren't firing; Simon guesses it's because they can't see Book or Jayne. The crowd is yelling now; the cart's buried under them. The tall man seems to be shouting at his employees, who are firing into the crowd almost randomly. "Tzao gao," Zoe says in horror. "Sir--they're unarmed."

"Where would they have gotten the metal for weapons?" Mal points out tensely. "Nothing we can do, Zoe."

"Gorramit, *move*!" That's Jayne's voice, but it's ragged with pain. Simon looks up to see Jayne leaning on Book as they make it up the ramp. Jayne's hopping on one leg--his other is bleeding from a bullet wound.

"Get him to the infirmary, *now*," Mal snaps and hits the comm. "Wash, get us out of here!"

Simon runs forward, ripping his shirt off in lieu of anything else he can use for a bandage. The wallet falls to the floor and he ignores it, kneeling next to Jayne to press his shirt against the wound, stanching the bleeding as best he can. "If he walks on it it'll bleed more and it's too close to the femoral artery," he says tensely. "I've got to stop the bleeding or at least bandage it somehow before we move him."

"Simon!" He's never heard that tone in Mal's voice before, but he doesn't get a chance to figure out what it means. He looks up and something hits him in the side of the head. There's a brief flash of pain--and then darkness.

He wakes up in the infirmary, his head throbbing. "What hit me?" he asks groggily. "And the wallet--where's the wallet?"

"A rock. Don't worry about the money, we got it. And Zoe can take care of Jayne, you just gotta tell her what to do," Mal tells him.

No, she can't. Simon saw the wound--it's beyond Zoe's knowledge. "Cabinet above the sink," he says, fighting down nausea. "Vial on the bottom shelf and one above it--I need both. And a hypodermic."

Mal brings him the drugs and the needle; Simon has to blink a few times before his vision's steady enough to fill the syringe. Before Mal can react, he extends his left arm and injects himself, watching the medicine flow into his bloodstream. "What the--I told you Zoe could handle it," Mal snaps.

"No, she can't. And I'll be fine in about fifteen seconds." He'll be fine for about forty-five minutes, but that should be enough time to get Jayne taken care of. Already, the drugs are starting to work--his head's clear, his hands are steady. He stands up and goes to the sink, scrubbing his hands.

The bullet went straight through Jayne's leg, somehow missing the femoral artery. Simon snaps on gloves and gets to work, ignoring the hovering presence of Mal and Zoe except when he tells them to get out of his light.

Forty-three minutes later, he ties off the last stitch. "He'll have to stay off that leg for a couple of days," he says. "Zoe, you know how to check it for infection, right?"

She nods. "What about painkillers?"

"Three-quarter dose when he wakes up. After that, if he needs it, give him half a dose every four hours." Simon shakes his head, fighting the gray creeping into his vision. "I won't be able to do it myself."

"Why not?" Mal asks.

Simon doesn't get a chance to answer before he crumples to the floor.

____________________________

Mal catches him right before he hits the ground and lowers him the rest of the way. "Zoe, get Book," he says, kneeling next to Simon. "He might know what's wrong."

She nods and leaves. "Simon, what did you do to yourself?" Mal mutters, looking at him worriedly. "I need you functional, damnit!" He slaps Simon's face lightly, but there's no response.

"What's wrong?" Book asks, entering the infirmary.

Mal glances up at him. "Doctor drugged himself so he could work on Jayne, but he collapsed a couple minutes ago. You seem to know things the rest of us don't--any idea what he did?"

"What drugs did he use?"

"I don't know. The vials are on the counter."

Book nods and picks them up, looking at them. He types something into the computer, frowns, and types something else in. "Oh, this isn't good," he murmurs.

"What is it?" Mal's voice is sharper than he wants it to be, but Simon almost looks like a corpse and it's--disturbing, to say the least.

"He mixed two drugs that don't react well with each other," Book says. "Until they wear off--which will take several hours, depending on the dosage he used--he'll be essentially comatose."

"Great." Mal sighs. "No way to counteract it?"

"That's beyond my knowledge, I'm afraid. If it's any consolation, it's not dangerous. Unless he goes into convulsions."

"Convulsions?"

"It's possible." Book kneels on Simon's other side, looking down at the doctor. "Unlikely, but possible."

"Will there be a problem because of him gettin' hit on the head?"

Book frowns. "It may keep him out longer. I'm sorry, this really isn't my area of knowledge."

"Someday you're going to tell me just what that area *is*," Mal tells him evenly. "But right now I could use your help gettin' Simon to bed."

"Of course."

