Thanks to lvs2read for the great beta and thundernari for the great beta and spurring me on.

Disinterest is not an emotion Simon can feel right now, nor can he allow himself to relax, to act casual. So instead he feigns it. Sits upright in his chair and forces himself not to tense, digging his fingernails slightly into his hands as he clasps them together just to stop himself from crossing them, from acting defensive. He doubts he looks anything but what he feels, but he pretends none the less, just as he fakes indifference at the cool stare levelled his way.

Dark brown eyes thoughtfully appraise him;eyes that Simon would have thought could have conveyed emotion extremely well, suited sympathy perhaps, show nothing. Just resolution. Which only adds more weight to the man's words and tone as he leans forward, sending a cold chill through Simon.

"You understand that there is only one outcome and one offer. Want it or not, all the hope in this 'verse isn't going to stop us finding your sister, from bringing her back to us. Only the choice of when is yours, Doctor Tam."

Eight days earlier

Inside River Tam's head, a dozen voices are screaming, yet she doesn't make a sound; just follows impassively; waiting, hearing the stray idea and watching as Jayne's shoulder comes up to neatly clip the Alliance officer. It's not a calculated move, not like the ideas she can hear whirring around in Simon's head, it's sudden and spontaneous and makes her startle to a stop.

Jayne's mental curses almost drown out the screaming as River watches him tussle with the officer; her brother throwing himself at the other, letting his weight take the man down. Two by two…she can feel them closer now, making the screams all the louder. A dozen voices clamouring, begging for something, whispers and fragments of things she can't know, hasn't ever known, all trying to cover the thought…hands of blue. They hurt her ears, hurt her head, but they keep the coldness at bay. The creeping, sharp coolness that tells her they are close. It's oily, tries to seep through her, but the voices form a barrier in protest and River just stands watching Jayne and Simon.

She feels their fear, feels their confidence, momentary as it is and she knows what Simon's told her is true--they're going home. And then something happens, something changes, aberration…and everything is different.

Simon's not as calm and confident as she felt before, not so sure in what he's doing as he places his knee on the officer's windpipe to keep him silent when the man quickly comes too. He knows just where to press and how but the doctor within him, the compassion, doesn't allow him to press harder. It's a fatal flaw and in that second River knows it; compassion is something Simon always carries with him, but she knows Jayne and she share a kinship, both of them have killed and would easily draw no line.

But Simon does draw lines, does keep his movements from being too harsh and suffocating the man, and so the officer has ample opportunity to grasp his gun and swing the barrel upward as Simon leans down. Simon doesn't even notice though, his eyes are on Jaynes as the officer gouges at the merc's face, shifting himself from pinning the man underneath him so tightly as he lifts his weight ready race over and help Jayne.

He looks better in red.

Simon hears the trigger click before he feels the weight slam into his chest and stomach. Sonic gun, safety gun, it's not meant to do more then wind or knock out, but his ribs are already battered from tackling the fed and the force of the blast pushes him to the wall. The wall is unmovable and as Simon's back slams against it the fed pulls the trigger again, same spot, same blast; it smashes into already cracked ribs, forces itself on bruised and tender organs.

There's a moment of nothingness, Simon's just pinned to the wall, breath drawn in and stuck. And then it catches up with him. His stomach folds and cramps, air just forced from his lungs, forced in again just as quickly. He doubles over, whimpers slightly and folds gracelessly down the wall.


She's the one screaming now, head snapped back, a single droplet of blood escaping and trailing down from her nose as Simon collapses in a heap. River hears her name, feels Simon's terror, the horror that he's failed her, and she moves forward; her leg arches out like she's about to dance, and connects with the fed's head, smashing into his already broken nose and driving him back to unconsciousness. Jayne's so busy beating back the second officer, trying to fight him, that the movement escapes his notice and River is by Simon's side in a moment, her hand rubbing his back as her brother shakes.

Simon's fighting for breath now, lungs forced so far inward that he's struggling not to panic and to remember how. It feels like a band has tightened around his chest and is holding everything in tight. He's curled in on himself, fetal-like and River's presence is only the more terrifying. To feel his sister next to him, not running, not getting away, just waiting for him, waiting to be caught if she stays any longer…it panics Simon all the more. And then River slaps his face, hard; harsh enough to shock Simon into taking in a grateful breath of desperately needed air and he's choking, coughing, but breathing.

