Warnings: Relatively graphic descriptions of gore and death and blood and the like.
Notes: Because the foreshadowing in Firefly that Simon was going to eventually kill someone was so heavy that it could have outweighed...um...Yeah, I got nothin'. A herd of cows? Space cows?

"Center Cannot Hold"

"Well," the captain said from a distance. "That takes care of that."

Then a brief flurry of movement – birds, startled by sound – a quick snap of noise rising then falling back down to settle, a swell of voices indistinct before his ears cut out from his dying mind. Only thing left now was smell, a metal tang, and the sight of them, circling around him and around him, spiraling slowly down to land, skittishly avoiding contact but coming closer now, coming bolder. Already one of them bent down to touch –

"Get away from him," Simon said, and the startling sensation of his voice in his throat jarred him back into sight, into sound – into wakefulness. In his renewed lucidity he was terrified at the thought of having to account for the fury in his voice. Already Book, already the captain crouched over the body, looking up at him, faces full of confusion mixed with worry and confusion with annoyance, respectively, and he didn't know how to placate them.

"Somethin' you want with the body, doctor?" the captain asked. And the doctor looked down at the body, crumpled in a wide pool of blood – good God, was there even that much blood in the human body? Perhaps before him lay crumpled a miracle man, a scientific specimen overfilled with blood. Would have been a good man to know. The Greeks said that those ruled by blood were kind-hearted. This one didn't seem that way, but all men had layers, and who was Simon to pass judgment so fast?

But they expected an answer. "I should...autopsy." Somewhere between brain and tongue the words "do an" were lost; or perhaps they stuck to the roof of his mouth. Simon thanked whatever chance had made autopsy into both a noun and a verb and saved him from destruction.

But the captain didn't appreciate his serendipity. "Not much mystery as to what killed him, doctor, and we don't have much time to spare. Maybe, this once – " Was there irony in that "once"? " – you can hang the ceremony and let us just chuck the bastard out the hold."

Simon took a step forward and looked at the fallen blood-ruled man. His head had split beneath the trauma. His brain, the hive of his humanity, that much-lauded intelligence, had cooked and swelled beneath the massive heat of the bullet. His mind spilled out from its casings, and Simon wondered whose job it was to clean up in a case like this. Would he be held responsible? Or was there someone designated, that he might... "He – could still live."

The captain looked up at him incredulously, and then there was a cold slim touch on the back of his hand. "He ain't comin' back, Simon," Kaylee said gently. "No need to be afraid."

He shook her off. She didn't understand. None of them did. None of them knew what he did – that he'd once seen a man with a pole through his head, an iron bar clean through his skull, that he'd seen a specialist remove it. The man had lived; had flourished, in fact, the only ill effect that he skipped the odd numbers when he counted. But Simon had seen it done – he could save this man. He could be brought back to what he was.

"Count of three," the captain said, tucking hands beneath slumped shoulders. A wave of panic rose in Simon as he stood, paralyzed, unable to stop his hope from going overboard.

A voice, behind him, that buzzed in the inaudible frequencies. A man's voice. Then Kaylee, and he turned at her words: "Happened awful fast, Jayne." Then the heavy man, Jayne it was, spoke again, and again his voice was just beyond distinction. Simon strained like a myopic eye, but the focus of it was just off. Just so that the sound was blurry about the edges, just so the words blended into indistinction. Kaylee again: "Hush. He's takin' it hard."

Simon wanted to go up, to hit the heavy man, to inform them both that he wasn't taking anything hard, he was reacting reasonably, but he heard behind him "Three" and he turned again, turned to see the body tumbling and snapping in a parabolic arc, saw that it left a touch of redness in the air behind it.

Jayne spoke again, muttering in nothingness, and the captain nodded. "Would indeed appreciate it if you'd hand that over, doctor. Not saying you didn't handle it well. We just like to keep track of 'em, that's all."

