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WARNING: If you haven't read the warning on the index page, go back and read it. If you don't, and you don't like what you find here, don't come crying to me.

Title: Whores and Thieves

Author: Eleanor K.

Fandom: Firefly

Pairing: Mal/Simon

Rating: NC-17

Posted: 5 Feb 2004

Spoilers: none

Email: emungere@gmail.com

Disclaimer: All hail Joss.

Notes: Thanks very much to Becc for a near-light-speed beta.

For Chrissy, on her birthday.

..___..


"You're not the same person you were, Simon."

The words were a blow, but Simon knew that no sign of his feelings showed on his face. Mika's voice was smooth and musical in his memory, stamping reactions into him and his classmates with gentle insistence. Any statement, any shock, any tragedy may be received with a slight smile and sympathetic eyes. Make them believe you're listening. Make them believe you care--because you do. It's your job.

The smile--oh so faint, just enough to suggest warmth--was already on his lips. He looked at River with an expression he had practiced in the mirror ("What you intend to express is irrelevant. You must know what your face is saying. Make a study of it.") and he found a reply already in his mouth.

"Nothing has changed between us, mei mei."

Oh, yes. His months of training have served him well.

River looked at him with sad eyes. "See?"

"Everyone changes. That doesn't mean I feel any differently towards you."

"It's more than that," she insisted. "You let yourself be turned into someone you're not. Why do you think I didn't want you to go?"

His smile was truer this time. "I thought maybe it was because you'd miss me."

She rolled her eyes. "Dummy. Of course I missed you."

"I missed you, too. I'm glad you didn't go to that boarding school."

She shrugged, looking uncomfortable as she always did when the Academy was mentioned. "I had a bad feeling about it. I don't think father ever forgave me."

"Until I gave him something else to be angry about."

"It wouldn't have been so bad if you hadn't waited until your intership was over and you were working for him. He could have blamed someone other than himself."

"It was his fault."

They fell silent, both of them choosing the same moment to look around them, as they had not done since they sat down.

Simon chose this bar as a compromise--too low class to be approved by the Companion's Guild, and thus private from any of his friends in House Alanga; high class enough that he didn't worry about River waiting for him here. It and its patrons are *almost* clean, *almost* respectable.

It was the perfect choice. He always makes the perfect choice these days.

"I understand if you're angry with me, River--"

"I'm not. Father is, of course. And mother says she's not, but she is. But I'm not. I'm just worried."

"You don't need to worry about me. I'll make a good living once my apprenticeship is over."

"I'm not talking about money, Simon! You're not even listening to me."

She stared at him for a second and then punched him hard in the arm.

He jerked back. "That's going to leave a bruise! Dammit, River..."

"And that's the first thing you think of now? Not that it hurt, or why your little sister punched you, but that you're damaged goods?"

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"All right. Why did my little sister punch me?"

"Because whoring your body for strangers isn't any better than whoring your mind for father. This doesn't make you your own person, Simon. It doesn't make you free."

She stood, frowning fiercely in the way that she did when she was trying not to cry. She was out the door before he could even think about responding.

They'd never talked about it, but of course she knew why he'd left medacad and joined the Companion's Guild. River always knew him better than anyone.

"Drink?" said a voice behind him.

He swiveled his stool around to face the bartender. "Please." He almost asked for tea, but that was unlikely to go down well here. "A beer."

"What kind? We got--"

In a brief revolt against politeness, Simon interrupted him. "I really don't care what kind."

The bartender nodded and went to get the drink.

"If you don't care about the taste," said a voice by Simon's shoulder. "You ought to at least care about the alcohol content. He'll pawn that weak tea Ichibora stuff off on you if you ain't careful."

Simon turned and smiled at the man before he could stop himself. "I appreciate the warning. It's kind of you to take so much trouble over a stranger."

"If it was so much trouble, I wouldn't take it."

The man was standing close, but not too close. Even so, the height difference wasn't something Simon could ignore. Nor were the eyes. Tired blue in a weathered face. The creases around them suggested not age, but pain.

"I'm glad to hear it. I wouldn't want you to put yourself out." He didn't try to stop the smile this time.

The man looked him up and down with a little twist of his mouth. "I could say something about putting out, given your line of work, but I've been told recently I should learn to keep my big mouth shut."

"Does it show?" Did he have it stamped on his forehead?

"A little. The way you talk, the way you move. Surprised to see a Companion in a place like this, though."

"It's a nice enough place." He doesn't have to fake the smile that says the place is nice enough because of the company. He held out his hand. "I'm Simon Tam."

"Mal Reynolds."

Awkward, this part, but it was best to be up front. "I'm not working at the moment. I don't want you to get the wrong idea."

"So the only reason a guy can talk to you is because he wants to get in your pants?"

"That's not what I meant." It shouldn't be so easy to fluster him.

"Ease up, Simon." Deep, amused voice. "I'm just talking here."

After spending almost a year learning the mechanics of attraction, Simon hadn't thought he'd ever feel it as an emotion again. It took him a moment longer to work out the cause of the fluttering heat in his stomach and the entirely unfeigned shyness that kept his eyes dancing between Mal's neck, his own hands, and the bar.

"That's...good to know."

"Just passing the time."

"Were you waiting for someone?"

Mal took a drink of beer and totally failed to answer Simon's question.

