Summary: Optional coda to the 'Time Together' series. Mal continues to suffer from new injuries and has a few more treasured moments before he dies.
Warning: Character death (yep, I finally did it)
It was a rough job and Mal was off his game. It didn't help that they had to stay up a full 36 hours. It was the middle of the afternoon when they finished and the crew had unanimously decided on a nap before supper. Mal was brooding over something that had started plaguing him since before the job but he wouldn't talk about. He leaned against the headboard picking at his nails, and Jayne nestled up to his thigh, not sure if it was okay for him to fall asleep with Mal in this temper. They'd staked a claim in this room nearly three months ago and filled it with a double bed and all their books. Sometimes they forgot that they could leave here and go back to their own spaces, but most times if they were fighting, Jayne didn't want to walk out anyhow. They weren't fighting now. Mal looked like he was pained from the inside out and were he not so tired from the gorram job, Jayne would have forced some truth out of him. If Mal needed to talk, he knew he could.
Mal's hand fell despondently into his lap, and he inhaled loudly. "Jayne?"
Jayne grunted to show he was awake.
"I'm … I'm not okay."
Jayne blinked tiredly and lifted his head to look at Mal. He threw his arm across Mal's lap in a gentle embrace and kissed Mal's hip, then settled his head in Mal's lap. He could see the depression in Mal's eyes that waxed and waned with the passing days.
"Worse than before?"
"I get headaches," Mal explained slowly, his eyes twitching and introspective. "I get dizzy."
"Did you talk to Simon?"
"I'm talking to you."
"I ain't a doctor," Jayne said flatly. Gathering the last remnants of his energy, Jayne prepared to haul Mal off to the Infirmary, but before he could move, Mal rested a hand on Jayne's head and ran his fingers absently through Jayne's hair. Jayne rolled onto his back and settled in again, letting Mal's fingers trace the lines of his face and dance through the beard he'd neglected to shave.
"Ain't just that," Mal continued distantly. "I get angry … and confused… and I want to quit."
Jayne's jaw tensed and he ached seeing the pain in Mal's eyes. When Mal looked down at him, his face was contorted in a desperate plea and his hands trembled against Jayne's skin.
"Don't make me," Mal whimpered and Jayne's blood ran cold. "Don't make me keep living this life."
Jayne sat up immediately, cradling Mal's face in his hands, trying to wipe the sadness off his lover's features.
"What do you mean?" Jayne asked, even though he had an idea. "You want to quit doin' crime and take up honest trade?"
"You want to leave Serenity?"
"No," Mal whined, turning his head sharply to get it out of Jayne's hands. "I don't know."
Jayne dropped his hands affording Mal the space he wanted. He waited, but Mal didn't say anything else. "When you know you tell me, okay?"
Mal nodded miserably, and turned to sit sideways on the bed.
"I want you to be okay," Jayne insisted, placing a hand on Mal's shoulder. Mal nodded again.
"Can you …" Mal shrugged him off. "I want to be alone right now."
Jayne nodded cautiously and scooted away, but a part of his heart screamed at him not to leave Mal alone.
"How about I go to this side of the bed," he offered. Having started their relationship on a single bed, this one still felt huge to them when they kept to the sides. When Mal didn't protest, Jayne peeled off his shirt and got under the covers. Then he lay on his side with his back to Mal, keeping as close to the edge as he could. He kept his ears open for sounds of Mal leaving and was glad when after a few long sighs, Mal kicked off his boots and got under the covers too. Jayne could tell by the way he was tossing and turning that Mal was too preoccupied to sleep. After about ten minutes though, Mal gave up his mission to be alone, spooned behind Jayne, and held on tight. Jayne placed his hand over Mal's and squeezed gently.
"You'll be okay," Jayne promised. Mal rubbed his cheek against Jayne's bare shoulder and inhaled loudly. Jayne kept telling himself over and over that Mal would be okay. It was the only way he could get to sleep.
Jayne woke up with a leer already plastered on his face and it wasn't because it was time for dinner. Mal was already awake, breathing softly on the back of Jayne's neck and tracing lightly over Jayne's skin with his fingers. Jayne hummed approvingly and rolled onto his stomach so he could watch Mal's exploration. Mal gazed peacefully over Jayne's body, his fingers exploring slowly over the lines of the muscles and scars. Jayne breathed contentedly, absorbing the feel of Mal's calloused fingers on his skin. He loved the way Mal touched him – as though he'd forgotten what Jayne felt like and was recommitting it to memory.
