No More Running
No more running. That's what the Captain had said to them all just before Miranda. It was a good pep talk, and Simon had been subjected to a lot of pep talks in his life. It wasn't so much that he was running from his past as he was blatantly ignoring it. Or at the very least manifesting his firm denial of it under the guise of 'not repeating past mistakes.' He'd taken the words to heart. He'd stopped running from Kaylee. She was a kind soul and deserved a chance. At the time he figured it was his best hope for happiness because he never wanted to be with a man again. Men. So much he felt. So much he wanted. So much innocence … lost.
Simon watched Mal from across the cargo bay. He was talking to Inara who was probably trying to argue another half day onto their stay here so she could work. Mal spoke diplomatically, all the while helping Zoë load up the mule for a job. It was their third mule since he'd come aboard Serenity, the first two having met untimely ends during one job or another. Simon was pretty sure that Serenity was the only machine Mal would run into the ground. Everything else seemed expendable.
River came down the stairs, nudging him as she went by, making sure to step on his toes with her boots. Simon had put up a fuss about her going barefoot on jobs, and Mal had backed him up on the notion, so it was her small revenge. She gave him that knowing smile that told him she knew what he was thinking and it wasn't a bad idea. Simon wished he understood his own thoughts as clearly as she did.
No more running.
Simon had always been the decisive type. It was a good quality for a trauma surgeon, to look at a problem, decide on a solution and act quickly. Any delay usually cost someone a life. Even in less important decisions, he was quick and decisive. As soon as he started hesitating and pondering, he ended up dancing around for years, delaying a decision until it became obsolete. But not today.
No more running.
Simon strode purposefully to the side of the mule as Mal climbed on board.
"Something you need, doctor?" Mal asked, noticing his approach.
"I was wondering if you would like to get a drink … with me… later."
Mal looked at him quizzically, caught off guard as much by the timing as the invitation itself.
"You mean like a date?" Jayne mocked.
Simon folded his hands behind his back and waited patiently for an answer. He was not a man easily deterred and he had decided. The past would not keep him from enjoying the present. No more running.
Kaylee's jaw dropped unabashedly and Inara's stayed shut by sheer force of will, though the surprise was written all over her face. River just smiled knowingly and Simon remained dead serious, waiting for his answer. Mal's mouth flapped uncertainly as he surveyed the group, wondering if this was some elaborate joke. Finally he shrugged in a 'what the hell' kind of way.
"Sure Doc… Simon," he said with a nod, but no smile, as if they were agreeing to a business meeting. Now Jayne's jaw dropped and Zoë's went a little slack.
"Tonight?" Mal continued.
Simon nodded, suppressing a smile.
The job did not go nearly as smoothly as it should have. They came back three hours late, and one mule short. Zoë had a through-and-through on her right side and Jayne carried her slung over one shoulder so that he could still hold his gun with his free hand. They ran for Zoë's sake, because the pursuers had long since given up.
Simon glanced over River and the others as they ran to the Infirmary, but Zoë was the only one with obvious wounds. Jayne laid her on the bed, keeping pressure on her wound as he did. Mal reached for the adrenaline without Simon even having to ask. He appreciated their nursing, then pulled on his surgical apron and set to work. After the first ten minutes, Simon found his rhythm and dismissed Jayne so he could change out of his blood-soaked shirt.
"Do you have work to finish?"
Mal shook his head and kept soaking up the blood so Simon could see where he was sewing. If Simon didn't know better, he'd have thought a prayer was falling from Mal's lips. He couldn't help smiling to himself, but he kept working.
"You had to ask me out with everyone watching," Mal finally blurted out.
Simon afforded him a brief glance and laughed in surprise. "You would rather I sneak into your bunk in the middle of the night and ask then?"
"Actually yes. How am I supposed to enforce a policy on shipboard romances –"
"Were you romanced?" Simon teased, raising a sarcastic brow. Mal glowered at him. Simon motioned for a pair of forceps and Mal handed them over.