"Was the girl a client?" he asked instead.

"No." Impossible to keep the outrage from his voice even though Mal had no way of knowing. "That was my sister."

"Huh. So you got family around here."

"Whores can't have family?"

Mal smirked. "It's Companions, isn't it? Guild's not gonna be too happy with you, talking like that."

"I'm off duty," Simon muttered.

He took a drink. When he looked up from his beer, Mal was focused on some point over his shoulder.

"And it looks like I'm on duty, after all. Nice to meet you, Simon Tam."

Simon watched him cross the room and talk to a woman wearing a pink cowboy hat. He stood close to her and had his hand on her arm. Figured he was straight. Simon fixed his attention on his beer with every intention of forming a happy, monogamous relationship with it.

***

"Another."

He hadn't really planned on getting drunk.

"Here you go." The bartender slid the beer across the bar and slopped suds over Simon's hand.

He wasn't sure he was drunk. It had happened so gradually. After Mal had left to talk to his girlfriend, there had been another beer. Simon was almost certain he hadn't ordered it. He had ordered the next one.

Now things were pleasantly blurred, including his life and the raised voices coming from behind him. That was nice. He had no desire to listen to other people's inane conversations.

The voice were quite loud, though.

He swiveled his stool around in time to see the empty space inside the barrel of the gun that was aimed between his eyes. It swung wildly away from him, and his heart started beating again. He looked at the hand attached to it and realized it belonged to the woman in the pink cowboy hat. She was now pointing it at Mal.

"Now, Ris, you don't want to do anything that can't be undone. Let's just calm down a little here."

"We're done with the calm part of the evening, Mal. We're into the shooting and swearing part."

Mal was edging away from her, closer to Simon, closer to the door.

"Swearing I got no problem with. But the locale's a little public for the shooting, don't you think?"

"Looks fine to me."

She shot him. The bullet caught Mal in the shoulder, and his body spun to the right. An arc of blood trailed through the air after him.

Mal fired as he was falling. Before he hit the ground, the woman was bleeding from a wound to her side. There was suddenly a large and respectful space around both her and Mal.

The woman pulled herself up onto an elbow and then to her feet. Her hand was pressed to her side, and the hand holding her gun wavered wildly. Mal wasn't moving.

Simon had just finished the Guild's self defense course. Even so, he hadn't expected the kick that knocked the gun out of her hand to be so easy. It flew across the room and skidded across the floor until it hit the wall. The thunk it made drew attention to how quiet the bar had become.

Mal raised a steady hand, gun pointed at the woman. "Money," he said.

She threw a bag toward him. It jingled when it hit the floor.

"Simon, you want to get that for me?"

Simon stepped forward and picked it up without thinking. He stood turning it over in his hands, conscious that a good half the eyes on the room were now on him.

Mal hauled himself upright with the help of a barstool and backed up until he stood beside Simon. He held his gun steady on the woman.

"Let's go," he said. "Slow and easy toward the door."

Mal took a step back, but Simon stayed where he was. He was very conscious of the bag of money in his hand. Mal didn't seem like a criminal, but he had demanded money at gunpoint which was rather the definition of armed robbery.

"Get a move on, Simon," Mal said quietly. "Your other option is staying here with a bag of money and a bar full of people who want it."

"You have a point."

They backed up until Simon's shoulder hit the doorway and then backed through it. Outside, Mal slumped against the building.

"We gotta move."

"You have made your point. I'm not arguing. We need to get you to a hospital."

Mal pushed himself off the building. "No hospital."

He started off down the street, one hand pressed against his wound. Simon could see the blood leaking from it.

"Mal--"

"Gotta get to my ship. Not far." Simon took his arm, but Mal shook him off. "Don't need help."

So Simon followed him and steadied him when he stumbled. He ended up sticking the bag of money down the front of his shirt, partly so it would be less conspicuous, but mostly so he would have both hands free for Mal.

By the time they reached the docks, Simon was almost pushing him along and getting worried about blood loss.

"Which one?"

Mal pointed, and Simon steered him up the ramp and got a gun shoved in his face by a very large man in a sweaty T-shirt.

"Put it away, Jayne. He's a friend."

Jayne grunted and stopped putting pressure on Simon's eye with his gun barrel. Simon stepped back to put Mal between him and the other man.

"You can take off now," Mal said.

"Not until I see that wound."

"Learn a lot about doctoring in whore school, did you?"

"No, but I learned a great deal about it at medacad."

Mal blinked at him. "What?"

"Where's your infirmary?"

"Mal, you hurt?"

"It's nothing, Jayne."

"Don't look like nothing."

"If you could tell me, please, where the infirmary is? One of you? Before your captain bleeds to death?"

Jayne looked to Mal, who was looking woozy and starting to sag against the instrument panel.

"Through that door and just keep going. You'll see it. I'll send someone down to keep you company, just to see you don't get any bright ideas. You look like the type."

"Well, I'm sure you'd know." Simon took Mal's arm and guided him through the cargo bay.

Mal almost tripped on the hatchway that opened into the ship proper, but Simon got him through it and walking again. He heard Jayne calling over the intercom for someone named Zoe to get to the infirmary.

