Simon turned on his side and buried his face in hair that carried a lingering scent of engine oil. Not the most romantic, and not what he was used to in a woman, but the smell was all Kaylee and, for now, that was enough for him. They lay together in her bunk with Kaylee on her side facing the opposite wall and Simon spooned up against her back. In the past weeks, Kaylee's bunk had become a refuge; the prettily decorated room comforted him. As did the woman lying next to him.
"I got a little coin stashed away for a rainy day," Kaylee said. "Days here are rainy and that's a solid fact."
Rainy would be a severe understatement; the mood on Serenity was a veritable cyclone of bad emotions. When they first set off from Persephone, the feeling had been hopeful but after the Alliance released their so-called findings of who had been responsible for Miranda, any optimism they felt was bitterly crushed. The victory in sending out the Wave that had claimed so many friends had been cruelly snatched away. Now all that was left was guilt, anger, grief, and an increasing sense of hopelessness.
"Maybe I could find us some sweet weed. Everybody gets happy with that."
Simon didn't think that temporary and artificial relief was the answer. "If only it were that easy."
He felt Kaylee tense at his words. "Well, I ain't givin' up. Just need more time is all."
"It's been a month since we left Persephone." Thirty seven days, actually. Thirty seven days with nothing to do but think. Sailing through the black, looking vainly for work the crew had nothing but slowly passing time on their hands.
Kaylee turned to face him. "It'll get better. Not findin' jobs is just straining the Cap'n and Zoë."
The lack of jobs was proving to be real problem – one that Simon couldn't figure out a plausible solution. He cheered a little, however, as he finally found the right word to describe the feeling that had nagged him the last few weeks. Useless. It was not a feeling he had ever experienced before. On Osiris, he was useful, needed. Important. His medical expertise saved countless people but on this boat he was…useless. And worse, a burden.
"I should go check on River," he said starting to get up.
"She's fine. 'Nara's with her," Kaylee said; her voice censuring him for resorting to the most obvious of reasons to leave. "Just like she has been for the past month."
He lay back down and stared at a jaunty picture on the bulkhead. Kaylee was right; River was doing well spending so much time with Inara. She didn't seem to mind devoting her time to River; didn't seem to regard his sister as a burden. But then again she could leave the ship any time, could return to her life whenever she felt like it. Inara had options that he didn't and chose to stay. He was…stuck.
Stuck on this boat where half of the other six people on board studiously avoided him. Simon had never felt particularly welcome on Serenity but the last month was close to unbearable. He and the Captain and Zoë had never been overly friendly but their coldness toward River and him was taking its toll. Even Jayne's shunning was starting to sting.
"Kaylee, I just can't see how we can stay." He hadn't meant to voice his thought.
Kaylee sat up. Unmindful of her nakedness, she turned and faced him. "Don't give up on the Captain. I know that things been rough with him and Zoë and Jayne but it just takes time."
He lightly trailed a finger up her arm. "Time is something we certainly have plenty of." His wondering finger stopped just below her shoulder.
"We should have left at Beaumonde," he said vacantly. "If only River hadn't—"
"How long you plannin' on if onlying?"
With a stern look, Kaylee turned away from him. The atmosphere in the cheery room chilled considerably and Simon regretted his petulant tone. Murmuring a quiet apology against her neck, his hands glided over her arm inviting a response. She remained tense until he softly kissed her shoulder. Her hands reached behind to stroke his leg and Simon gladly surrendered coherent thought.
When Simon awoke the next morning Kaylee had already gone. He lay in the narrow bed longer than was necessary rising only when he couldn't rationalize hiding any longer. Opening the door, he took a quick glance around relieved that he didn't see anyone. Just as he turned to close the door, Jayne walked past roughly bumping into him. Simon's gaze followed Jayne until his eyes met the Captain's. He had witnessed Jayne's none-too-subtle maneuver but turned away from Simon and went back to the dining area.
Simon decided to take the stairs to the cargo bay on his way to the common area. There, he found Inara and River much as he had found them the last several mornings. They were both sitting on the floor in the lotus position. River's eyes were closed and her face was relaxed. She looked peaceful sitting so calmly. A spark of happiness flared at the sight of her. Moments like this he could almost believe she was better - that the secret of Miranda was truly the cause of her instability. Then she would open her eyes and he would see the madness that had forced upon her.
"River, time for your medication."
"I'm concentrating," she said not opening her eyes.
