Simon is cleaning his favorite scalpel -- the very first scalpel he truly felt he'd earned, given to him by Neman Rowles, the man who taught him the second day of his internship to perform a anterior temporal lobectomy on a patient suffering from severe epilepsy -- when he thinks 'I'm in love with the Captain'.
He pauses, swallows hard, takes the thought and places it in the vault he keeps in the back of his mind. The 'Things I Will Never, Ever Think About Again' vault. He then imagines locking it with a 10-digit combination that he will never remember, binding it with chains, and sealing it behind a wall. Plaster, cement, concrete, insulation, wood, brick…
"Come out, come out, wherever you are…" Two slender arms slide around him, holding him like silk but with the strength of a vice, and a soft body presses up against his back. "Hiding. So many places to hide. Lock it away and hide it away, but there it will be. Fire and stone and magma. Walls listen, walls know."
It would be so easy for the needle to bypass her arms, scarred with countless little graves from where metal invaded and made strategic withdrawals, and enter his own, silence his thoughts which are apparently an open field to walk on.
"Out of my head, River."
Her arms fall away and she steps back, her bare feet barely the hum of a whisper on the metal floor. He turns, suddenly very tired, and regards her. She stares back, eyes cloudy and cold, chiseled from the living rock of a world no longer there.
"You were the angel that wouldn't come."
He frowns. "River, I'm not an--"
"She looked him in the eye, her army gathering behind her, and turned her back. Left him to the wind and the smog. The calm, the pillars, stand in ruin." Suddenly, she smiles, and the wildness leaves her, draining for him to catch a glimpse of the girl he once knew. "But people still like to visit them. They are always loved."
He's getting too old for this. He will never be too old for this.
"They're back from market," River says, rocking on her heels. "Kaylee bought kiwi. Míhóu táo. Actinidia deliciosa. Fresh. Hayward Wright never understood what birds he grew cultivated in the soil."
He smiles tightly at her, feeling the thought from three minutes ago thrashing against the metal walls of The Vault, and waits to be annihilated. Something big and bright. Like a meteor.
"Boob." River rolls her eyes at him. "No need to be dramatic. It's just fruit."
With that, she turns on one foot, a perfectly executed 180-degree spin, and flutters away, leaving Simon with an oncoming headache and the ten-digit combination to a vault lock that he'd memorized the moment he created it.
Kaylee's cheeks are infused with strawberries as she bites delicately into the juicy fruit of a freshly-shucked kiwi. There was once a time when Simon would have found the bliss on her face attractive, but the fire there had cooled, and he wonders if it had ever been there, if he hadn't spent all of that time fanning ashes that refused to ignite. He had been so enamored with the idea of being wanted for something other than his chequebook, for having something easy at his fingertips after two years of despair.
Kaylee had understood all too well.
"I understand all too well, Simon," she'd said, a streak of grease marring her pale skin. "Shoulda told me you was sly from the get-go."
He sits at the table and sighs. River, fingers coated with sweet juice, leans over and pats him comfortingly on the shoulder. The skin of her palm sticks to his vest for a brief moment.
"Jayne, no! You gotta peel it first! Won't do you no good to just bite right in. The outside tastes terrible!" Kaylee exclaims in horror, a seed snug against her top right canine. Jayne, pulls the fuzzy fruit away from him, lips twisting. He spits out the green pulp onto the tabletop and takes out a knife in the same second. The fruit is split and gutted within moments, and he chews on the spoils. Zoe, sitting in no one's lap now, gives Jayne a look that would have slowly incinerated him from the inside if it were tangible.
"Gorram it, Jayne! I hafta eat offa that!" Mal's whine is a single chord that is a cacophony all its own, and Simon has studiously avoided looking in Mal's direction ever since he came into the mess. River knocks her shoulder against his.
"The painted lady has flown away again, and this time the Cairns Birdwing can fly in and show its own colors." Her eyes drift to the second empty seat at the table, where a vision of silk and sunsets would have sat. But Inara had once again departed from Serenity's hold, and her leaving had a strong sense of finality to it. Mal never twitched a muscle when she took her last steps from the shuttle and is now just finally starting to relax. It's been three months. Five since Miranda, since the loss of their favorite pilot and the immediate replacement in the form of River. Five since he turned his eyes from Kaylee for a moment and saw the Captain. Saw, noticed, looked, stared, gandered, gawked at… there are all sorts of words for what he did, but they all amount to the same.
"River," Simon whispers, pleading for her words to end. He's seen photos of Cairns Birdwing butterflies, creatures from Earth-That-Was, and he knows their coloring, their greens and blues. He looks down at his own chest, covered by his black sweater with the aquamarine swatch across his heart. Her words make more sense these days than he cares for.
She shrugs. "Biggest and most beautiful, price pound for pound, greens warring with reds. The greens win, you know. Serenity is green."