"As ship's doctor, I suppose I should be the one to tell you. Your policy on shipboard romance died violently at the hands of your crew many years ago. If you're still having hallucinations, I could prescribe an anti-psychotic –"
"There's a difference between people figuring about what goes on behind closed doors and public display."
"Fine," Simon said smoothly. "I won't seduce you in the common areas."
"Fine," Mal agreed sharply.
Simon concentrated on Zoë. Clamp. Suture. He'd nearly stopped the bleeding, which was good. No one on Serenity had a compatible blood type for Zoë. Not since Wash…
"You didn't seduce me," Mal stated matter-of-factly.
"I can't have this conversation now," Simon interrupted. "Help me, or leave."
Mal fell silent, but he didn't leave.
It took ten hours before Simon declared himself as done as he could be under the circumstances. He always hated frontier medicine for that. Too tired to move, he sat on the countertop that they all-too-often used as a second bed, and leaned against the wall. At least Zoe was stable. Mal had disappeared over an hour ago to make his nightly round of the ship and the audience from the crew lounge had disappeared as well compelled by hunger and exhaustion.
Simon was surprised to hear Mal's soft boot steps as he came down the stairs again. He entered the Infirmary with a plate of cold pasta and offered it to Simon. Simon was almost too weary to accept it, but his stomach growled and his mouth watered. That was another caveat of frontier medicine – you could not rotate out of a long surgery.
Mal didn't say anything at first. He just leaned on the counter next to Simon and watched Zoë sleep. The food tasted good, but starvation tended to have that effect on protein flavor.
"So did you have some place in mind for this drink?" Mal asked casually, as if they were fixing to leave in a few minutes. "I imagine all the fancy places in your element would be closed by now."
"I was actually thinking some place more in your element," Simon answered, his mind wandering past their foiled plans.
"I ain't got an element," Mal said flatly. "Just some places I tolerate more than other. I imagine those places are open 24/7."
"That's not what I meant," Simon said quickly, then caught himself. A very pregnant silence followed and finally Mal stopped looking at Zoë and set his eyes squarely on Simon.
"What did you mean?"
Simon sighed again, his brain almost too tired to think. But the location he'd planned was so peaceful, he didn't mind imagining it. "There's a protected forest about two miles from here. There are wild berries and an idling stream. Occasionally the trees open and there's a clearing with a fire pit that's technically illegal, but no one cares. It's far from civilization, but the land isn't dead… "
Mal stared, open mouthed, clearly seeing the place in his head. He tried futily to swallow his sentimentalism. "And what makes you think this is my element?"
"Are you telling me that's not a tear in your eye?" Simon teased, nudging Mal's shoulder with his knee.
Mal wiped his face self-consciously, but it was dry. "What do you imagine us doing … so far from civilization?"
Simon smiled at how perfect his plan had been. He got up, rooted through a bag of supplies he'd picked up earlier, found what he was looking for and tossed it to Mal. Mal caught the bag of marshmallows easily, and just stared, awestruck.
"I thought we'd find some sticks to skewer these with and try not to char them over a fire. Maybe we could just look up and you could point the stars out to me. I never bothered to learn the view from any world besides Osiris. I never thought I'd leave it."
"How do you reckon I know the view?" He was still holding the marshmallows, looking at them like one would a tattered picture rescued from a fire.
Simon leaned against the counter and watched. "Three jobs ago, when you practically gave yourself alcohol poisoning –"
"It was a good take!"
"I remember. You spent half your cut buying alcohol, and the other half buying medicine for your hangover."
"I wasn't that drunk," Mal countered, defensively.
"So you remember pointing out all of the stars to me?"
"I –" Mal paused, his brow crinkling in confusion. "Wait, you came to get me? I thought Jayne carried me back. When were you and I outside?"
"We weren't," Simon answered. "You were lying on that bed," he pointed to where Zoë now lay; "pointing to those lights," he redirected his finger to the ceiling. "And telling me that Beaumonde was in the wrong part of the sky."