Neither one of them notice the crack as Jayne twists the fed's head to one side, dropping the corpse and turning to see the two lying there, River cradling her brother's head against her legs. Simon's knees are against his chest, pulled up close in a position that he, as a doctor, knows can only hurt himself more. But it doesn't matter any more and Simon knows it, can feel it as surely as River can because she's begging him now, spitting out the word 'no' over and over again, each one becoming more like a cry as she does.

"Gorramn it, ain't got time for this go se."

Unlike Jayne, who strides over to push River aside and pull the doctor up, Simon knows he's not going anywhere. His holler of protest is pitiful, choked off as pain lashes up his chest and Jayne drops him back down again in shock.

To Jayne's mind, the doc's gone the oddest shade of color and is flopping back down, gasping like a fish out of water. It's not a pretty sight and Jayne's instant reaction is to back off, but he fights it because the day's gone rutting bad enough already and if he can get them all out and back on board ship no one has to be any the wiser. They can just all enjoy the take and maybe, just maybe, if the take is as good as the doctor had promised the Tam's would pay their way and Jayne wouldn't be needing to try anything again. He hopes not, anyhow, since the girl's got some kind of mouth on her and a creepy assed way of knowing things she shouldn't, things Jayne doesn't want anyone else hearing.

He drops down to one knee, pushing Simon back against the wall. "You been shot or somethin'?" Except Jayne can't see anything but that luh-so rifle he got hit with earlier. Trust the Alliance to be soft enough not to use real guns, wouldn't catch Jayne using one of those passive things. But he knows how it feels to get the air pumped from your lungs so fast it makes you sick and your head spin, makes all your limbs go to jelly for a moment and gets you downed. He just can't see why Simon's looking so pale and sickened, like the doc's been shot with bullets instead.

"Splinters, like wood, pressed once tremors, twice cracks appears, third time…shatters." River's shaking now, a tremor that starts in her belly and works its way up. The voices are silent, cowed into submission by Simon's fear and Simon's pain and the oily feeling's creeping again. "They come, creep up on you-- don't make me go back there."

"Ain't nobody goin' anywhere but the ship, dong ma?" Jayne growls the words out, his hand reaching to squeeze her wrist. He isn't aiming to reassure, just wants her quieted, wants to drag them both back to Serenity and get away from the Core as fast as possible. Which'll be pretty damn fast if Mal has his way, that Jayne's sure on.

"Simon is." Jayne doesn't hear the whisper, ignores River as she curls in on herself, rocking in a ball as the oily coldness seeps into her mind. Two by two…Silent tears run down her cheeks and her nails dig into her hands.

Simon's able to look Jayne in the eyes now, able to breathe in though it hurts with every motion, he's not going to be moving any time soon, not without a great deal of help. His ribcage sinks in at each breath, no longer lifting outwards on inhalation. The doctor in Simon can categorize the symptoms, can easily file them away and find at least three different methods of treatment, yet none of them apply now. None of them can be administered now. And Simon knows he won't be walking any time soon.

"P-para-" He coughs as the word refuses to come, gesturing at his chest instead, hoping Jayne can see the unnatural movement. The merc's not a doctor but he notices it as Simon points, doesn't know what Simon's trying to say but can see something's wrong. And all of a sudden that's not the only problem. Anguished screams ring out back in the direction they've come, men in a world of pain that Jayne's not wanting to experience and Simon's realizing, with a sinking heart, he can't run away from. But he can protect River from them.

"Ain't carin' what's plaguin' you, move yerself now." Jayne grunts the words out, screams having shaken him deeply, not that he's about to admit it. He can hear River's whispered words now as she scrambles to hold onto Simon, dislodging Jayne as he tries lifting the doctor up. "Get yerself offa him, girl."

But River's hanging on like a limpet, pressing her face to Simon's battered chest and Jayne has no choice but to set Simon down again. The screams are still coming, still wailing, one person at a time it seems. Someone or something, taking a macabre pleasure in torturing the Alliance folk. Not that Jayne's got a care about them, except he's never heard anyone screech like that whose not been come after by Reavers.

"Can't be dealin' with this." Jayne mutters words that centre Simon's focus on him, away from River muttering softly against his chest. "Can't carry both of you."

So take River.

It's not a hard choice and Simon opens his mouth to say it but Jayne's already grasping at River, making both relief and fear flood Simon before the merc tosses her roughly to one side and reaches to yank Simon up once more.