He'd just gotten Mal on the exam table and his shirt off when a noise made him turn. A woman stood in the doorway. She wasn't pointing a gun at him, which was a nice change, but her expression and her hand on the butt of her gun said that could change at any time.

Simon stopped moving and kept his hands where she could see them.

"I'm trying to help him."

"You're a doctor?"

"Not anymore. But I have the training."

"Kicked out?"

"Voluntary career change."

He raised a hand slowly and withdrew the bag of money from his shirt. "This is yours."

She nodded, and he tossed her the bag.

"Was that our money?" Mal said, voice a little slurred.

"I've got it, sir."

"That's good. Think I might pass out now."

"You do that, sir."

"Don't shoot the boy."

"I won't."

"Right."

Mal slumped over slowly until he was lying on his side.

The woman left, and Simon sighed to himself. Now he could get some work done.

It wasn't hard. The bullet had gone through cleanly and hadn't hit anything but muscle. He cleaned the wound and stitched it up. The woman left as he started, but just as he was finishing, someone else came to stand by the door. It was a man this time, smaller than the ape. He was wearing coveralls and a loud shirt that clashed with his hair.

"Hey." He raised his hand in a jerky wave. "So you're the doctor-slash-Companion. Thought maybe Zoe was kidding about that. Not that she's overly given to levity, my wife, but she can slip one in on you when you're not paying attention. Was there a specific vein you were wanting to open?"

Simon waited about ten seconds for that to make sense, but it just didn't. "What?"

"Blood. I hear our captain's in need of some, and I'm just his type. Blood type. Not any other type. I'm Wash. Short for Washburn, but I'd rather you didn't call me that on account of me not liking it much."

He smiled nervously and stuck out his hand. Simon shook it.

"A transfusion would be a good idea at this point, yes. Thank you for volunteering."

"Hey, thanks for fixing our fearless leader. The way I heard it, you could've dumped and taken off with the cash."

"Did he--" Simon stopped. It wasn't a tactful question. Jayne and his heavily armed self had inclined Simon toward tact.

"What?"

But Wash looked so thoroughly harmless, and Simon would have to leave after he set up the transfusion, and he'd never see any of these people again, and he wanted to know.

"Did he, that is, are you..."

"Thieves?"

Simon nodded gratefully.

"Well," Wash drawled. "I wouldn't say *thieves*... Well, all right, yes I would." He smiled cheerfully. "But not today. Ris owed us that money fair and square."

"I'm glad you got it back, then."

Simon returned the smile--and caught himself doing it. Caught himself acting not like a Companion, or even like a doctor, but like a normal person. Was the training wearing off so quickly? His teachers would be ashamed. He didn't care.

He checked Wash's blood type just to be sure and set up the transfusion in a haze.

He didn't care. His new chosen career, the one he'd ripped his life apart to start, and he didn't care.

He finished up and watched the blood ease through the tubing from Wash's arm to Mal's.

"There. It's set to shut off automatically, but if you feel faint at any time, just turn this valve and pull it out. All right?"

"Just dandy, doc."

"Then I'll be going."

"You ain't going nowhere." It was Jayne, blocking the door.

"Am I being held captive?" He turned to Wash. "Do you intend to kidnap me?"

There was a time when he would have brought quite a large ransom, but that time was past. He felt no need to mention it.

"Nobody's kidnapping anybody, right Jayne? Captain wouldn't approve, and you know it."

"Captain wouldn't want him just walking out of here, knowing our business."

Mal shifted on the table, and his eyes opened. "Captain says let the boy go. Kidnapping's a piss poor repayment for a good deed. Go on, Simon. Jayne, you move yourself out of that door."

Jayne did, looking surly.

"Nice to meet you, doc," Wash said.

"And you." Simon looked at Mal, unsure what to say. Take me with you, was what came to mind. He kept his mouth firmly shut until the urge passed. "You'll be all right?" he asked instead.

"Had worse than this before now. I'll be up and around by tonight, I reckon. I imagine you've got some business of your own to get on with."

Simon nodded and walked past Jayne and out the door. It seemed like a long walk through the cargo bay. He didn't stop when he got outside, but picked up his pace.

He did have business, in about two hours, as a matter of fact, which wasn't a lot of time to get back to the House and get cleaned up and dressed.

***

Simon handed his bag to the runner who would leave it in his client's hotel room for him. It held not just his clothes, but candles and tea and a few other things no Companion should be without. He'd packed the bag automatically before he took his shower, remembering all the training that let him do it so quickly, with hardly a thought. The purpose of the training was to invest every action, from bathing to packing that overnight bag, with meaning. All it did for Simon was let him do what he had to do without thinking too much.

He buttoned his dark red silk shirt, tied his tie, and pulled on the suit jacket over it. The client's gift, a ruby tie pin, was fixed in place. Simon smoothed his hair back and stepped out of his room.

He made his way down the curving staircase to where the client, Brian Cardy, waited. This was only Simon's fourth job, and Brian had been two of the previous three. Simon realized he should probably stop thinking of him as 'the client.'

"Simon." Brian took his hand and kissed it. "I'm so pleased to see you again. You look..." He smiled and shook his head. "Amazing. As always."

He offered Simon his arm, and they walked out to the waiting air car. Simon said just enough to prompt Brian into talking about his job, his life, his ex-girlfriend. It wasn't hard. Brian liked to talk.

