"Doctor-patient confidentiality, right?"

Simon's eyes widen a bit as he catches the nervous urgency in Wash's voice. He quickly blinks to cover any look of surprise. "Yes. Of course."

"Irrevocable, inviolable, relegated to eternal bedpan duty if you break it-absolute, right? Even if an amazon threatens to beat you senseless with a Winchester Randall, you're bound to silence?"

The words are typical Wash fei hua, but Simon sees no mirth on Wash's face. He looks pale and drawn and totally serious. "Yes. What's this about?"

It comes out in a rush, more demand than question: "A vasectomy, that's something you could do on the ship, out-patient style, isn't it?"

Simon notes the puffy bags under Wash's red-rimmed eyes, his angry, impatient tone and abrupt movements, the way he is rocking just a little on his feet. But it doesn't take a doctor to diagnose a conflicted man. Clearly something has changed in the Washburne baby debate. So Simon pauses a beat, and then asks cautiously, "Have you talked this over with Zoë?"

Wash laughs in a skittish, high-pitched tone that Simon immediately puts down to stress and sleep deprivation. The pilot throws up his hands and shrugs emphatically.

"She says I'm making excuses." This is so unfair, Wash fumes. Him on the defensive, considering bodily alterations. "Says it doesn't matter that trouble follows this ship like it's on a mission from God." His voice is rising, gestures getting broader. "She says… she says she's not so afraid of losing something that she won't try to have it." He shakes his head in disbelief. When did he become the sensible one?

But that has all to do with Zoë and Simon knows this visit is about Wash. And so he waits and listens.

Wash bows his head for a moment, hesitant to go on. But he must, or else Simon won't understand, and then he might not help. So at last, reluctantly he whispers, "But I am, Doc. I'm afraid."

Simon nods. He himself is no stranger to doubt.

"Zoë, she was raised in the Black. I was raised on a toxic waste dump of a planet, so it's not like I'm saying dirt-side's the only place a kid can grow up. It's just …" Wash looks vaguely around the infirmary, and then his eyes drop to the floor.

"The violence, I know," Simon finishes for him.

"Yes!" cries Wash, head snapping up, arms extending in tribute. "The violence. Exactly! So you'll do it?" He feels kind of bad about putting Simon in mortal danger like this. But Zoë isn't likely to do any permanent damage to the doctor if she finds out. She'll save all her best moves for her sneaky, underhanded husband.

Simon looks clinically at Wash. Even minor fatigue can impair judgment, and this man is clearly exhausted and in a heightened emotional state. Based on his level of agitation, Simon suspects Wash isn't nearly as sure as he wants Simon to believe. And the first rule of medicine is do no harm, not the customer's always right.

Not for the first time, Simon wishes he had paid closer attention during that three month psych rotation back in residency. He likes to think he's empathetic to his patients' needs. However, it's been pointed out more than once to him since he joined this crew that providing emotional support isn't his forte. Perhaps the Shepherd could offer some guidance? But Simon rejects the idea almost immediately – Wash isn't a religious man, and Book isn't a father.

What would his own father say, Simon wonders, about the joys of parenthood? Is the fine, upstanding Gabriel Tam ashamed of his fugitive children, who've ventured so far from the accomplished paths he dreamed for them? Becoming criminals, even killers. Would he weep for the dangers they've endured? What of the barbarity that's been done to his only daughter, at the Academy where Father left her, thinking she'd be safe – could he forgive himself if he knew?

Simon knows he has to say something. "What you are feeling is perfectly natural." Generally a good sentence. The therapeutic equivalent of aspirin, perhaps, but Simon is grateful he has it in stock as he sees Wash rush to gulp it down. "This is a big decision." Simon shrugs inwardly. About as medicinal as a multi-vitamin, but not totally useless and always safe to prescribe. Now to move back onto familiar ground. "The procedure is very simple, and technically it's reversible, although there's never a 100 percent guarantee. I'd feel better if you and Zoë talked this through first," – here he raises a hand to shut down Wash's protestations – "but in any case, you should at least be properly rested before we do anything."

It occurs to Simon that mere fatigue won't stop a desperate man. He improvises: "It's important to avoid risking complications that could affect your, um, romantic performance." That caution registers on Wash's blanching face and Simon hurries on, feeling guilty about having just lied shamelessly to a patient. "I can dope you with something that's not very strong. It will just relax your muscles and help you fall naturally into a deep, non-REM sleep for a few hours. We can talk again after you wake up." In truth, though, Simon has no idea what will be any different in a few hours, unless Wash changes his mind. Or persuades Zoë to change hers.

Wash is disappointed he'll have to revisit his idiotic plan, particularly the going-through-with-it part. He wishes what's done is done were, well, done. But he thanks the doctor for helping him as Simon carefully guides him back to his bunk. Zoë's not there, which usually makes it a bit harder to sleep, but the drugs don't know she's away and begin to take effect. Lying in bed again brings Wash full circle, and he compulsively replays the past week's vivid nightmares in his head. As he drifts off, Wash marvels at what a man will do for love. He thinks about all that he has, and all that he wants, and all the things he's afraid of losing.

Author's Notes: In Frank R. Stockton's short story The Lady, or the Tiger? a King seeks to separate his royal daughter from her lowly-born lover. He makes the young man choose between two doors. Behind one is a beautiful lady-in-waiting, whom he will be forced to marry. Behind the other is a vicious tiger that will tear him apart. The princess knows what is behind each door, and signals the young man towards one of them. But which door does she send him to? If to the lady, the princess loses him to another woman and jealousy consumes her ever after. If to the tiger, she condemns him to death. Stockton ends the story at the point where the young man is just about to open the door the princess has indicated to him. It is left to the reader to decide which fate she chose for her lover.

In our story, Wash is on the verge of a momentous decision, one that will necessarily have a significant impact on his marriage to Zoë and their lives on Serenity. So my question to you is this: which will Wash choose – the lady, or the tiger?