"This will help you concentrate better."
"Don't want it."
"River," his voice was stern. She needed to understand how important it was to keep her even. It was, to Simon's way of thinking, absolutely essential that she not have any "episodes."
He went into the med bay to prepare the shot.
"Simon, are the medications necessary?" Inara asked. "She really does seem to be doing—"
"Are you willing to bet your life that meditation will cure her? She could kill you, you know."
"Of course she could. But then, anyone could kill anyone, couldn't they? They just choose not to."
"Choose." Simon let out a bitter laugh. "Does River have any conscious choice in what she's doing? It seems to me that someone took her choices away when they cut into her brain."
"Still, don't you think alternative methods may be helpful? I truly believe that with practice, River can better control her mind."
"We have no idea what other triggers have been implanted in her mind. Someone could utter a word and be dead the next moment." What would he do if Inara or Kaylee lay dead by River's hand?
He sighed and looked out the window. "I'm afraid she will snap and kill someone. Not just do funny crazy stuff but actually kill someone. I appreciate anything you can do to help her but I cannot in good conscience do anything that could cause her to lose control. It's easier for everyone if she continues taking the medication I prescribe."
"Easier for her or you?"
"Do you think I have a choice? What would you call being responsible for a young woman who could kill at any moment? Do you remember that cat at the shipyard? The one she was convinced was an Alliance plant? Well, I vividly remember thinking that she was going either slice it to shreds or break its neck."
"She lost control, Inara, and I cannot understand why. Why was she so content with the cat one moment and then the next she's raving that it was spying on her? I truly appreciate everything you're doing for us but I cannot rely on her word that she is alright. No, it's best to continue with her meds, limit exposure to any public waves or messages. And if possible, keep her confined to the ship."
"That doesn't sound like much of a life."
Finished prepping the shot, Simon set it down and looked at Inara. She looked so very different from the woman he first met almost a year ago. The elegant clothes and expensive cosmetics were gone. The beautiful woman remained but what had all this cost her? He felt that he had ruined her life, too - just as the Captain said he would when they had first met.
He gave Inara a helpless look and went to give River her medication.
For some unfathomable reason, everyone still gathered together for dinner. Except River. Two weeks of uncomfortable silences with raging emotions proved to be too much for her.
The Captain sat at one end flanked by Jayne and Zoë. Kaylee sat at the other with Simon and Inara beside her. Simon always sat next to Zoë. It was easier this way so they wouldn't accidentally look at each other. Usually Simon didn't speak not wanting to draw any attention from Jayne, Zoë and the Captain.
Tonight, Inara had tried her hand at the evening meal. Simon had expected more from the Companion than the grey mushy substance on his plate. No one complained about the unappetizing look of the evening meal.
"Not bad, 'Nara," Kaylee said. Every mealtime, she and Inara tried to lighten the mood but after their efforts were greeted with hostile stares and stilted responses they gave up and talked together.
"That's sweet, Kaylee. I followed your instructions to the letter but I think I did something wrong." As she spoke she tilted her spoon allowing the protein to fall with an unappetizing thud.
"And how was your day, Captain? Didja do anythin' interestin'?" Kaylee asked.
"Fine and no."
The table fell silent. Kaylee looked to Inara for help but Inara was glaring at the Captain. She looked disgusted, not at the food, but at him. A feeling of dread came over Simon as he saw a confrontational gleam in her eye. He was surprised that the two of them had lasted this long without a public fight.
"Don't look at me like that, Inara," Mal snapped.
"Like what, Mal?"
Inara's voice was honey but Simon knew that when she adopted her calm, Companion façade, trouble usually followed. The moment had been coming for awhile but Simon silently begged Inara to just let it go.
"If ya'll think we're all going be exchangin' sensitivities you're on the wrong boat."
"I wasn't thinking that." She smiled at him and took a sip of her drink. "I do think the three of you have to remember there are other people on this ship."
"You think we don't know that?" He asked, meeting her gaze. They looked at each other for a few moments.
"Maybe it would be good for us all to talk…you know…just talk to each other," Kaylee said.
"And what would you like to talk about?" Mal asked rudely giving her a stern look.
Simon lightly squeezed her knee encouraging Kaylee to be quiet. His ploy worked. Kaylee shrugged, but shot Simon an irritated look and removed his hand from her leg.
"Don't bully her!" Inara said. She looked more exasperated than Simon had ever seen her. "She's just concerned about everyone. This discord is weighing heavily on her."