Simon looked down. In his hand was a piece of black metal that he hadn't felt before, and he was thankful that he hadn't unknowingly squeezed it, blown a hole in himself or Kaylee or anyone and thankful that he now knew the source of the metal smell. But he had no idea how to give it to the captain. Did it go muzzle-first, or...? He couldn't remember how he'd seen it done.

Then it was gone. The captain had taken it, and was looking at him with severity. With sadness. "Look," the captain said, and hesitated. He hesitated. What an oddity. "I find it a comfort that you take killing someone so hard. I'm thinking that's a quality worth cultivatin' in our doctor. But it won't do you any good to brood over it. If you need it, there are plenty who'd be willing to talk with you about anything and everything, if you need to talk, and in the meantime, we can't have you interfering with what we need to do. Dong ma?"

"Yes," Simon replied quietly, despairing at their lack of comprehension. It wasn't about him – it wasn't about him! It was about the color in the air. It was about the stain on the ground, and whose responsibility would that be, anyway? He'd made the mess, but for the first time in what might well and truly have been forever, his mind shrank from the sensation of the humors. He wanted nothing to do with it.

"Okay," the captain said, watching him. He had an almost irrepressible urge to twitch, to yell, under that scrutiny. Instead he stayed very still. "Kaylee, take the doc to his room."

"It's all right," Simon said, pulling his hand from her touch. "I have some business in the infirmary." Deliberately he avoided looking at the wide stain. Perhaps if he were gone before they remembered it, he wouldn't have to touch it.

And no one spoke when he left. No one held him back as he made his way to the small room, as he closed the door behind him and found himself with his hands wet and still scrubbing at them, even though it was later now – even though he'd been standing before the sink for so long his feet ached. He turned off the water, mindful now of the limited supply. The metallic reek still reached his nose, lingering somehow below the bitter soap.

"I'm fine," he murmured. "I'm fine, I'm fine" – and he had no idea who he was trying to convince. But he let the words echo through his head, settle in his stomach, and he turned from the infirmary, left, and bumped into Kaylee.

"Simon," she murmured, and he wondered if she'd been waiting just outside the whole time, for him. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," he assured her, the words familiar on his lips, now. Rehearsed. "I'm fine," he repeated. The words rattled in the back of his mind, and he wondered if Kaylee knew when he lied to her. He was a poor liar, but he could fool some; but he had no idea if Kaylee was among them. He...hadn't really lied to her before.

He felt a desperate need to escape her, now. This was not the time to test whether or not she could see through him.

"What you did back there, Simon – that was real noble," Kaylee said.

"Noble," he repeated, an eyebrow raised, a corner of his mouth quirked. "Noble."

"Absolutely noble," she responded defiantly and reached for his reeking hand. He pulled it away from her, and her face hardened – then, to his despair, softened again. She looked at him with empathy, with sorrow, and he needed – to get away. "You shouldn't feel guilty, Simon. Wasn't a man worth gettin' torn up over."

Irrational irritation rose in him. He forced it down. "I couldn't say." He'd been a blood-ruled man. It seemed as though a man like that would be worth something. "I didn't know him."

"Wasn't a man worth gettin' to know," she said firmly. "Honestly, doctor – sometimes I just think you're too nice for your own good. Feelin' guilty over killin' a man who wanted to do all of us harm. I hope you're not regrettin' having saved us."

"No," he said. Genuinely. That was something. "I would never – the thought of harm coming to you, Kaylee, or to anyone else, is..."

"Good," she said, nodding, satisfied. "You got all of us behind you, Simon. I hope that ain't worth nothin'."

"No, it's, uh – " The thought of their support for him, their blind – it turned his stomach. "I need to change."

She nodded again. He turned for his quarters as she called out, "You know I love you, Simon."

He pretended he didn't hear her.