Mal laughed at himself, rubbing his jaw reflectively. "And from this you think I'm an astronomer?"
Simon shrugged and took the marshmallows away from Mal. "It was just an idea. There aren't many worlds with protected forests on them …"
Abruptly, Mal stood and walked out of the Infirmary. "Well, come on then."
"We still have four hours 'til sunrise. Come on."
Three hours later, they were laying side-by-side on a blanket Simon had brought, shivering in dew-covered jackets, stomachs aching from too many marshmallows. Mal had burned his hand at one point and it was starting to blister. Simon tended to it with his doctorly efficiency, dipping a handkerchief in the nearby stream and wrapping Mal's hand. He didn't bother suggesting that they go back to Serenity to get it treated properly, because Mal would've said no anyway. It wasn't his gun hand.
The moon illuminated clouds in a mystical blue, but otherwise the sky was covered, and only a few stars had managed to peek through. It didn't matter. They both lay on the blanket, looking up at the sky, listening to the sounds of crickets and tree frogs, and shivering with each rustle of wind. They'd been talking for hours, grazing across conversation topics lazily. Simon bent one arm to pillow his head, and used the other to point out the occasional bat flying past. The twelve inches of space between him and Mal was comfortable, not electric. Not awkward either.
For a moment, Simon just stared at Mal as he talked about some bar fight or another. He'd been Mal's doctor for a few years now, and had ministered to dozens of wounds on the man. But he realized now that Mal had only ever touched him with a closed fist. They didn't even shake hands when Simon had first come on board. Just a few punches over the past few years – honest brawls, but still. Was this one of the mistakes he'd made before? Was there a pattern?
No. This was different. This time… Mal wasn't like that. Mal had carried River out of Maidenhead and brought them back to Serenity. He was different.
Simon flushed when Mal caught him staring. Mal reached out and touched his face, caressing the temple he'd blackened half a dozen times. Mal smiled gently, but Simon turned away to look for stars again. He was grateful when Mal retracted his hand and tucked it under his head.
"Look!" Simon said, craning his head toward the horizon. "There's one! Star light, star bright –"
"That's a planet," Mal interrupted dourly. "Stars ain't that bright."
"Which one is it? Do you know?"
Mal looked at the sky, then at his bandaged hand and started pealing off the handkerchief. "That's Shadow."
"Do you really know or are you mad at me?"
Mal shook his head, still focused on his burnt hand. "Ain't mad."
Simon looked from Shadow to Mal and mentally ran through what he knew about the place. It was a black rock, destroyed by the Alliance some time during the war. Mal would probably be tetchy about it. Deciding he had no other option than to take Mal's word, Simon relaxed his view and looked up again.
"I knew you'd know."
They both let the silence hover a moment, then Mal craned his neck to consider Shadow again. Then he whispered in a voice so low, Simon wasn't sure he was supposed to hear it. "I know Shadow in any sky. It's where I'm from."
"Oh," Simon exclaimed softly, looking at Mal's face, connecting for the first time the history of the planet to Mal. "Oh," he said again, letting it drop. He couldn't imagine how he'd feel if it were his world that went black. He was surprised Mal told him at all.
The moon disappeared, and only their fading fire cast light on the men. Mal kept poking at his hand and finally Simon couldn't take it. He reached over and took Mal's injured hand in his, sternly swatting away the other.
"Stop picking at it."
Their eyes met in a brief forever, and their hands stayed clasped as they both looked away, to the trees, the clouds, anything. New, but still comfortable – they lay side-by-side, connected by the hand. Their conversation idled briefly, coming and going with a lolling rhythm. Their hands didn't break until the sun started to peak. Not letting words destroy the moment, they both sat up, arms resting on folded knees, and watched the sun rise, each man lost in his own world. It was a new day for Simon. One free of the past, and with a pretty good view of the future. He watched as the sun turned the clouds crimson and made the water shine gold. Like the shield on Serenity, he thought. He could stay here forever.
"Simon," Mal whispered, not taking his eyes off the sunrise.
"This is my element."