Jayne smiled as Mal's hand wandered across his back. Mal pressed the flat of his palm along Jayne's spine then stroked down to the small of his back and over to the shoulder blade. Jayne rolled his shoulder back against Mal's hand and Mal closed his eyes, inhaling as though he were absorbing energy from Jayne's skin. Tipping forward, Mal pressed his nose into the pillow so that his face was next to Jayne's, and then he nuzzled in to kiss the base of Jayne's neck. It was a lost and desperate kiss and if Jayne's arm hadn't been pinned by Mal's body, he would've embraced the other man and remedied the situation. Pinning Jayne further, Mal pressed more of his weight against Jayne's body, nuzzling against Jayne's neck as his hands touched and squeeze Jayne's muscles possessively. His hands slipping past the waistline of Jayne's pants, Mal squeezed Jayne's ass, then he slid a testing finger between the crack. Jayne flinched, but swallowed any protest, knowing that Mal needed this.
Mal, however, gave up his passionate exploration, pulled his hands free, and lay directly on top of Jayne, pinning him to the bed. Jayne flexed his ass teasingly, and laughed when he felt Mal squirm. The last few weeks, their sex life had stalled and Jayne had a feeling it was because of this conversation they hadn't yet had.
Sighing tiredly, Mal finally broached the subject. "Are you ever gonna tell me?"
He'd caught the flinch. Jayne didn't mind saying he didn't like the bottom, but there was more to it than that.
"Were you gonna tell me?" Jayne challenged.
"I'm getting there. I just wanted it to be … I hoped…"
Mal shifted his legs and his body molded atop Jayne's again, coating him like frosting on a cake. Jayne understood completely. Anal sex was the one thing they had that was new since Mal had lost his memory. Mal tried so hard to want it just for that, but the truth was he didn't. They'd tried a few different things to smooth the ride, but it never became more fun for the one on bottom.
"If you don't like it, you don't like it," Jayne said simply. "I don't like."
"You weren't about to stop me," Mal pointed out.
Jayne wished he could look at Mal's face and have this conversation, but he was pinned and couldn't see anything above the elbow. He took hold of Mal's hand.
"I know," Jayne acknowledged. "But when you're on top, you get that glow about you. You look like you really need that tonight."
"It's not as fun coming in you when I don't see you smiling at the end," Mal confessed and Jayne nodded knowingly. Wriggling and tugging on Mal's arm, Jayne pulled Mal just sideways enough to steal a playful kiss.
"So we're agreed," Jayne grinned. "No more up the ass?"
"No more," Mal agreed, gliding softly off of Jayne's back and sinking into a smooth kiss. He felt a brief wave of peace pass through Mal's body, and they embraced gently chest to chest.
"You know, it wasn't all bad," Mal said softly.
Jayne grunted, too tired to put words to his question.
"You only did it the one time," Mal explained. "Back on Persephone when we got that room… the thing with your tongue."
"You like that?" Jayne chuckled, squeezing Mal tight at the memory of their rimming experiment. He'd only done it because they'd spent so much time in that tub getting clean beforehand.
"It was … I don't know. I wouldn't mind doing that again."
"I'll keep that in mind for the future."
Mal lifted his head and sucked lightly on Jayne's ear. "What about the present?"
"Nope. You want you dick played at, else you would've gone in different," Jayne teased, then reached a hand into Mal's pants, making him squirm in surprise.
"You don't have to jerk me off."
"Well I can't blow you. Kaylee's making a cake for River's birthday and –"
"Say no more," Mal interrupted, smiling weakly. "But really, I don't want –"
Mal groaned as Jayne's hand worked masterfully over his nethers, cutting off any protest.
"Jayne stop," he pleaded. "They always tease me when I go to supper all sweaty."
"What do you care … Captain?"
Mal's smile disappeared at the use of the title and Jayne plunged his tongue into Mal's mouth to make up for it. When Mal continued to protest, Jayne pulled his hands off Mal's body, eliciting a soft whimper.
"You really want me to stop," Jayne taunted.
Mal looked a little torn, but his face was crumpled and he was moving his jaw kind of funny.
"Yeah," Mal whispered.
Confused, Jayne leaned in to kiss Mal again, but Mal pulled away almost immediately, buried his face against Jayne's shoulder, and held on tight. Maybe it was that headache.