A medic's a better choice to have on board than a crazy, knife-playing girl and Jayne's not willing to leave them both behind. Chances are Mal will catch on and smell something's wrong, even if Simon starts on revering and thanking Jayne like he'd been earlier. Won't thank me much for leavin' crazy. But Mal might. So he decides to take the doc, tries to ignore the guilt--unfamiliar emotion that it is, which settles unpleasantly and is all the more stomach churning than what he felt after going back to Canton--tries to pretend he can't hear River's cries over the screams, can't hear her garbled words and see her fingers claw at the floor where Simon had lain.

"Put-me-down." Simon forces each word out, incredulous and furious all at once. He doesn't try to pull away, has managed to find a position leaning against Jayne that's comfortable enough to let him talk.

"Talking crazy now, doc." The screams are winding down, becoming a keening wail and Jayne's in a hurry to get out of the hospital, wash the fear and guilt and Core, all away.

"Take River." Simon forces the words out, eyes boring into Jayne's as the man looks at him in sheer disbelief. He could give reasons, explanations that would satisfy Jayne; could even explain his broken ribs, claim he couldn't walk in case of puncturing a lung. Something that was a possibility, even if Zoe could deal it with aboard Serenity. But he doesn't want to. Can't find the will or energy to do so. "Please, Jayne."

Simon's trembling now, Jayne can feel it, can see the doctor's sweating too and gone a sickly color, much paler then before. "Take moon brain an' leave you?" Doesn't sound like a good deal to Jayne, doesn't want her hanging over him sure as leaving Simon's going to.

"She's my sister."

The oily coldness is getting closer, River can feel it, can sense purpose and smugness and surety coming from it as it worms its way closer. Tries to pick at her mind and devour her. They've come to take her; no home, no Simon, nothing but everything. Too bright and ugly and painful for her to keep herself in, already fragmented she can draw herself together slowly and push away what's not her but she can't stop it coming, can't stop it hurting. And no one's going to save her. No big damn heroes…But maybe she doesn't need someone swooping in to save her, maybe she doesn't need weapons, maybe she only needs one person, one hero. Her gege. She can feel him bright and sure, terrified at the same time, he can't--no, he won't--run from the monsters without her and she wants to look up at him. To call at him to run. Not to stay and embrace the darkness with her.

And then she feels arms around her, feels brilliance surround her that's Simon and only Simon, and she struggles in Jayne's arms realizing what he's done. Cursing him and crying, trying to pull away.

Simon's unable to stop trembling, thankful that Jayne's taking River. The man's dragging her away, threatening to knock her out as he does and Simon's having to turn his head away, to break away from her accusatory gaze. If they'd stayed any longer he'd have been forced to listen to that small voice inside his head, the one that had sounded for a terrible moment, had wanted Jayne to ignore his request and knock Simon out and drag him away.

I could never have left her here.

Yet he had left her. Had given her up and thrust her into Jayne's arms, had entrusted her life to Jayne and trusted that the man will get her back to Serenity. He isn't sure why he believes Jayne will do it, thinking the man will take his sister back to the ship rather than just dump her. But he does. Once aboard Serenity, River will be safe. Mal will take care of her, Simon has faith in that. He isn't sure why but he knows Mal will protect her, keep her safe where Simon has failed. And his crew will follow him, keep her safe.

Simon grimaces, each breath taking longer to draw in and out, each motion hurting that little bit more. He starts as the fed stirs at his feet; coming around once more and Simon can only hope he won't go for the gun again. He can hear footsteps drawing closer, two sets from what he can make out and he knows he should pray that the officer awakes and uses the gun once more. Compresses Simon's lungs and suffocates him so those that come won't have the chance to get any information from him. But Simon can't want that, is sure he's selfish in wanting to stay alive, wanting to resist what they throw at him and find River once more. It's enough of a hope to keep him going though, logically, he knows River would be safer with him unable to speak.

He breathes a shudder of relief as the men enter--if they're here, they haven't gone after Jayne and River-- though his heart races as one of them squats down next to him, a finger lightly tracing over his ribs, making Simon involuntarily groan. River's repeated rhyme rings in his head, sharp and clear, just as the waking officer's screams are, when the other man leans over him. Two by two, hands of blue. He understands the fear, lives it as the other man moves over next to them, and waits. Yet the pain doesn't come, the trepidation doesn't lessen, but Simon doesn't draw his focus from the two men, staring defiantly back though his body is trembling.

"Not the Tam we were hoping for." The man sounds so normal, yet something about him screams of wrongness and sets Simon's teeth on edge. He's eyeing the doctor with amusement, categorizing his injury with light touches, as he continues. "But he'll do."