It would probably be easier--and smarter--to put Simon in his bed, in the passenger dorms. They're closer to the infirmary and there aren't stairs to deal with. But Mal wants Simon where he can keep an eye on him, and so he carries Simon to his bunk. Book goes down the ladder first and Mal lowers Simon down until Book catches him.

"I can take it from here," Mal says, putting Simon on the bed. "Thanks."

Book nods. "This wasn't your fault, you know," he says, stopping at the bottom of the ladder.

Mal smiles tightly. "Thanks for the help, preacher," he says. Not his fault? Like hell it's not.

Book hesitates, but leaves, and Mal shuts the hatch after him. "Okay," he mutters once the door's shut. "Let's see how long it takes you to wake up."

____________________________

Mal doesn't want to leave Simon alone in case there are problems when he wakes up, but he can't stay in his bunk the entire time, either. The problem's neatly solved when Zoe drops down the ladder, carrying a mug of something. "Wash needs to know where we're headed, sir. Thought I'd sit here for a bit so you and he can discuss it."

She has a wonderful way of giving orders phrased as suggestions, Mal thinks wryly. But she's right and he knows it. He nods and climbs the ladder.

"So where are we headed?" he asks once he reaches the cockpit.

Wash shrugs. "You told me to take us out of Alliance space, so I did. There are a couple of places we can reach without refuelling--Isis, for one, although they're a bit unsettled."

"No," Mal says immediately. "I want somewhere quiet."

"In that case..." Wash looks at the charts. "We're about twelve hours out of Horus. No Feds to speak of--not much else to speak of, either. They're self-sufficient to a fault."

It sounds perfect to Mal. "We can make it there without a problem?"

"Oh yeah." Wash grins. "And we shouldn't hit any patrols along the way."

"Good." Mal nods, decisively. "Lay in a course--we'll figure out what we're doing once we get there."

"Sure thing." Wash looks up at Mal. "How's Simon? And Jayne?"

"Jayne's fine, or will be." In actuality, Mal doesn't know how Jayne will be, but he trusts Simon's skills as a doctor. "Simon..." He shakes his head in frustration. "Damn fool drugged himself and is down for the count."

"On purpose?"

"Book said it was a result of the stuff he used." Mal sighs. "Don't know how long he'll be out, either."

Wash nods, looking uncharacteristically grave. "Okay. Well..." He turns back to the console, types in some commands. "We'll reach Horus in a little over twelve hours."

"Good." Mal turns and leaves for his bunk.

Zoe's mug is empty and she sits in the chair, half-drowsing. "We set a course?" she asks when he enters. She rises, picks up her mug.

"We're headed for Horus--quiet planet, good place to relax for a few days. Jayne needs to take it easy and..." Mal glances at Simon, lying still and unmoving on the bed. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest indicates that he's even alive. "Don't know how long it'll take him to wake up." His voice is rough.

"He will wake up," Zoe says, almost gently. "Too damn stubborn not to."

Mal has to laugh at that. "Yeah, guess you're right. I'll stay with him--don't want him alone in case there's a problem."

"I'll pass the word on--I'm sure Kaylee and Inara won't mind sittin' with him for a spell here and there." Zoe looks at him with dark eyes. "You shouldn't stay down here the whole time, sir."

She's worried; he can feel it. But he doesn't have the energy to reassure her that he's all right--at least, not in a way that she'd believe. "I'll leave the door open," he says instead.

Zoe nods and climbs up the ladder, leaving Mal alone with a comatose Simon. He sighs, sits down on the bed, absently stroking Simon's hair. "Why'd you do it?" he asks quietly. "Why do you always put yourself last?"

____________________________

Simon can't help it--he groans, one hand coming up to cover his eyes. "Ow," he says faintly.

"Back among the living?" Mal asks wryly.

"Mm." Simon swallows, although it's difficult--his mouth is dry as dust. "How long was I out? And is there any water?"

He feels Mal slip one arm around him, helping him into a sitting position. Mal raises a cup to his lips and Simon reaches for it, his hands wrapping around Mal's wrist as he drinks thirstily. "You were out about thirteen hours," Mal says when the cup is empty.

"Thirteen hours!" Simon's eyes fly open and he stares at Mal in horror. "I should have been out only six--eight at the outside!"

Mal shrugs. "You were out for thirteen. We landed a little over an hour ago."

"How's Jayne? And River?" Simon looks at Mal intently. He ignores the throbbing pain in his head as best he can. "For that matter, how are *you*?"