Simon let his mind drift, and it drifted directly towards Mal. Mal and his crew of thieves--but not today. Mal and his smile and charm. Mal, who he absolutely shouldn't be thinking of while he was with Brian. Simon was beginning to suspect he wasn't a good enough person to be a real Companion. He was too selfish.

The party, when they arrived, was splendid. The air glittered with suspended diamond dust that reflected the light of the living glass chandelier. It twisted and coiled and shifted color, spreading over half the vast ceiling. Mindless silicon life, finally achieved by science and put to work amusing the rich.

The Tsings weren't just rich, of course. They were the richest family on Osiris. Simon's own family were paupers beside them. Much as Simon disliked his own father these days, he'd still prefer his father's austerity to this sort of display. Half the servants here were branded slaves, as well, which did nothing to improve his mood.

Lady Tsing swooped down on them as they were heading for the buffet table. Around her neck, in the most hideous setting Simon had ever personally born witness to, was her family's treasure, the Black Star. It was the first and largest diamond out the mine that had made their fortune. The size of Simon's palm, it would have ransomed the entire planet it was found on, but there was more to it than size and clarity. In the center was a darkness that no one had seen before, with a burst of light at its heart. That had earned the jewel its name. Lady Tsing fingered it constantly as she talked.

"My dear Brian, so utterly charmed to have you here. And I see you've brought your little friend, what's his name again? I can never remember with these people."

Lady Tsing wasn't normally so offensive to the Companion's Guild. It was Simon personally she was insulting, her revenge for the numerous occasions when he, still a doctor and eligible bachelor, had refused to have anything to do with her daughter. The Tams were high on the social food chain, and if they couldn't compare to the Tsings for sheer wealth, well, few could. Ariana Tsing was going to marry down in that regard unless she snagged one of the maharajas of the inner circle of planets.

"Simon Tam, your ladyship." He bowed and kissed her limp hand. "It's an honor to see you again."

"Hm, yes, I suppose it is." She turned again to Brian. "Such a pity, my dear, that you didn't tell me you were lacking a proper escort. My daughter would have been delighted to come to your rescue."

Brian smiled gently. "Would I were so inclined, my lady. I could think of nothing finer than an evening with your lovely child on my arm. But as things are, I'm sure she has found herself a more suitable escort."

He looked over Lady Tsing's shoulder. Ariana had found herself, from what Simon could see, the opposite of a suitable escort, and the two of them were dancing wildly to a sedate waltz. Lady Tsing made her apologies and hurried away.

"That woman gets more appalling every time I see her," Brian said.

"I think it's the strain of having that girl still under her roof. No wonder she's trying so hard to marry her off."

Brian laughed out loud, and Simon very nearly covered his mouth.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say--"

"Please, don't be sorry. You have the right of it, and no one should have to apologize for speaking the truth. Not even those whose livelihood must so often depend on lies. Please, Simon, don't lie more than you feel you must when you're with me."

Brian was a kind and decent man, and Simon was an ungrateful wretch. Here was this man, paying him money for his company, and managing to be rather good company himself, and all Simon could think of was the thief he'd sewn up a few hours ago. Stop that, he told himself. Just stop it.

"You're too good to me," Simon said. "And what reason could I have to lie to you?"

"What indeed. I'm sure a moment's thought could give me ample answer, but I think instead I'll ask if you care to dance." He held out his hand, and Simon took it.

They danced set after set, Simon tucked close against Brian's body. He could feel Brian's arousal and his hands wandering lower than decorum permitted. Simon let them wander. He didn't really mind, and it wasn't his place to rebuke his client. It was flattering, even, to be wanted so badly.

Waltzes gave way to set and circle dances imported from the border planets and suddenly the height of fashion in the Core. Simon was parted from Brian's wandering hands and found himself in a circle made mainly of women. He knew most of them to nod to, had even dated some of them before his career change.

The circle expanded, and Simon found himself partnered with a man in a plain black suit and string tie. When his eyes got as far up as the man's face, he almost tripped over his own feet.

"Mal! What are you doing here?" he hissed.

"Keep your pants on, boy. It's nothing to do with you."

"No one gets in without an invitation."

"I got an invite. Gave it to the big guy at the door, or I'd show it to you."

"By 'got' do you mean 'received in the post' or do you perhaps mean 'stole?'"

"You planning to call the feds down on me for a possibly stolen party invitation? You didn't seem all that picky about the law earlier today."

"You were hurt," Simon said before he could stop himself.

Mal grinned. "Nice to know you care. I feel a lot better now, thanks for asking."

Simon caught sight of Lady Tsing over Mal's shoulder, still fingering the Black Star. His eyes widened.

"Oh no. Tell me you're not planning to-- Wash said you were thieves, but-- You'll be killed!"

"Whoa, calm down there. What's got you all worked up? I don't plan on dying anytime soon."

"You have to get out of here." The dance was coming to an end. "Really, Mal. Now."

"When I've got what I came for, and not before. Have yourself a nice evening, Simon."

The last switch came, and Simon found himself back in Brian's arms, then stepping back for the final bow. His eyes were still on Mal as Brian led him toward the bar.

That damned fool idiot. Even if he got his hands on the Star, he'd never get out of the building with it and never sell it if he did. And Lady Tsing's guards would shoot to kill.