It wasn't until he was fully dressed that he realized he'd changed into the clothes he'd been wearing when he left the hospital. Three-piece suit. He hadn't been dressing like that lately. Something subconscious, then – a subconscious desire to distance himself from then, he realized. Or perhaps he was simply attracted to the faint whiff of chemicals that still lingered.

He crept from his room, across the hall. The quarters were quiet, save for the muted hum of Serenity's engines. Or perhaps he'd lost all hearing. Wouldn't that be an odd twist? The blast from the pistol had shattered his eardrums. No; he would have become unable to hear sooner than that, he realized. Still, it would have been a good punishment for him. He'd put a bullet through the man's ears. Ear for an ear, eye for an eye – but by all rights, he should have been dead.

River was asleep. He hadn't checked on her this whole time, and he berated himself for that, but to his fortune she was asleep. She stirred slightly as he sat down opposite her, her brows drawing together, and he colored it an automatic reaction of revulsion. Nevertheless, she stilled once again.

He wasn't sure how long he watched her. Time lost meaning in reverie. Time lost perspective when a man died over and over in the mind's eye. A footstep, a breath, a gentle knock on the doorframe brought him from it.

"Son?" Book asked quietly. Simon shook his head, gestured that he'd wake up River, but River didn't stir at the sound of his voice, and Book either missed his meaning or ignored it. He sat down in the chair next to Simon's and spoke with hushed voice. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine," Simon whispered. The words were harder in a whisper; he hadn't practiced them like that. So Book didn't nod, as he should have, didn't give him simply a comforting pat on the shoulder and left.

"In my younger years," Book murmured, "I had occasion to kill. I haven't been walking the path of God my whole life, you see. My life has been far from virtuous. Nevertheless, once I turned to Him..."

"I don't believe in God," Simon interrupted. It was, normally, a simple statement of fact when he told someone that, something said only when someone asked, but this time – this time there was some actual vehemence behind it, some actual anger. He startled himself.

"I know that. I'm not trying to tell you to turn to Him for comfort or a guiding path; that's merely the way some go. I...may be going about this the wrong way. I understand that you're upset now, son. I understand that you feel lost. I'm merely trying to say that – you will come to peace with your deed. I can look into my soul now, and see God's presence. In time, any stains you may perceive will fade."

"I see," Simon whispered, and said nothing else. Nothing else could be said.

"It's not an easy thing. I know. Nevertheless, few would condemn you for what you've done. Your killing was merely in self-defense." Book paused, but Simon said nothing. "I know that you've sworn never to do harm, son. But the man you killed broke that oath long before he even saw you."

"Ah," Simon said. "So I'm to apply my morality to others."

He was just being an ass, and he knew it, and he suspected that Book knew it; still Book responded. "You need a code to function in the world. Otherwise you'll be paralyzed. You're a good man, son. You know the difference between right and wrong. You just need to trust in that."

"I'm not," Simon murmured.

"How's that?" Book asked. Simon couldn't tell if the Shepherd hadn't heard him or hadn't understood.

"I'm not..." Simon shook his head and cut himself off. "Nothing. It's nothing."

Book watched him watch River. He could tell from the corner of his eye. Finally: "Well, I think I know, to an extent, what you're going through. If you ever want to talk..."

"Thank you," Simon said, and smiled as the Shepherd left.

Perhaps that had been meant to be a comfort. It wasn't. Talking to Book, or to anyone, would never be a comfort. Because it sickened him to think about how wrong they were about him. He could never tell them what he played over and over in his mind, mesmerized –

He couldn't forget the sick swoop of power, of satisfaction, when the sanguine man's head had burst. When he looked at the puddle of blood that probably still lay in the cargo bay and thought to himself that it was his hand that had wrought such change. That it was his power that had been their salvation.

River still lay sleeping quietly. Simon took a deep breath, and the mingled scents of chemicals and metals came to him. He thought of her breathing in that smell as she slept, and felt sick.

He left her. It was the right thing to do.