Author: Eleanor K.
Posted: 4 August, 2003
Spoilers: Out of Gas
The series: Immanent, Expectations, Overturned.
Disclaimer: Render unto Joss what is Joss'.
Notes: Thanks to Sffan, who wanted a sequel, Rebecca, who reminded
me that I was in fact writing one, and Cab, Comma Nazi extraordinaire.
The crash from across the hall shatters Simon's sleep. It was a
fragile thing anyway. He launches himself out of bed for the third
time tonight and stumbles across to River's room.
He left both their doors open once he realized it was going to be
a bad night, but he still manages to walk into the doorframe, misjudging
the distance with sleep-blurred eyes and slamming his shoulder into
it. He pushes off it and hurries to the bed.
River is quiet now, arms wrapped around herself, hair hiding her
face. Shaking. Her drawing pencils are scattered across the floor.
The wooden case lies near the wall, the lid cracked from the impact.
He stares at it longer than he should, caught by the grain of the
wood and the way the crack cuts across it. A whimper from River
snaps him out of it, and he goes to her, wrapping her up in her
blanket, in his arms. Rocking her the way he remembers his mother
rocking him when was young.
Or was it his mother? He is suddenly uncertain of the memory.
River is so thin in his arms, and their mother was always the same.
In his memory, the woman who holds him is soft. He remembers the
cushion of her breasts and thick, strong arms keeping him safe and
suspects that this was, after all, one of the long succession of
nannies that passed through his early life and left so little behind.
It's a pity. He liked that memory.
"River? Mei mei? It's all right. It was just a dream. You're here
now. You're with me. You're safe."
She sniffles and gulps. Wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Not just dreams," she mutters. "Some of it stays."
"Can you tell me..." But he lets the question go as she stiffens
and hides her face against his neck.
She will get better. Eventually she'll be able to talk about it,
and he'll get some idea of what to do, and everything will work
out. She'll be fine. He knows better than to give into these late-night
But he's so damned tired.
She's crying softly now, hot wet tears on his skin. The only thing
to do is hold her, soothe her fears, rock her until her sobs trail
off and she slips back into sleep.
He settles her under the covers again and brushes the hair away
from her face. Wipes her tears away. There are dark hollows under
her eyes and a crease between her brows from the frown that seldom
leaves her face. He's been trying to cut back on the sedatives,
but she needs rest.
With a sigh, he reaches for the syringe he keeps in her bedside
table. The needle slips in easily. She does not stir.
Simon stands, turns toward the door, and stops. Mal is standing
in the doorway, watching him.
"She out for the night?"
Simon rubs his eyes. They burn, aching to close, and Mal's image
is slightly fuzzy, slightly swimmy.
"Yes. At least until morning. Yes."
"Good. Come on."
Mal takes his elbow and guides him down the hall to the stairs.
"Is something wrong? Is someone hurt?"
He hopes not. He's not sure he'd be much good to anyone in this
state. This is the third night in a row it's been like this. He's
afraid she's getting worse.
"I really need to sleep, Captain."
"How many times have we fucked?"
"You heard me."
Simon does close his eyes for a second then. "I don't know. Five?
"Five or six. And you're still calling me Captain."
"That's better. Come on. Up the stairs with you."
Simon lets himself be pulled along, Mal's arm now around his waist.
"Where are we going?"
He stops. Kaylee is coming down the steps toward them. She yawns.
"Hey, Captain. Simon, it's okay if I sleep in your bed? I'll hear
her okay from there if she needs anything."
Simon looks a question at Mal.
"I asked her to stay with River. Knew you wouldn't feel right about
leaving her alone."
Mal tips his chin up with a gentle hand. "Just say yes."
Simon meets Mal's eyes and swallows. "Yes."
He can't look at Kaylee now, and he lowers his eyes to the floor
as Mal pats his cheek.
"That's my boy. You run along, little Kaylee. Call if there's any
"Will do, Captain."
Her bare feet patter down the steps, and she is gone.
Simon looks up at Mal. "Well, that was possibly the most embarrassing
moment of my life."
"Then I'm thinking you don't have a lot to compare it to. Come on."
"I shouldn't let you do this."
"But you're gonna."
Simon looks down the stairs. He should go after Kaylee, tell her
it was all a misunderstanding and send her back to her room. But
he's not going to do that.
