"Every time I see you another disaster has happened."
Mal looked up from the engine console he'd been helping Kaylee with, surprised to see Inara standing behind him. He jumped down off the ladder, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
"Ambassador," he said with a teasing tone. "What brings you to this little moon?"
"I came to see Simon. I was worried," Inara explained with a shrug. "He's doing well. Much better than I'd feared."
"He's a tough kid."
An awkward silence fell, and then Inara cleared her throat. "Would you mind walking with me? I'm on my way to meet a client, but I would like to talk with you more."
Mal set the wrench down on Kaylee's toolbox. "You heard the woman, Kaylee. If you need me, use the radio."
"Sure thing, Captain!"
Inara started walking, leading Mal onto a forest path. They'd landed the ship in a clearing, so the only way to actually get to town was through the surrounding forest. It wasn't a bad hike; plenty of scenery made up for the inconvenience. It was basically a nature preserve set aside on this moon, creeks, lakes, animal life and all.
"You seem different," Inara said softly, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "More worried than you usually are about a job."
"Who told you about what we're doin'?"
Inara smiled. "I had a long conversation with Zoe."
Mal nodded. "I don't think she likes the plan."
"She doesn't like the odds, but she knows it's necessary."
"Yeah, well, most of my crew doesn't agree."
Inara chuckled. "They're just confused, Mal. They've never seen you care for someone so much."
"Why does everyone in the 'verse think I got some sorta sly feelin's for Simon?" Mal asked, frustrated, stopping on the path and crossing his arms.
"I never said that."
"You implied it! Everyone's implyin' it!"
Mal faltered. "…do I what?"
"Have feelings for Simon."
"What? No! Didn't I just say that? He's a crew member, he's the doctor, and-"
"And that's a logical reason for putting yourself and the rest of your crew at risk in order to unravel this mystery?"
Mal's eyes flashed with anger. "Don't you dare question my decisions with my ship."
"All I'm saying is that you seem to care more than you'll admit. I don't understand why you see that as such a bad thing," Inara said, starting to walk again. Mal seethed for a few seconds, then followed.
"I ain't sly."
"Of course you're not."
"Don't patronize me!"
Inara laughed. "I was agreeing with you."
"You didn't mean it. You had that tone."
"Do you always have to pick a fight?"
Mal fell silent, fuming, but deciding against continuing the debate. He was sick and tired of hearing about it by now.
Of course, that was because he couldn't help but wonder if Inara was right.
Simon turned around, not quite sure if he was hearing things or not. But there stood Kaylee in the infirmary, covered from head to toe in engine grease, a strange smile on her face. He turned away from the counter, where he'd been dosing out Penicillin into smaller vials.
"Kaylee…hi," he said, forcing cheerfulness to cover his confusion. Kaylee hadn't come to see him alone since he's broken things off with her. In fact, he couldn't honestly remember the last time she'd spoken directly to him.
"I, uh…I kinda cut myself workin' on the engine back there n'all," Kaylee said sheepishly, unwrapping a dirt rag from around her right forearm. Simon winced at the deep cut, which now had dirt and grease rubbed into it from the towel.
"Come sit down. I'll have to clean that out," he said, pulling on gloves and collecting the supplies he needed. Kaylee sat down on the bed, swinging her legs and looking around the room.
"So…you feelin' better?" she asked.
"Much better, thanks," Simon said, taking hold of her arm and beginning to clean out the wound. She winced and hissed in pain.
"Cap'n told you were headed back to Osiris, right?"
"That he did."
Cue uncomfortable silence. Kaylee shifted her weight nervously as Simon began to prepare to stitch the wound.
"Look, Simon…if he ever does you wrong, or raises a hand to you, I've got your back. No hard feelings. And the rest of the crew's there for you too."
Simon frowned, starting to stitch up the cut. "What are you talking about?"
Kaylee snorted. "Don't play dumb. I'm talkin' about the captain, of course! Anyone can see plain as day that he fancies you. Everyone on the crew knows," she said, and then she paused, seeing the stunned, wide-eyed look on Simon's face. "You…did know, didn't you?"
Simon opened his mouth to speak, closed it, then opened it again. "Well…no, I can't say that I did."