"A friend of yours?"

"What? Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. He's just...someone I know. I'm afraid he's going to do something foolish."

"If he is, it looks as though he's going to do it upstairs."

Simon turned just in time to see Mal walking up the staircase to the second floor. Simon wondered how he'd slipped past the guards at the bottom. Then he wondered how going upstairs was going to help him steal the Black Star when the Black Star was down here around Lady Tsing's neck. Could she be wearing a copy?

"You ought to go and check on him," Brian said. "I would want any of your friends getting in trouble."

"Brian, I'm here with you. I want to be. I'm sure he can look after himself."

Brian smiled thinly. "Yes, well, much as I'd like that to be true, I can recognize a lie when it's waved in my face. I appreciate your tolerance up to this point, but I won't keep you."

"Brian..."

"I did ask you not to lie to me more than was necessary. That's why I asked for you, as a matter of fact. You're remarkably honest. It suits you much better than this dissembling."

"Brian, please."

"The truth, Simon."

They watched each other over their champagne glasses. Soft music played in the background. Simon dropped his eyes.

"I'm afraid this may not be the best career for me."

"I heard you were a very good surgeon."

"I-- I was. Maybe somewhere off world... I don't... I'm sorry, Brian."

Brian just smiled a little. "I should have known better, really. Come along."

"Where--?"

"Just come along. You're still technically mine for the next twelve hours, so no questions."

Simon followed him, too confused to be resentful. It wasn't until they reached the bottom of the staircase that he began to understand what was happening.

"Well, well," Brian drawled. He laid a hand on the chest of the nearest guard, staggering just a bit and sloshing his champagne. "I had no idea Lady Tsing was hiring such lovely help, or I wouldn't have bothered to bring my own. Care to join me upstairs?"

He took a lurching step forward. Both the guards moved to block his way.

"I'm sorry, sir. That's off limits to guests."

Brian lurched a bit to the left, and both guards stepped towards him. The larger one caught him as he stumbled and held him up, looking bemused. That left Simon's path to the staircase clear. He caught a sharp look from Brian and hurried up the stairs.

So, he was upstairs. What was he going to do now? Go looking through Lady Tsing's private rooms for Mal, who might or might not be robbing her and then--what? Turn him in? Help him?

"Simon," a voice hissed. "What the hell you doing up here?"

"Looking for you."

Mal reached out and pulled him into the room. "Are you crazy?"

"Are you?"

"Simon, I got a job to do, and you are not making it any easier."

"You can't steal the Black Star. You'll never get away with it. I-- I don't want to see you arrested." That was considerably more that he'd meant to say, and he shut his mouth tightly.

Mal stared at him for a second and then started laughing so hard he had to lean on the wall for support.

"What?"

Mal just whooped and waved off his question. "Black Star--" More laughter.

"Mal."

"You thought..."

"Mal." Sharply.

Mal wiped his eyes. "You're putting us on a bit of a pedestal there, Simon. Steal the Black Star, ha, that's a good one."

"Then what *are* you doing here?"

"Stealin' stuff," Mal said cheerfully. "Just not the big stuff. Little Ariana's got a tip top jewelry collection just lying about for the taking, and we've got a buyer." The laughter faded from his eyes. "So, what are you planning to do now?"

"Do?" Simon blinked, noticing again how very blue Mal's eyes were.

"Do. As in, turn us in. Or not. Have to say, I'd prefer not, myself."

"You're not going to shoot me or tie me up or anything?"

"No gun. No rope."

"Hit me with some sort of blunt instrument?"

"Don't see anything to hand."

"I think the lamp would work."

"Hey, who's the criminal mastermind here? I'll decide what works best for clubbing folks over the head."

"So sorry." Simon paused. "You'd really just let me turn you in?"

Mal shrugged. "I might do different if I thought you actually would."

Simon opened his mouth to answer, but Mal grabbed his arm and waved him into silence. He heard footsteps outside, just as Mal shoved him down and behind the desk.

He fell hard and knocked his head against the floor. By the time he was standing and steady again, two guards lay on the floor, out cold.

"I could have helped," Simon said, rubbing his head.

"Yeah? They teach you hand-to-hand in whore academy?"

"Yes, actually. Well, less hand-to-hand than knee-to-groin, but still quite effective."

Mal shook his head, mouth quirking upwards. "Man of many talents."

"Mal, you're bleeding." Simon stepped forward, touching the spot of blood on Mal's shirt. "The stitches must have come out. Hold still."

"I got stuff to steal."

He tried to pull away, but Simon grabbed his suspenders. They ended up closer than he'd intended. He looked up from the dark stain to Mal's face, which was very close indeed.

Simon let his lips part and waited to be kissed. He was not disappointed. Mal murmured his name against his lips, and Simon could almost taste it.

"My ship could use a doctor," Mal said into his ear a moment later. Lips touched his neck, delaying his answer by several seconds.

"I-- I can't."

"I figured." Mal kissed him once more and pulled back. He slipped Simon's handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and slipped it inside his shirt to soak up the blood. "You better get yourself back to the party."

Much as he would have liked to do almost anything else at that moment, Simon nodded. He watched Mal leave the room, leaving the door open. A minute later, he took a deep breath and went back down the stairs.