He knows it, and so does Mal, and so he goes quietly when Mal's
arm comes around his waist again and urges him upwards.
"Worked yourself into a state this time, didn't you?" Mal asks conversationally.
"She hasn't been sleeping well."
"You haven't been sleeping at all. Nightmares?"
They reach the door to Mal's bunk, and Mal turns Simon to face him,
hands on his shoulders, studying him for a moment.
"You go on down. I'll be there in a minute."
Simon does as he is told, climbing down the ladder and looking blankly
around the now-familiar room. The bed is unmade, and he straightens
the covers before sitting down on it.
No less familiar is the surge of shame and guilt in his stomach,
churning around with what little he ate at supper. He shouldn't
be letting Mal do this. They're both adults, and this is no kind
of relationship for adults to have.
He can guess what Mal is doing right now, and when, a few minutes
later, Mal descends and hands Simon a steaming mug, it is no surprise.
Warm milk at bedtime, for god's sake. Warm milk with brandy, but
Mal will stand over him, arms crossed like the quintessential stern
father, until he does. So he does. The milk is canned, of course,
but with the brandy in it, it's hard to tell the difference. Something
else this time, too. Something sweet.
Simon ignores the warm feeling he gets from hearing Mal call him
that even in jest, from seeing Mal smile without bitterness, even
if it is only to tease.
He rolls his eyes. "That was the entire reason you put it in there,
"Just trying to improve the taste a little, though if this is the
thanks I get..."
"Thank you, Mal," Simon sing-songs, his smile false and bright.
Mal takes the mug from him, still smiling, and drains the rest himself.
"Not bad, if I do say so myself." He sets it aside. "All right.
Time for bed."
Simon slides between cool sheets, watching as Mal undresses. Wondering
what the captain was doing still up at this hour. It must be three
or four in the morning. As Mal gets in beside him, Simon turns automatically,
waiting to be gathered close, kissed, touched. Mal does hold him,
but only brushes his lips against Simon's forehead.
"Just sleep, Simon. You need it."
Put to bed like a child. Simon knows he should object. He's twenty-five,
for god's sake, and more than capable of taking care of himself.
If only it didn't feel so good to snuggle into Mal's arms and let
his eyes close. To drift off without the expectation of being awakened
That was a week ago. A week ago to the day and--Simon glances at
the clock--almost to the hour and minute, he was warm and safe,
asleep in Mal's arms.
Now he crouches beside Zoe's still form, fingers permanently attached
to the soft skin of her wrist where he can just make out her pulse.
Steady, but so weak.
River sits on the floor beside him, her hand stroking Zoe's ankle.
"She has bad dreams, Simon. Can't you wake her up?"
"I wish I could, mei mei."
He looks toward Wash, who has not looked back this way once since
they left Serenity. Wash stares with fierce eyes into the black,
and his hands are white-knuckled with his crushing grip on the steering
yoke. Now and then, Simon sees his head start to turn, sees the
tendons in his neck stand out for a moment as he struggles not to
They are all pretending that the course Wash chooses is important,
that it will give them a chance where there is no possible chance.
Simon monitors Zoe's pulse and breathing and is torn between wanting
her to wake up for Wash's sake and wanting her to slip away with
more peace at the end of her life than she has had in the living
of it. More peace than any of the rest of them will find in a few
River leans against him, and he thinks of the drugs in his med kit.
She can sleep through the end as well. Wash won't, he knows without
asking. He will want to be awake in case Zoe regains consciousness.
He won't himself, of course. If Zoe or River were to wake up and
need him... The thought of River crying for him in pain and fear
and him unable to help--it is untenable.
He thinks of Mal, alone on Serenity.
He should have given Mal something to ease his end... But as soon
as the thought comes, he knows Mal would not have accepted. He wishes
he knew whether Mal's faith that someone would come along to help
his stranded ship was real or just a front.
Then again, he is glad he doesn't know, because both thoughts are
too much to bear.
He turns to look at Wash's stiff back and then back again to Zoe.
He wishes, as he did now and then when he worked at the hospital,
for a miracle. Sometimes, there's nothing else left to do.
Minutes or hours pass. His arm aches from holding its position,
but the feel of Zoe's pulse and continued warmth is a comfort. Simon's
head sags against his chest, and River's head rests in his lap.