"Oh. Oh," Kaylee stuttered, looking around the room nervously as Simon tied off the stitches. "So you didn't…you weren't…geez, I'm sorry…"
"It's okay," Simon muttered, his mind still chewing on what she'd said. Kaylee stood, started to say something, shrugged, and then fled the room.
"I don't like it."
Mal smirked. "I do believe that's the fifth time you've said that, Zoe."
"It's reckless. If we're caught, they'll have us on both charges. We'll lose the ship."
"They won't catch us. I have a better escape plan this time."
A new voice interrupted the conversation. "And what might that be?"
Zoe and Mal turned simultaneously to see Simon standing in the doorway. Zoe smiled.
"What are you doing out and about this late, Doctor?"
"River was having trouble," Simon said, taking a few steps inside. "I just got her to sleep. I heard you talking, and…well, I'd like to hear about the plan."
"I'm not seein' how it concerns you, considerin' you ain't goin'," Mal said sternly, and Simon looked truly hurt.
"Maybe it concerns me because it's my head they're after."
"And they think you're dead. Nothin' to worry your pretty head on."
Simon's fists clenched, and Zoe gave Mal a look. Before Mal could say another word, though, Simon had left the room.
"Why do you have to be so hard on him?" Zoe asked, and Mal turned away from the door.
"I treat him just the same as I do anyone else on this crew."
Zoe laughed. "No you don't. You protect him."
"He's on my crew, of course I-"
"You don't tell him everything," Zoe accused, not allowing him to finish. "You treat him as if he can't handle the truth. Or as if you don't want him to have to handle the truth. He's young, Mal, but he's strong."
Mal scowled. "There are just some things he doesn't need to know."
"If you truly care about him, you'll tell him everything, good and bad."
Mal threw his hands up in the air in frustration. "Not you too! Gorramn, are you gettin' these outrageous ideas from Inara?"
"I didn't have to, sir. Just let me say one thing, then I'll be done with it," Zoe said, taking a step closer to Mal. "I know you. You'll wait until it's one second too late to admit this. You'll wait until you've lost him before you decide to give in. At least I got time with the man I love; if you wait, you may not get that."
Zoe walked past Mal and out of the room. At the same time, though, Kaylee was walking in.
"She's ready to go," Kaylee said, and Mal nodded.
"Good. Let's get off this rock."
Mal quirked an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"Simon just left the ship. Said somethin' about finding something decent to eat."
Mal didn't find Simon at any place to eat. He actually found him just off the trail along the way, sitting on a rock that jutted over the flowing creek. He paused, and then he stepped out onto the rock, standing behind Simon.
"Well, I'm not."
Mal lifted his chin. "I don't recall givin' you a choice, Doc. We're shippin' out."
Simon didn't answer. He tossed another pebble into the creek. Mal muttered a few more curses, taking a few more steps forward and kneeling down next to Simon.
"Alright. What's the problem here?"
"Oh, don't mind me. I'm just the one who got shot because of a damn computer chip. No need to tell me a thing," Simon said, sarcasm practically dripping from his voice. Mal sighed.
"Okay, you want the truth? There is no plan. We're goin' in same way as last time, doin' the same thing, and gettin' out the same way."
Simon stared at Mal in disbelief. "That's…idiotic."
"That's the way I do things."
Simon hesitated, and then he looked back down at the creek below. "Let me come."
Mal laughed. "I don't think so."
"Let me come or I stay put, right here."
"I'll drag you back to the ship."
"No you won't."
Mal ignored that assertion. "Why do you wanna go, anyway?"
Simon smirked. "That machine is likely highly sensitive, and very finely tuned. You'll need me."
"What are you now, a mechanic?"
"No…but I did have to take advanced chemistry courses. The machine mixes chemicals. I'm your best shot at knowing how to work it."
Neither moved or spoke for a few moments; an old fashioned standoff. Then, Mal stood. "Fine. But don't come cryin' to me when they shoot you in the foot or somethin'."
Or when they kill you.
Mal offered his hand to Simon, who took it and pulled himself to his feet. He momentarily wavered, off balance, which brought he and Mal dangerously close. There was a long pause, and Mal didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until Simon regained his bearings and moved away. An opportunity missed.
"Come on. Should probably head back," Simon said, turning and starting back down the path. Mal sighed, rubbed the back of his neck, and then slowly started down the path.