Jayne opens his mouth to tell her, most likely, to shut up, but he stops, clearly remembering her stepping daintily over dozens of dead Reavers, blades clutched tightly in her hands. None of them need to be reminded of the weapon they have on board.
If he took the discarded husks from Jayne's kiwi halves and swallowed them whole, it would only take him four minutes to suffocate. If he also ran. Zoe would know the Heimlich, for certain.
"I got a keen sense of sight, see--" Mal pauses, smiling at his own pun. "-- an' I been keenly sensing that there is somethin' about my person that offends you."
Forget the meteor. Simon would settle for a ship, a ship that crashed right into the hull and killed him on sight, and somehow the crew would miraculously survive. Clip the wings of the Cairns Birdwing and there would be no more colors.
"Not at all, Captain," Simon says, nailing on a smile and a Core-bred politeness that would have made his mother proud. He looks straight at Mal… keeps his gaze somewhere around the Captain's hairline.
"You doubtin' my keen senses, Doc?" Mal lifts his chin slightly and captures Simon's stare, and Simon is unable to look away. Whatever Mal finds there -- and how impossible is that, considering it's behind nine feet of mind-wall and in a vault? -- is enough to make his blue eyes go wide and then narrow in consideration. Mal falls into a thoughtful silence and Simon, free from that invisible hold, definitely not thinking of Mal's eyes on the rest of his body, stands so suddenly that the kiwis are disturbed by the force of his hands on the table.
"Excuse me," Simon stammers, beating a hasty retreat. "I have… doctor things to do. Need my immediate attention. Right now."
As part of his medical training, Simon had to take several Psychology courses. Not a hard task in the least; psychology was a fascinating subject and field. He had attended some drug rehabilitation meetings, taken notes, and presented his findings to a council of his peers and professors. Highest grade in the class.
"Hello," he says to the sink, washing his hands for the countless time. "My name is Simon Tam, and I am shǎ guā…" His cool confession dissolves into muddled, frustrated Chinese, and he is so focused on cursing his ancestry ten generations back that he doesn't hear the heavy footsteps behind him.
"Well, gotta admit, didn't know some'a those…" Mal muses admiringly, and Simon squashes the urge to splash him with the water he's splashing around in uselessly. The last thing he needs to think about is Mal, all wet, and enclosed in the infirmary…
"Can I help you, Captain?" He doesn't turn around, just digs his nails into the metal basin, hiding beneath the water, and waits. He knows what he'll find should he look over his shoulder: Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of the luckiest ship in the 'verse, sprawled comfortably all over Simon's space with the sky in his eyes and a "come hither" smile.
This is all his fault. Why did Mal have to be so goddamn infuriating and obnoxious and wonderful?
Mal doesn't answer for a long while, long enough for Simon to fear the worst: either Mal is bleeding to death and passed out from the blood loss, he left, or he's still standing there, staring.
Cursing the "do no harm" that had been instilled into him from his first days at MedAcad, he turns.
Mal's still there. Bastard.
"… Is…" He hates that he falters. He never used to falter. Ever. Faltering meant the other person had the upper hand. Simon snorts to himself. Like he's ever held anything over Mal. There is no upper hand with Mal. "Is something wrong? Is River bothering you? Do you feel all right?"
Mal says nothing, and finally after a small eternity has passed, he nods to Simon. "Doc."
His exit leaves Simon floundering, a butterfly whose wings are wet.
This is what going mad feels like.
Whether or not Mal does in fact possess a keen sense of sight, he definitely has an unnerving talent for observation. Simon attributes it to being a soldier, the need of knowing every little thing about the terrain and the enemy calling for a strong ability to read and unsettle people while taking away the maximum amount of information about them.
He wonders what Mal takes away from him, watching him day after day. From waking hour to sleeping hour, before and after jobs, in the mess, in passing on the bridge, coming unannounced into the infirmary for no gorram reason whatsoever!
Simon can feel his already tentative grip on sanity slipping.
Mal, seated on the operating table, rests his elbows on his knees and watches Simon as he attempts to write about the small bit of progress River has shown over the past couple of days. She is coherent for longer stretches of time, perhaps due to keeping Serenity flying, the feeling of control she must experience in piloting. It was a good idea, Simon concedes silently, scribbling in a possible cocktail that might help in the future. Anti-psychotic without the side-effects.
"Didja ever have any pets?"
A thick line tears across the paper as Simon starts in surprise. "I'm sorry?"
"Don't be," Mal says, smiling, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "But you can answer my question."
Simon's mouth opens and shuts. "I… No. Mother wouldn't allow anything that didn't walk on two legs into the house." Or anything that didn't speak in human tongues.
Mal's eyebrows crease. "Huh. Didn't you ever want one?"