Brian had seemed willing enough to let their appointment slide, but he'd already paid his fee, and it was a high fee. Also, Simon thought it might be a good idea to have an alibi for the rest of the night in case someone called the authorities. Having gone upstairs would not look good. He'd managed to slide past the guards at the bottom of the stairs without being noticed, but someone else might have seen him.

He found Brian sipping champagne and watching the dancers.

"I didn't think I'd see you again tonight."

Simon smiled at him and touched his arm. "I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be."

He remembered a time when it wasn't so easy to lie.

The authorities were called, but apparently no one had noticed him. He was in bed with Brian by midnight.

***

Two days later, Simon stood on the rich, hand-knotted rug of the House Priestess's private study. He didn't fidget, but he wished he could. This was the perfect opportunity to tell Salla about his decision to leave the Guild--but every time he tried to find the right words, he wondered if he really wanted to do that.

Finally, she ended her call and turned to him. Her smile was perfect.

"Simon. It's good to see you again. How are you settling in to your apprenticeship?"

"I couldn't ask for a better mentor than Mika. She's been very kind."

"And your clients? Brian has been hard to please in the past, but he seems to have taken to you."

He summoned up the right smile--quietly pleased for this occasion--and lied with it. "I have no complaints."

Salla hesitated long enough to make him worry that she would question him further, and he wasn't up for that right now. She only nodded and moved on.

"I have a new client for you. I suppose Brian must have talking about you, since he's asked for you by name. His file."

She handed him a sheet of digipaper, waiting while he looked it over. It seemed standard enough, except for one thing.

"There's no picture here."

"No. He may have some sort of disability or deformity. It's up to you to do the research, of course. Can you give me your decision by this evening?"

"Of course."

He bowed and left the room, already sure he was going to take this client. No picture. It had to be. He'd do the research, just in case, but it had to be.

By the end of the evening, he'd done the research and still had no idea whether he was right or wrong. He was beginning to suspect, however, that he was wrong. Mr. Harker was, apparently, a recluse with a bank account to rival Lady Tsing's and a hump on his back. Beyond those facts, easily found from public records, there was no information at all. That could be because Mr. Harker was a rich recluse who valued his privacy, or it could be because Mr. Harker didn't exist at all.

He waved Salla to let her know he'd take the job. Appointment. They were supposed to be called appointments. He kept getting that wrong. It was only a word, anyway. When you cut into the human body with a scalpel, blood was blood, no matter what you called it.

***

It was, curiously, a morning appointment.

Simon woke early and had time to watch the news before he left. There was still no hint of any suspect in the robbery at Lady Tsing's house. Simon smiled to himself. It was already being rumored that Ariana had sold the necklace and rings off herself to pay her gambling debts.

Simon wore a cream suit and sunglasses as he stepped out the door. His bag was already in the room at the Hotel Transalia, and he'd decided to walk there. It was only about a block from the House.

The weather was fine, and his mood had wavered from hope to anxiety and finally settled on forced indifference. It was good enough. It let him be at least outwardly cheerful and would, hopefully, let him accept Mr. Harker with or without hump.

The interior of the hotel was dark, but he kept his sunglasses on.

"Penthouse," he told the elevator operator. He expected an argument, but the man glanced at what Simon assumed was a list of approved visitors and took him up. Apparently, it was a short list. He looked both surprised and impressed to find Simon on it.

When the doors opened, Simon was fairly impressed himself. The floor was ebony, inlaid with spirals and interlocking circles made from mother of pearl. The wall that separated the elevator from the rest of the suite was simply a sheet of water, falling from the ceiling and vanishing into the floor.

He stepped out and waited until the elevator doors closed. He'd never seen the wall-of-water effect before, and though he thought he knew how to manage it, he didn't want the added embarrassment of having the elevator operator watch him get soaked.

He walked towards it as if he knew what he was doing and watched in relief as it parted before him just before he was about to walk into it. Beyond the water was a door, which opened before he touched it. He stepped through.

Mal waved at him from the four poster bed. Simon's face split in a smile he couldn't control.

"It *was* you!"

"You don't think I offed old man Harker and hid his body in the closet, do you?"

"How on earth did you afford this?"

"My cut of the take just covered it." Mal stood and came to stand in front of Simon. One hand touched his shirt collar and then dropped again. "Just so happens it's my birthday today. Only one thing I wanted. Lucky for me, it was for sale."

"You-- You really paid my fee, then?"

"I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I'm not generally a man who'll pay for what he can't get any other way." He brushed his fingers down the side of Simon's face. "So tell me, Simon. Can I have you anyway?"

"You can go and ask for your money back. I'll wait."

Mal smiled and pressed his thumb over Simon's lip. "Nah. Don't mind paying for something so pretty. Just wanted to make sure I didn't have to."

Simon was breathless now with want and nerves and fear. His tongue came out to taste Mal's skin. He'd never understood the thrill some clients seemed to get from being with a Companion, as if it was somehow better because they'd paid for it, because they felt they could own another human being for a night. There were times when Simon had wondered how different it really was from slavery.

He wasn't wondering now. He was only amazed that Mal would go to all this trouble for him. Not only stay on the planet with the feds looking for him, but pay for this room, pay his fee.

"Mal..." He looked around at the room. "You didn't have to do all this. You could've just asked. I-- I would have said yes."