"Anyone sitting at this table got somethin' to say, spit it out!" He snarled the words daring Inara to say another word.
No longer able to keep quiet and let Inara and Kaylee fight his battles, Simon hesitantly raised his hand. He knew they were only trying to help River and him but he had been hiding long enough. He was tired of allowing others to fight his battles for him.
Mal looked down at his food unwilling to give Simon any indication he wanted to hear what the other man said.
"So spit it out," Zoë looked steadily at Simon. This was the first time she had addressed him directly since Miranda. He met her gaze and willed himself not to look away.
He lowered his hand. Looking around the table he focused on the hostile section.
"Uh…I'd just like to clarify where we stand on Serenity. River and I, that is. We…uh…well, it seems that we aren't exactly wanted."
Jayne snorted loudly.
"Of course you're welcome." Kaylee gave him a significant look. "You and River are family."
"Ain't my family," Jayne muttered.
"Ain't mine neither!" Mal said. "Seems to me I got saddled with a lot of dead weight lately." He looked at Inara as he spoke. "Not getting any work or rent from the three of you."
"There hasn't been an opportunity for anyone to get shot—" Simon stopped knowing how stupid he sounded.
Without a word to anyone Zoë took her dishes deposited them loudly in the galley and left.
"I know work has been scarce lately. I'm thinkin' maybe we can't afford to carry those that don't contribute."
"So, at our next stop, do you want to just drop off Simon, River, and me off? Is that what you're suggesting?" Inara asked in her most calm, serene, innocent tone.
"Might not be a bad idea," he said after a long pause. Mal's gaze held hers before looking down at his plate. "This boat ain't got anything for you."
Inara kept looking at the Captain. She seemed calmer than before.
"What about Simon and River? What happens to them?"
"Inara, don't," Simon started.
Mal didn't say anything.
"Fine, Mal. Drop us all off at the Training House." She turned to Simon, and he could see a wild look in her eye. "We can figure out what to do from there. It's best to get River off this ship."
"What do you mean? Best for River?" Mal looked insulted at her insinuation.
"River is choking on guilt!" The calm façade vanished replaced by heated anger. "She's a seventeen year old girl with more guilt than anyone deserves and she doesn't deserve it. She didn't do anything wrong!"
Simon looked down at his plate. Inara was right. River didn't do anything wrong. It was him. His weakness to stay in the shelter of Serenity. To allow the Captain to stand for them. As a doctor who swore an oath to do no harm he was painfully aware that people died because of his decisions. Died for his sister. Another new emotion rose in him: shame.
"Ain't sayin' she did," Mal said disinterestedly as he went back to eating. "But, can't take you to the Training House. Not enough fuel."
Inara had a vaguely trapped look on her face. She threw her napkin on her plate and left far less gracefully than Simon had ever seen her move.
No one spoke for the rest of the meal. It was Jayne's turn for dishes but he gave Simon a glare and left the table. The Captain left soon after.
"Guess it's up to us to do the dishes," Simon said giving Kaylee a weak smile.
"I gotta go check a couple things out," Kaylee said not looking at him.
Simon watched her go then looked back at the mess on the table and in the galley. He rested his head on his hand and stared unseeing at his plate. He and River should have gotten off somewhere. Anywhere. His gaze moved up to the ceiling and he couldn't believe this was his life.
"Shepherd, I'm sorry for what happened."
"I don't believe you were the one that cracked my head," Book said with a slight grimace.
"No, but anything that happens as a result of River, I can't help but feel responsible."
Book held his head back to look Simon in the eye.
"What men choose to do in pursuit of their prize rests on them. Only them. Never forget that you saved your sister. You were brave. Men who creep in in the dead of night are cowards."
"Sometimes I think we should find a deserted moon and just…" Simon trailed off not even knowing how to finish his sentence. Do what?
"I think it's best you stay where you are. Besides, the Captain needs to watch over you just as much as you need watching over. And from what I've seen of Rim existence, you're not cut out for the life that would await you on some of those worlds."
"But Kaylee, Inara, everyone was in danger. That bounty hunter could have killed them all."
"But he didn't."
"How do I know the next one looking for River will exercise the same restraint?"
"You don't, son. Now, what have you got for this splitting headache?"
His plate was lifted and joined others in a pile. He looked up to see River quietly stacking the dishes. He tried to give her an encouraging smile but none came. They cleaned the mess together. In silence.