Friends and Lovers

Part I—Mobility

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: PG

Author's Note: This story takes place five weeks after the events in "Crash Course".

Summary: Mal struggles with his rehabilitation, and Inara embarks on a week-long contract with a client.

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Mal pulled himself into his wheelchair, grimacing still at the effort involved in the maneuver.

"Wouldn't be such an effort if you'd let me help," River said flatly from the other side of their room in the passenger dorms.

"Don't hardly think a woman five and a half months gone with child needs to be pulling up under a man weighs as much as I do," Mal said for what he was certain was the thousandth time.

"Twenty-seventh," River corrected petulantly.

Mal bit back the angry retort that rose to his lips and River, blessedly, did not reply to his unspoken thought. They were both frayed at the edges by the difficulties inherent in his current condition. Mal was undeniably a man of action, and being sidelined as he was by the accident that had broken his legs and left him partially paralyzed, he was restless for his body to mend. And River's fluctuating moods, a result of her pregnancy, made things slightly more complicated than either one of them could handle at the moment.

"Sorry," they both murmured at the same time, causing them to smile at each other sheepishly.

"I conjure that comes from livin' in such close quarters with each other for these few years," Mal said. "Hear tell after awhile we'll look alike too, though I can't imagine that will be a comfort to you."

River smiled, good humor restored at the mental image. She kissed him lightly on the forehead. "I suspect I'll be able to endure it," she said, dancing out of his grasp before he could pull her down into his lap. "Have to get to breakfast. The little one's hungry." She patted the swell of her belly, much more prominent now than it had been just a few weeks ago. Watching her move gracefully through Serenity's corridors with him wheeling along in her wake, he smiled at the thought of his child growing within her.

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Breakfast was a typically noisy affair. At four months of age, Daniel had found his voice, and babbled incoherently at the top of his finally suitably-developed lungs. Not at all perturbed by the child's constant noise, Kaylee spooned oatmeal into the bowls around the table, bouncing the boy happily on her hip. And truthfully, no one at the table seemed to mind the decibel level, everyone remembering all too well how close they'd been to losing Daniel on any number of occasions.

Only Jayne scowled slightly at the noise, but that could be attributed to his general dislike for mornings and lumpy oatmeal. Anya smiled at him sweetly, handing him the last of the cinnamon she knew he favored in his morning concoction. "Here you go, Mr. Jayne," she whispered, winking. "Just a little something to sweeten the day." Rewarded by his smile, she went back to placidly eating, though Daniel, who was now within arm's length, was busily trying to catch hold of a lock of her golden blonde hair to stuff in his mouth.

Simon reached over to untangle the little boy's hands before he could tug too hard. Distracting him with a teething ring that had once belonged to Adam, he looked over at Mal appraisingly. "You feeling all right today, Captain?" he asked.

The room was suddenly quiet, as Daniel stuffed the ring into his mouth, gnawing at it with gusto. All eyes turned to Mal in various states of concern. Thinking that the constant hovering of his crew was really beginning to annoy him, Mal replied, "I'm just fine, doc. Thanks for askin'."

"I only ask because according to my latest scans, you should be able to come out of those casts fairly soon," Simon said. "Perhaps even today, if you have time to let me check them again."

Mal looked at him hopefully. "You think I'm ready?" he asked, hating the almost desperate sound of his voice.

"That's what I'd like to find out. We can do another scan and some more sensory reaction tests and see where we are."

Mal winced at the thought of the sensory reaction tests, which always made him feel like a glorified pincushion. But he would endure much more than that, he thought, if he could just get out of the prison of the gorram wheelchair permanent-like. "I got nothing else pressin' to do," he said, spooning oatmeal into his mouth with a renewed appetite.

Adam bounced in his seat. "Daddy," he said excitedly, "If they come off today, we can play!" Seeing Mal's worried look, he turned to Simon. "Ain't that right, Uncle Simon?"

"Isn't," River corrected his grammar automatically.

Simon looked at his nephew. "Well, your Daddy will still need some time to recover from his injuries. Remember how wobbly your legs were after you had the surgery and didn't use them for a couple of days?"

Adam nodded, remembering that sensation all too well.