"Seemed like the right way to do things." Mal's mouth quirked in a small smile. "And I guess I didn't much like the idea of asking you out and being told you already had a date that night. So I made sure there wouldn't be anyone but me. I can afford it, if that's what you're worried about."

"I... I don't want to talk about money anymore."

"Sounds good to me."

Mal's thumb slipped off Simon's mouth and his hand rested on the side of Simon's neck as their lips met. Mal's mouth closed over his, small movement of lips and tongue, soft and wet. Mal tasted like breath fresheners, which made Simon smile into the kiss.

"Bed?" Mal said into his ear a moment late, his hand smoothing over Simon's ass.

"Whatever you want," Simon replied. "I'm yours for the night, remember?"

Mal pulled back to look at him. "Only if that's how you want it."

Simon leaned forward and kissed his jaw. "That's how I want it."

Mal grinned. "Bed, then."

He tugged Simon's hand, pulling him the few steps toward the bed, and Simon found himself grinning, too. Mal sat to take his boots off, and Simon stopped him.

He knelt down. "Let me do that." He said it softly, looking up at Mal through his lashes, one hand on Mal's ankle.

"Gonna use your Companiony wiles on me?" Mal was still smiling, but a little flushed now too, and, Simon could see, starting to get hard.

"Just a little," he promised. "I'll stop if you want me to, but they ought to be good for something."

Mal nodded, which Simon took as permission to go ahead with the so-called wiles. He was glad. They *should* be good for something. Usually they just gave him a headache and a profound sense of unease. But if what he'd learned could make this better for both of them, he had no problem using it.

He pulled the boots off easily and ran a hand up inside Mal's pants, holding his eyes while he stroked lightly over calf and knee. On the way back down, he pulled the sock off as well, and then did the same thing on the other side. Always light touches to start with, sensitizing the skin, making the client--making Mal feel more than he thought he could.

Simon pushed his legs apart and moved between them. He dragged his mouth along the tight cloth covering Mal's inner thigh and heard Mal's soft breath. His nails skimmed over the same path, coming to rest over hard heat that the pants did little to conceal. He was hard himself, he realized. Already, and without visualization or even a touch. It had been long enough since he'd been with someone he genuinely wanted that he'd forgotten how that felt.

It felt good, but Mal's moan and the hand in his hair as he bent to mouth the cloth-covered erection felt better. Graze of teeth, heat, scent, hips shifting toward him until Mal was almost arched off the bed. He unfastened Mal's pants and teased over the shape of his cock through tightly stretched underwear. Bent in to lick and wet the fabric.

"Simon." Mal's voice was strained. "Oh, gorramit, Simon..."

Enough was probably enough. He peeled down the underwear until Mal's cock rose up from it, free and hard and slick both from the fluid it was dripping and from Simon's mouth. He licked up its length and heard Mal gasp. Then he stood.

"Whoa," Mal said. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Just watch," Simon told him, smiling.

Simon kicked his shoes off and bent from the waist to take off his socks. The fabric of his pants was tight across his ass, and he could almost feel the heat of Mal's eyes on him. Facing away from Mal now, he unbuttoned his shirt and slid it just off his shoulders. He slid the belt out of its loops and let it fall to the floor. The sound rang loud, making them both aware of how quiet it had become.

"You want some music to go with this, or something?"

Simon smiled over his shoulder and saw Mal watching him with one corner of his mouth turned up and heat in his eyes.

"I don't need music."

He dropped his pants and boxers and stepped out of them, pulling a tube from the pocket as he did. He closed his eyes, feeling the air close around his heated cock like a hand. He touched himself lightly, shirt tails hanging down to tickle his thighs, loose cuffs fluttering against his length as his hand moved up and down.

"Having fun there?"

"I am. Do you want to know what I'm thinking?"

"This more of your wiles?" Breathless.

"Maybe. Yes or no, Mal?"

"Yes. I want to know." He sounded like he did. He sounded hungry for it.

"I'm thinking of you." Simon turned slowly until Mal could see him in profile, see what he was doing. "Thinking about your hands on my body." He let his free hand drift up to pinch one nipple. "About your cock inside me. Do you want to fuck me, Mal?"

"Simon..." Almost a whisper. "I want-- This is... You don't have to..."

"I want to."

It felt like a sacrifice, this display of himself. Something holy. Something, he realized, he was supposed to feel with every client and never had before. Probably never would with anyone else.

He let his head tip back, exposing his throat, let himself moan at the feel of his hand on his cock. Forced himself to stop, then, and open the tube he'd gotten from his pocket.

Two slicked fingers slid into him, stretching him, his back arched, shirt falling over his hand, almost concealing what he was doing but not quite. He pulled it up and away, making sure Mal could see everything as he finger-fucked himself.

"Oh, rutting hell..." Very quiet, almost awed.

Simon smiled and let the shirt fall down his arms to pool around his wrists, baring his chest but masking his fingers in their slow rhythm. He didn't think it would take long for Mal to do something about that, and he was right.

Mal was on his knees in front of Simon in a second, taking his face between his hands and kissing him hard. Simon ran a slick hand up and down Mal's cock.

Mal pushed his hand away. "Enough wiles."

Simon nodded and let himself be pulled on to the bed. He lay still and watched Mal strip, looking over and over every new bit of flesh exposed.