He can feel sleep coming to claim him, and he wonders if it is natural
sleep or the lassitude of oxygen deprivation.
"We're going back." Wash's voice is too loud. The confines of the
shuttle give it a tinny, muffled echo.
Simon rubs his eyes. "What?"
"We're going back."
And then the swing and dive of inertia grips them for a split second
before the artificial gravity adjusts. The shuttle turns in a tight
loop, and they are headed back the way they came.
Simon looks to Zoe, half expecting to see her awake and giving orders
again, for he can't imagine what else might have prompted Wash to
do this. But no, her eyes are still closed, her pulse too slow for
Simon's mind revolts for a moment, an unvoiced protest. Stupid to
go back. They won't have a chance. They'll be out of air before
they even get there.
Following hard on that is the knowledge that they should never have
left. The pragmatism of the idea didn't signify when it meant leaving
Mal there alone.
He wonders if Wash has come to the same conclusion, or if he has
merely decided to do what he thinks Zoe would want him to do.
Maybe it doesn't matter. The sentimental has triumphed over the
practical, but since they will die either way, Simon, despite his
natural practicality which the past few years have enhanced, can't
bring himself to see this as a bad thing. Mal, of course, would
"He has bad dreams, too."
Simon looks down at the faint words, but River is still asleep.
These are nightmare-dark moments as Simon waits for the shuttle
to seal into its berth on Serenity, waits for the all-clear before
he can open the doors, nearly trips as his feet rush on their pre-planned
course, but oh, so slowly.
Engine room--empty. The hall outside--empty, but the wall is blazoned
with a bloody hand print.
He finds Mal laid out on the floor of the bridge, hand reaching
toward the call-back button. Simon touches his hand, and it is cold.
There is a second where Simon cannot see. Darkness takes over his
vision, and panic takes over his mind.
"Bad dreams." River is standing in the doorway, looking down at
him. "Wake him up, Simon."
His mind clears, and he reaches for his med kit.
"All right. I have to insist. The captain needs to rest."
"Yeah," Mal slurs. "Think the doc might not be wrong about that
one. Just gonna need a few..." His eyes close, and Simon lets himself
relax. It lasts only a second before Mal is looking at him again,
then around the room. "You all gonna be here when I wake up?"
Book takes his hand. "We'll be here."
"'Kay." Mal's eyes close, and he smiles. "That's good."
There is a feeling of held breath in the room, but Mal is out for
good this time. Simon shoos everyone out, though they are inclined
to linger. Inara is the last to leave, her face perhaps a shade
paler than usual. The glance she gives Mal before she turns away
makes Simon want to push her out of the room.
He has no right to be jealous. He is a charity case, nothing more.
An atonement, perhaps, for past sins. He sees how Mal is with Inara,
how she is with him. The give and take, back and forth, teasing
and hurting by turns. It's a story a blind man could read, and Simon
isn't blind. He knew what he was getting into.
He knows. But the knowing doesn't help.
He stands quietly by the door for a few minutes, wishing he could
make some excuse to send Zoe and Wash back to their bunk, but Zoe
should stay here tonight, and he can't ask Wash to leave.
In the end, he simply turns his back to them. The transfusion is
no longer necessary, and once the needle is removed from Wash's
arm, Simon leaves him to his wife.
Simon sits on a stool beside Mal, his back leaning against the wall.
The steady hum of the monitors, the murmured conversation between
Wash and Zoe, and the sigh of Mal's breath combine into a steady
background, a solid foundation for sleep.
He stands outside a small house, white with blue trim. The windows
are shaded by white curtains, but he can see lights burning within.
He steps closer, the dew on the grass speckling his shoes with diamonds.
The door opens in a burst of laughter and music, and a child runs
out. Eight or nine, shining eyes and a wide grin. He flies over
the wet grass and leaps a fence in one bound, and he is lost in
the early morning dark.
Simon turns back to the house. Light, laughter, and music are all
gone. The burnt frame is still smoking, and he can see the dull
red glow of hot spots amid the ruins.
He wakes with a start and feeling of light-headedness that lingers
as he looks at Mal's face. Mal's eyes flicker with the constant
back and forth of R.E.M. sleep, and his mouth is twisted with a
shadow of pain.