"One at a time, Simon." Mal sets the cup down. "Jayne's fine. Complaining about his leg, but he's fine. Zoe doped him 'bout an hour ago. River's been holed up with Kaylee until we landed--think they went off to wander."

"How are you?" Simon asks again.

Mal takes a deep breath. "What the hell were you *thinking*?" he snaps. "Zoe's patched us up before. Did you think I'd throw you off this boat 'cause you got injured and couldn't take care of Jayne?"

"It needed to be done," Simon says. His head's throbbing more now; unconsciously, he raises one hand to it. "Zoe couldn't have patched up that wound without leaving Jayne with permanent muscle damage. I thought you'd rather have him whole." He stops, wincing. "I didn't think I'd be out for so long, but there was nothing inherently dangerous in what I did."

"What about your head?" Mal asks. "Did you think about what the drugs could have done if you'd cracked your skull?"

"I didn't. I had--have, rather--a concussion." Well, he knows that now. If it had been anything more serious, he probably wouldn't have woken up. The thought hits him hard and he goes pale.

"You didn't know that, did you?" Mal says slowly. "You didn't know if all you had was a concussion."

"The odds were--"

"Don't give me that go se!" Mal cuts him off. "You didn't know. Simon, you could have *died*!"

Mal's furious, but is that fear under the anger? Simon isn't sure. "I didn't," he says as reassuringly as he can. "I'm fine. Well, my head hurts, but I'm okay."

"You could have *died*," Mal repeats. "Were you thinking at all?"

"The odds of anything serious happening were almost nonexistent." *I think.* "It was a choice I had to make, Captain." Simon's voice is thin and he stresses Mal's title deliberately. What's done is done.

"All right," Mal says reluctantly.

"All right?" Simon hadn't really thought Mal would cave that easily.

Mal shrugs. "Can't change what happened. No sense in arguing it to death."

"So you're not--mad?" Simon asks tentatively.

"Didn't say that." Mal meets his eyes. "Right now, I am beyond mad. I am beyond furious, and the only thing keeping me from throwing you out the airlock is that you're okay. But so help me, Doctor--" His stress on Simon's title is as deliberate as Simon's was before. "If you *ever* do something that stupid again, you're off the boat. I pay you to fix people. Not to make decisions on whose life is worth more." Mal's quiet for a moment, and Simon wonders what he's thinking. "You can't do that to River," he says.

Simon flushes, then goes pale. Mal's right--he hadn't thought of River at all. "You're right," he whispers. "But--I had to, Mal. I wouldn't have done it if there had been any real danger." *I don't think I would have, anyway.*

"Just don't do it again."

He nods, hiding a wince.

"Your word," Mal says evenly. "I want your word."

"You don't trust me?" Simon asks. That hurts.

"You just showed me how little value you place on your own life," Mal reminds him. "I want you to promise me you won't do it again."

Simon swallows. "I promise," he says softly.

Mal nods. "How's your head?"

"It hurts." *That's* an understatement if ever he made one.

"Can you take painkillers?"

"I wish." Simon sighs and rubs the back of his neck. "But given what I've already taken, I don't want to chance it." He sighs again. "Not for another twelve hours, at least."

"What can you do in the meantime?"

He shrugs. "Deal with it. I should go check on Jayne, and River, and--" He tries to stand up, only to find himself stopped by the simple expedient of Mal's other arm going around him and holding him in place.

"Zoe can check on Jayne and if there are any problems with River, someone will let you know." Mal doesn't let him go until Simon nods in agreement. "You need to lie down."

"I was just asleep for thirteen hours," Simon points out. "I don't think I can sleep anymore." In truth, he's a bit groggy and tired--drug hangover symptoms.

Mal gives him a steady look that tells Simon he's not fooled for an instant. "That's not a suggestion, Simon," he says. "I don't care if you sleep, but between the knock on your head and the drugs, you're in no shape to go anywhere. Lie down."

"Which one of us is the doctor?" Simon complains. "I'm okay, Mal. I just have a headache."

"You're about as white as these sheets," Mal tells him. "Lie. Down." He gently pushes Simon back on the bed until Simon's lying down. "Do you want company?"

"No." Simon knows he's sulking but can't seem to make himself care.

Mal nods. "All right." He moves to the chair, picks up a book.

"What are you doing?" Simon asks.

"Said you didn't want company, so I'm just going to sit here and read."

Simon bites back his instinctive annoyed response. Clearly, Mal wants to keep an eye on him, and Simon's beginning to think that it's not because of trust. He closes his eyes, thinking back to the chaos in the cargo bay, and realizes what the tone in Mal's voice was.

Fear.
 
   
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