"You're beautiful," he said when Mal joined him on the bed.

Mal shook his head. "Ain't no one in the room who fits that description but you." Kissed him again. "Maybe more than anyone I've ever met."

Mal's hands roamed over him, pulled him up to his knees and settled on his ass, kneading, pulling Simon closer.

"You got no idea what I want to do to you."

"Tell me," Simon breathed.

"Everything." Mal shook his head. "Fuck, everything."

Heat traveled up Simon's spine in a wave that made him feel almost faint. Mal's hands on him were a drug, making him want more and more, making him want to lose himself and know only this. Mal's mouth was on his neck, sucking, nipping, marking him with shivers of electricity that went all the way down to his toes.

He clung hard to Mal's upper arms and tried to get enough breath to speak.

"Now, Mal, now. I want you now, please--" Lost in it and wanting to be lost, drowning in the hot breath against his skin, the soft touch of Mal's hair on his cheek.

Broad hands pushed him down to the bed. He raised his knees to his chest, and Mal caught his legs and lifted them over his shoulders. Moved forward. Pushed in, just one long glide.

Simon's neck arched, and his head hit the bed. He'd worked himself up too much, couldn't last long, wanted to last forever. Mal moved steadily inside him, rocking hard and harder. Reaching out to take his cock and pump him without mercy.

"Don't, too soon, I'm going to--"

But he couldn't finish, and Mal wouldn't stop. Mal's eyes met his and held, and his hand worked faster.

"Do it, Simon. Want to see it, want to see you without the teasing, see you lose everything for me. Want to see how you look coming with me inside you. Come on. Show me."

The words faded to a whisper, or maybe it was only the pounding of Simon's blood that meant he couldn't hear it anymore. He stared into Mal's eyes, feeling it build inside him, balls drawing tight and tingling with need. One last hard thrust made his eyes close, made his body convulse as he came hard with Mal's hand still working him, still dragging it out with thrust after thrust until Mal was coming inside him.

Aftershocks, warmth, slick skin sliding on skin as his legs slipped off Mal's shoulders and Mal's arms wound around him. Both of them rolled to their sides, holding and held. His face against Mal's neck. Whispered words that meant nothing beyond here now. Couldn't, because Simon couldn't forget, even through lazy touches and sleep drawing him down, that Mal would be gone by the end of the day.

He closed his eyes, not wanting to, but unable to keep them open.

***

Sun came through open curtains when he woke. Mal was sitting on a chair, looking out the window. He was fully dressed.

"You're leaving," Simon said. It wasn't a question.

"Offer still stands. We could use a doctor."

"I can't."

Mal walked to the bed and kissed him, slow, hand on his cheek, sucking on his tongue and then his bottom lip before drawing back. He left without speaking, without looking back, though he hesitated in front of the door for a long time before stepping through and closing it behind him.

Simon refused to think about it. He rolled over, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.

It was late afternoon when he woke up. He looked at his bag, sitting unopened beside the bed. He thought about carrying it back to the House, putting in his closet, waiting for his next job. Client. Appointment. Whatever.

He got out of bed and pulled on his pants slowly. Buttoned his shirt more quickly. Shoes, but no socks. He left those behind on the floor as he walked quickly toward the elevator. By the time he hit the street, he was running.

End of the block.

Left.

Right.

Across this street, down that one.

The spaceport came in view, and then he was through the gate, looking around wildly for some landmark to tell him which way to go. This Way to Mal's Ship would have been nice.

What he saw was even better. Wash's red-blond hair was bobbing above the crowd just a few feet from him. He pushed through and grabbed Wash's arm without thinking, needing not to let him get away.

Wash looked surprised to see him, but not unhappy. "Hey, doc. What's up?"

Simon stared at him. Mild inquiry in equally mild blue eyes.

I'm abandoning my life, which, incidentally, I hate, after one night of sex--admittedly maybe the best sex I've had in my life but still only one night of it--with your captain so could you please tell me where to find him because I'd really like to be kissing him right now and if he could tell me I'm not behaving like a fool and he actually meant what he offered that would be good too.

"I was looking for your ship. Mal offered me a job."

Wash grinned. "Most excellent. We could use a doctor. Mal does have a talent for getting himself shot. You just come along with me, doc. I won't let you get lost."

Simon followed him in silence, thinking that he's going to be relying on that promise fairly often in the next few weeks.

They passed a public call kiosk, and Simon paused.

"Wait for me?" he asked Wash.

"No problem, doc."

Simon stepped into the cubical and shut the door. He ran his card through the reader and dialed River's home code. Her image appeared on the small screen, wavery and shot through with static.

"Simon? Where are you calling from?"

"The spaceport. I-- I called to say goodbye."

She grinned at him, understanding shining in her eyes even through the bad connection. Knowing without being told, like she always did.

"Tell me," she said.

"You sound like you already know. As usual."

"Bet I do. What's his name?"

He hoped the connection was bad enough that she couldn't see his blush.

"Mal. His name is Mal."

Simon glanced at Wash, who was leaning against the side of the kiosk, watching the people go by. He didn't look like he was in a hurry.

"So?" Her voice was impatient and little-girl excited, like she still got sometimes, even at seventeen. "Tell me the rest! Tell me everything."

So he did.

-------
..end..

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