"Well, your father has not used his legs for several weeks," Simon explained gently. "So his legs will be very wobbly for awhile yet." Adam frowned, not pleased with that answer. Simon continued, "But if all goes well, he should be chasing you around Serenity before too long."

Adam smiled, somewhat reassured, though Mal still looked less than sure himself.

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Inara rarely ate breakfast with the rest of the crew, and today was no exception. Having shooed Jayne out of her shuttle earlier than he would have liked, she busily began preparations for her next contract. Now that Mal seemed to be out of the woods physically, she felt it was a good time to honor her commitment to spend a week with one of her oldest clients.

Mentally reviewing Lemuel Grayson's preferences with regard to dress and makeup, she packed accordingly. While she was not so blind as to believe the thought of her spending an entire week with another man didn't affect Jayne, she still looked forward to the time away. Jayne would understand in the course of time, she supposed, and Lemuel really was one of her favorite clients. Also, she could not discount the thought that he had offered a very generous amount for her time, enough to pay the shuttle's rent for a year with extra to spare. It was hardly an offer she could refuse, being the businesswoman she was.

Serenity, like her Captain, had been in a state of paralysis since the shuttle accident. Mal had found what work he could in his condition, and Zoe, Jayne, and Jim had carried out his plans as well as they were able, but Mal was very careful with what jobs he would take, if he could not be there physically to see them through. So, things were more than a little tight on the ship, and Inara thought it a perfect time to offer to pay a year's rent in advance. And since the latest job lined up brought them to Persephone anyway, it seemed a serendipitous arrangement all around.

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Mal wheeled himself to the infirmary shortly after breakfast, taking time only to go over the Persephone job again with Zoe. River had wanted to join him, but Mal felt unaccountably worried about what Simon would find. He knew River was hanging by a mere thread emotionally many days now, and he did not want her to have to witness his reaction to any bad news firsthand. So, he had sent her to the bridge to check the entry sequence for Persephone, though he knew with absolute certainty she had gotten it right the first time.

Wiping his sweaty palms on his shirt, he entered the infirmary. Simon stood calibrating the scanner, his other tools laid out neatly on the counter. He turned to Mal with a small smile. "I'll be ready in just a minute."

"Take your time, doc," Mal said, trying not to look too closely at the instruments gleaming in the bright infirmary lights, and failing spectacularly. "You, um, planning to use all that on me?"

Simon smiled, lifting one eyebrow. "You don't have any objection, do you?" he said, the barest trace of dry humor in his voice.

"Depends," Mal answered, swallowing nervously. "Any of those things gonna get me up on my feet again?"

"I hope so," Simon said, all traces of play gone from his voice. "I think there's a very good chance, anyway."

"That's good then," Mal replied. "Best we be gettin' to it, soon's you're ready."

Simon nodded. "Let's start with the scan." So saying, he helped Mal up onto the exam table, positioning his legs for the scan. Mal thrummed his fingers on the table restlessly as Simon ran the scan twice to verify his results.

"Well?" he asked after what he thought was a suitable amount of time.

Simon turned the scan results to him for his inspection. "It looks like the femurs have healed," he said, giving Mal a quick smile. "So, we can take the casts off before we do any of the sensory reaction tests, if you'd like."

Mal nodded, relieved at least by the first news of the day. He watched closely as Simon adjusted the setting on the bone saw he'd acquired in the hospital heist on Osiris. Wincing with anticipatory pain, he held himself very still as Simon sawed through the casts, breaking them into four neat halves. Mal looked at his thighs, sickly pale in the bright light, the fine hair worn off in patches from the friction of the casts, the muscles looking somewhat puny to him.

Simon looked at him, observing his disheartened expression. "It's perfectly natural for your leg muscles to be atrophied a bit now," he said reassuringly. "We'll begin physical therapy to strengthen them again, now that we can safely move them in all the normal directions."

"Sounds painful," Mal grumbled, though secretly he was very pleased.

"Oh, it will be," Simon said cheerfully. "I'll make sure of it. Now lie back and close your eyes, so that we can begin the reaction tests."

Mal sighed long-sufferingly, and obliged. "Tell me when you feel something," Simon said, as he started right below Mal's navel and worked his way down to the soles of his feet. To the relief of both men, Mal felt every tiny prick and every touch of Simon's instruments. And though some of the sensations were not as clearly defined as others, Simon was more than pleased with the progress Mal had made. Amazed once again by Mal's recuperative powers, he set his instruments aside and tapped Mal on the hip.