A small metallic sound jerks his eyes over to the corner, where
he see River curled up on the floor, asleep. Her hands twitch in
abortive movement, tapping against the steel cabinet. Perhaps nightmare,
but perhaps not. She is asleep, and that is cause to be grateful.
He decides to let her be for now, afraid the decision has more to
do with his own exhaustion than any fear of disturbing her.
He leans back against the wall again, mind drifting, determined
that he will not sleep again. He looks over to see Wash and Zoe
asleep as well, Wash slumped over her hand, forehead resting against
the back of her wrist.
Simon's mind is blank now. His eyes fix on one part of the room
and then another. None seem to have any meaning for his exhausted
brain. He has to blink every now and then just to be sure his eyes
are still open and he hasn't fallen asleep without realizing it.
He will be awake if Mal needs him. If River needs him.
He will be.
Simon wakes to the touch of warm fingers brushing his cheek. He
lifts his head.
Mal smiles at him. "Mornin'."
No longer leaning against the wall, Simon is half draped over Mal's
thighs. He searches for River, but she is gone, hopefully back to
her own bed. He turns quickly, but Wash and Zoe are still asleep.
He straightens up with a feeling of reprieve. It's not as if the
whole ship doesn't know by now that they're sleeping together, but
he can't quite handle the idea of Wash's knowing smile, of the speculation
in Zoe's eyes. Not yet. Not when it's charity, and everyone knows
He looks back to see Mal watching him with an expression that says
he's quite aware of Simon's thoughts.
"How do you feel?" he asks Mal quickly, in a preemptive subject
"How do think I feel? Like someone shot me in the gut."
Mal is smiling again, apparently willing to let it go, at least
for now. Simon finds himself smiling back.
"Well, yes. But apart from that?"
"*Apart* from that?" Mal snorts. "Apart from that. Never been shot,
have you, Doc?"
"I can't say that I have. Do you recommend the experience?"
"Can't say that I do."
Mal shifts, and suddenly his face pales, and he looks...as if he's
been shot in the gut.
Simon recollects himself, checks the monitors and adds a shot of
painkiller to Mal's I.V.
"It'll be better soon," he tells Mal. "Just breathe."
He can almost see the drugs kick in, Mal's face easing, his expression
going vague and worried.
"Everyone's here? Everyone's okay?"
"No one was hurt but you."
"Good. That's good." Mal frowns at him. "You okay? You don't look
"That's what you always say." Mal pats the side of the bed, a slight
movement that speaks of his weakness. "Sit down. Let me see you."
Simon, about to argue, checks himself. Something in Mal's face makes
him sit without discussion.
"Well? Here I am. Prognosis, Dr. Reynolds?" And if there is the
slightest hint of irritation in his voice, surely no one could blame
him for that. Mal has to be the strong one even now?
Mal looks at him for a long time before he speaks. "You'll be fine."
His voice is quiet. "You'll be just fine."
"So will you." He means more than healing from this immediate wound,
and from the surprised, almost hopeful look on Mal's face, perhaps
Mal understands that.
Silence. The steady breath of the two sleepers on the other side
of the room, the creak of metal as Simon shifts on his stool. Waiting.
Finally, Mal speaks.
"When that ship showed up, I thought...maybe things would go smooth
this time. Thought it was my lucky day." His voice is low, and his
eyes are downcast. "But you never get something for nothing. Not
Simon pauses, almost doesn't say it. "Why is it always you who has
Mal meets his eyes for a second and then turns his head away. He
makes no answer.
Mal leaves the supper table early, rising to his feet with a smile
even Jayne must know is forced and making his apologies. A little
tired, ate too much, don't know what's wrong with me, not like I
got shot or nothing.
When he is gone, all eyes turn to Simon. All except Inara, who is
still watching the empty doorway.
He tells River to behave and mutters something general about checking
on the captain, as if they don't all *know*, as if that's not exactly
why they're looking to him now, and it's nothing to do with him
being the doctor.
He finds Mal standing by the open door to his bunk, contemplating
the climb down.
"Was it the food that didn't agree with you, or Jayne's jokes?"
Or, perhaps, I don't know, it might have been the lead slugs I recently
removed from your small intestine. But he knows better than to say
it out loud. You don't get anywhere with Mal if you put him on the
Mal gives him a look that says that, in the best of all possible
worlds, Simon would be far, far away, and possibly in pain.