This is such an odd conversation, Simon doesn't know where to begin. Perhaps quick and to the point would be best. "Yes. I did. I'd always wanted a dog."
"Why a dog?"
Because they kill on command. "I suppose because… they loved unconditionally. Dogs don't want anything from you that you're not willing to give… except maybe some extra treats." He smiles, remembering the corgis his neighbor, Mrs. Peavo, used to breed, watching them from his bedroom window as a child, taking a break from his studying. Happy, plump puppies, lolling about in Mrs. Peavo's large backyard, completely petrified of her large swimming pool. Mrs. Peavo made a fortune in pedigree breeding. He wonders if she's still doing it, raising corgis.
"Unconditional, huh? No such thing."
Simon turns to him, still smiling, the image of caramel bodies and playful yips still in his mind. "I beg to differ."
Mal freezes, and the picture of Mrs. Peavo's pack collapses as quickly as a winter sunset. That definitely came out wrong. Sort of.
But Mal hasn't moved, staring at him with that odd look that's taken residence in his eye ever since that day in the mess. Simon twitches uncomfortably under the scrutiny, breath staccato with half-formed apologies, but Mal holds up a hand to silence what really isn't forthcoming.
"Doc." He nods, as he always does, and saunters out.
"God," Simon asks. "Why do you hate me?"
Well, he imagines the reply, There's just something about you that pisses me off.
"Hello, little puppy," River trills, lounging in the infirmary, and Simon storms past her, into his bunk.
"What's happenin' with you an' the Cap'n?" Kaylee inquires lightly, no traces of jealousy or hurt in her eyes. Just an honest, innocent question and a bright smile. He stares at her, knowing very well what kind of a picture he makes. He hasn't changed clothes in two days, hasn't slept more than four hours, and has large shadows under his eyes. His hair is probably a mess, too.
"Do you have anything that needs a good beating?"
She wordlessly hands him a giant wrench and points at a strong looking metal device.
Zoe is in the mess, sitting alone, staring blankly at the table top. Jayne's chewed mass of fruit has long-since been cleaned, but the memory of it is still there. Simon stops in the doorway. He can never confess to feeling what she must be feeling, the absence of something so cherished. There will always be a hole there and it's nothing that Simon can fix.
"He's driving me crazy," Zoe mutters, gazing up at him through thick lashes.
Simon suddenly isn't hungry. "You and me both."
Her lips twitch, and he hopes it won't be long before she smiles again. "Gonna do something about it?"
He sighs, in need of a stiff drink. "I have no idea what I'm doing anymore."
"It gets better."
River is sitting on the operating table, swinging her legs merrily, humming. "You're humming, Simon."
"No, mei mei, I'm really not," he grits out, checking the Cortex for any news of them. Old habit. "What have you been up to today?"
"Hum, hum, buzz, buzz. You're all noise and no wings. Color. The green sings, Simon, and the brown answers. Painted ladies are everywhere, but Cairns Birdwings are only in one place. Green sings, brown answers."
He blinks tiredly at her, trying to dredge up that afternoon in the mess, but his mind isn't cooperating, only one side of his brain in working order and not the side he would like. "What happened to the red?"
She stiffens. "Back into the horizon. Aren't you paying attention? Why can't you fly?! Stop humming and fly!"
"Mei mei, please," he begs, eyes stinging. "It's okay. It'll be okay. Do you want to sleep?"
River rolls her eyes and slithers gracefully off the table as Mal walks in, larger than life with an even larger bruise on his very bare chest. "Just fly already, Simon."
Mal watches her go for a second and then turns that familiar stare back onto Simon. "She doin' okay?"
"Shiny, Captain," he sighs, defeated. "Shiny. What happened to you?"
Mal doesn't say anything, just watches. Simon is sure the grinding of his teeth is an audible sound.
"Captain, if there's nothing you want help with, I can give you some cream for the bruise--"
Mal holds up a hand, and Simon waits for the nod. It doesn't come. Mal can't break the routine now. Simon's fragmenting mind really can't take it.
"Based on my observations, seems to me like you have somethin' to be confessin'."
"Wuo hern ni."
"Wrong somethin'." Mal eyes him. "Doc, you been sleepin'?"
He's going to laugh. Or cry. Or start throwing things. If he was a Cairns Birdwing, the first thing he'd do is commit grievous bodily harm to Malcolm Reynolds. Like, eat his feet.
"… Captain." Simon closes his eyes. "Mal."
There's a smile, green wings, in the answer. "That's more like it. Now, about that confession..."
I could stay like this forever, Simon thinks to himself and pulls Mal's arm around him tighter, cocooning himself in the warmth there, lying in Mal's bed, the broken remains of a vault scattered about the floor.
He really doesn't need to fly. Mal soars enough for the both of them.
Glossary of Terms:
1. shǎ guā: an
2. mei mei: little sister
3. Wuo hern ni: I hate you