"You can sit up now," he said. "Tests are done."

"And?" Mal asked, almost afraid of the answer.

"And it looks like you're doing quite well," Simon said. "I can only anticipate that you will continue to improve, though you already seem to have sensation everywhere."

"That mean I can give standing a try?" Mal asked.

"Of course," Simon answered. "Though I'd imagine you'll have to use some sort of support for awhile yet, at least until we've done some physical therapy."

Mal nodded and eased his legs off the exam table, wildly pleased that he could maneuver them so much better without the awkward casts. Simon stood beside him, ready to lend physical as well as emotional support if the need arose. Taking a deep breath, Mal slid his backside off the table, resting his weight on his hands until he could get his feet under him properly. Slowly putting more weight on his legs, he let go of the table. He teetered for one precarious moment, trying to re-find his center of balance. After what seemed to him to be an eternity of swaying like a leaf in a strong gust of wind, he stilled, his legs cooperating at least in a small way.

Mal smiled at Simon triumphantly, and Simon found his own lips curving into an answering smile. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Like a newborn colt at the moment," Mal replied, genuine joy in his voice.

Simon offered him an arm to use for support. "Think you'd like to try a step or two?"

Mal nodded, grasping Simon's arm in a vise-like grip. Sliding his right foot forward slightly, he wobbled for a moment, leaning heavily on Simon for support. "Ye su, it's harder than it looks," he muttered, a fine sheen of sweat popping out on his forehead with the exertion.

"Take your time," Simon said calmly. "There's no fire. See if you can move your left foot forward a bit."

Mal concentrated on the task at hand, sliding his left foot a few inches and lurching drunkenly forward. Finding his balance more quickly this time, he paused for just a moment, and then slid his right foot forward again.

Simon beamed with pride at Mal's accomplishment. "That's excellent work, Captain," he said encouragingly.

"Think I can make it to the other side of the infirmary?" Mal asked hopefully.

"Seems like a reasonable goal," Simon said. "Just…you know…take your time."

Mal nodded, intent on the other side of the infirmary. Slowly, inch by difficult inch, he made the journey, ending up at the smaller of the infirmary beds with a genuine sense of achievement. Muscles trembling from the effort, he leaned against the table, trying to catch his breath. "Now what?" he panted.

Simon's eyebrows rose in surprise. "I think that's about all you need to do today, Mal," he warned. "We need to strengthen your legs gradually. Pushing too hard at this point might be very damaging to you. You don't want to undo all the progress you've made."

Mal scowled. "So, what? You want me to get back in the wheelchair now? When I've had a taste of walkin' again?"

"Yes, I do," Simon said firmly. Seeing the gathering storm in Mal's eyes, he added, "Just for a little bit longer, until you can walk farther than the length of the infirmary without needing a towel."

Mal wiped the sweat from his brow, unable to argue with such a reasonable request. "But I can still be practicin' all through the day as I like?" he pressed.

Simon nodded. "Yes, Inara has some very stylish canes she's offered for your use. A walker would be better, but we don't have one of those."

"The canes'll be fine," Mal said dismissively. "So long as I don't have to think on where they came from too much."

Simon rolled his eyes. "One would think you'd have outgrown your distaste for Inara's profession by this point," he said with a hint of exasperation.

"Then one would be wrong," Mal answered. "But bein' as how it ain't my business, I 'spect I can live with it long's she wants to do it."

"I'm sure she'll be heartened to hear it," Simon said dryly as he wheeled the chair over to Mal. "You know how much she values your opinion on the matter."

Mal snorted, settling down heavily in the chair. "Yeah, I've noticed," he said. At Simon's chuckle, he added, "So, we done here, doc?"

"Yes, we're done for now," Simon said. "When I get a regimen worked out for the therapy, I'll come find you."

"Conjure I'll be with your sister," Mal said. "'Magine she'll be a mite interested in me gettin' my dancin' legs back." So saying, he grinned at Simon and wheeled out of the infirmary, much lighter than he'd felt in a long while.

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To be continued