"What are you doing here? Ain't I had enough doctoring for one lifetime?"
Simon can only think of one kind of doctoring, one kind of help
that Mal will accept. He looks down at the floor. "I haven't been
sleeping. You said I should..."
And it's not quite a lie. Not quite, because he *hasn't* been sleeping.
He glances up to gage his success. The softening of Mal's face makes
his stomach twist. Guilt, he tells himself. It's just guilt, and
that's as it should be, given how he's manipulating Mal right now.
So easily, too. He wouldn't have thought it would be so easy.
Mal's hand tips his chin up, meeting his eyes, and every thought
of manipulation disappears from Simon's head. He wants only to be
in Mal's arms. Wants it so badly it scares him. Tonight wasn't supposed
to be about him and his weakness. He won't let it be.
But he lets Mal urge him down the ladder, onto the bed. Mal kicks
off his own boots and kneels before Simon to take off his shoes.
Simon lets him do it, though he can see the pain on Mal's face,
though he wants nothing more than to help Mal up and hold him close.
He doesn't help, though he has to clench his hands to stop himself,
when Mal pulls himself upright and sits beside him on the bed, shoulders
It's too obviously a strain for Mal to raise the arm he puts around
Simon's shoulders, but Simon affects not to notice.
He leans into the embrace and feels Mal's body soften against his,
pliant. The shift is slow, but soon enough Mal is more leaning on
Simon than holding him.
"I know what you're doing," Mal says quietly. "Don't think I don't."
Simon doesn't answer.
"I told you when we started, I don't want anything from you."
"And I said you couldn't stop me from trying. Are you going to throw
Mal's hand moves lightly over Simon's hair, barely a touch. "No.
I won't throw you out."
"Then maybe we should get some sleep."
They lie down together, Simon's head resting on Mal's chest, careful
of his wound. Neither makes any move to undress.
"It shouldn't always have to be you who pays the price, Mal."
"That's the way it is. Told you, it's the only way I know."
But no matter the words, Simon can feel the truth in the relaxation
of Mal's body, the slur of sleep that has crept into his voice.
He is here for Mal tonight, not the other way around.
He lies still in the dark as Mal's fingers comb through his hair
over and over, and he feels redeemed. All his weakness put to good
Simon watches Inara watching Mal and wonders if he can be the only
one who sees it. Certainly, Mal doesn't seem to notice. For all
his clumsy attempts to get under her skin, he apparently has no
idea how far under he has burrowed without trying at all.
Simon sees her face when Mal calls her whore, and almost hurts for
her. Only almost, though, because he's made a decision. Inara will
have her chance soon enough.
They are two days out of Greenleaf when Simon climbs down into Mal's
bunk for the last time. He can't stand the wait any more, can't
stand to be thrown over for someone else. He feels, obscurely, that
his fear on that score has lent him strength.
Mal looks up from his desk. Simon faces him steadily, ready to begin
his speech, but...
"Glasses? Since when do you wear glasses?"
Mal pulls them off and drops them to the desk with a clatter. "Since
when do you not knock?"
"Since today, apparently." He just has to ask. After all, he won't
get another chance. "Seriously, Mal. I had no idea. When did you
Mal gives him a sour look for a moment and then shrugs. "Couple
years back. Being captain ain't all fun and games, you know. Alliance
likes to know every damn thing a man does, in triplicate."
"Yes," Simon says slowly. "But you don't file travel plans. You
don't even pay taxes."
"Well, no. But truth to tell, it's a sight harder keeping faked
up books that'll pass if nobody looks too hard than it would be
to keep real ones." Mal grins suddenly. "A man's like to go blind
Simon finds himself smiling back and recalls himself. He has a speech
Mal doesn't give him a chance. He picks up a sheaf of papers from
the desk. "Long as you're here, just check these figures for me."
He rubs his eyes. "Think I need a new prescription. The fine print's
a bit blurry."
"And we all know how much the Alliance loves fine print."
"Their most favorite thing in the 'verse."
Simon stares at him a moment longer, taking in the patently false
good humor, the way Mal will look anywhere but Simon's eyes.
He takes the papers. No matter how small the gesture is, it's one
he can't refuse.
He sits cross-legged on the bed, aware of Mal watching him, and
gives up on his speech.
The figures are, of course, perfectly correct.
Inara will have to wait a little longer.