"Come on," Jayne whispered soothingly. "Let's go find Simon."
Simon gave Mal a dose of something for the headache, and offered to do a low-level brain scan after supper just as a precaution. With a head injury like Mal had suffered, they could not be too careful. He wasn't concerned until half-way through the scan, Mal got impatient and walked out. Mal was a notoriously bad patient, and although with what data he had Simon didn't see anything wrong, he still found Jayne and told him to keep an eye on Mal.
It was tough keeping an eye out because everyone had so much to do in the way of chores. Mal worked out his bad temper doing heavy lifting in the cargo bay and was in the Infirmary again two hours later complaining that his headache had returned. He wouldn't take more than a few pills and then he vanished into his own bunk for half an hour. He and Jayne crossed paths a few more times that evening, but by midnight, Jayne was the only one up and he made the last round of the ship. He paused when he heard the retching sounds coming from the head. Exploring the sound, he found Mal knelt over the toilet, vomiting his dinner and flushing it away. His shirt sleeves were rolled up and the fabric was wet with perspiration. His face was beat red as he slumped on the floor and leaned against the wall.
"Dinner wasn't that bad," Jayne quipped.
Mal tried to shoot him a withering look, but broke out laughing. "Don't tell Kaylee I chucked her cake."
Jayne reached out a hand to help Mal up. "Nah, it's protein. Never tastes much different coming up. You can tell her you got to enjoy it twice."
"Is there any left in the galley? Wouldn't mind enjoying it a third time."
"Save it for breakfast."
Mal kept one arm on the wall as he tottered down the hall and Jayne slipped a hand around his waist to guide him.
"Are you drunk?"
Mal shook his head and chuckled softly. "No. But dinner was that bad."
Jayne laughed too and bumped Mal lightly as they rounded the corner through the door to their room. The smile fell off of Mal's face almost immediately and he leaned against the wall by the door as Jayne sat heavily in the chair and yanked his boots off.
"Are you sick again?" Jayne asked when Mal stayed by the wall.
"No, just thinking," Mal answered, looking at the door. "I want some air."
Jayne nodded. He knew Mal liked standing under the air vent in the galley when he was feverish and in denial, because it was coldest there.
"You coming back tonight?"
"I … don't wait up."
Mal pushed off the wall and went out the door to pace the ship. Jayne decided he'd sleep for an hour, then retrieve him.
Jayne stretched his legs when he woke up and rolled over to make sure he was alone in bed. This double bed was the most gorram luxurious thing a man of Jayne's size could ever wish for, but he liked it a whole hell of a lot better when he was sharing it with Mal. Jayne massaged his elbow, longing for the days when Mal was attentive and massaged it for him. Maybe it was time they re-evaluated more than just their sex life.
Exhaling loudly, Jayne rolled out of bed, pulled on some loose pants, and padded up the stairs. Mal was exactly where Jayne thought he would be – he'd pulled the couch out to the middle of the floor just in front of the air vent. Mal's eyes were closed and an empty plate was on his lap, meaning he'd broken into the cake again.
"Feeling any better?" Jayne asked, taking the plate and setting it into the sink. Mal smiled tiredly and beckoned him back, so Jayne settled on the couch between Mal's legs. Mal wrapped his arms around Jayne and sighed.
"What's with the couch?" Jayne asked. "It's easier to move a chair."
"It's easier to lie on the couch," Mal said.
Jayne rested his head against Mal's chest and thought back to the first time he and Mal had ever cuddled on the couch like this, with all the girls present and staring at them. Mal traced over Jayne's arms and embraced him gently then moved his fingers in that old, practiced method, massaging the aches out of Jayne's body. Jayne closed his eyes, surrendering to the comfort of Mal's arms. Mal's fingers moved from memories he didn't even know he had anymore and Jayne had promised himself he'd stop pointing out these moments. It was much better to simply treasure them.
After ten minutes, Mal's hands stilled and he rested his chin on Jayne's shoulder.
"Too warm?" Jayne asked, slouching a little more so that he wasn't blocking the air flow from the vent.
"My lips feel funny."
Jayne sank a little deeper on the couch, looking up so he could see Mal's face. It was twitching. Then Mal collapsed in a seizure.
"Doc!" Jayne hollered, running frantically to the nearest comm box. "Doc, help!"
His heart shooting cannon-fire against his chest, Jayne ran back to the couch were Mal lay unconscious. River and Zoë dashed into the galley first, hearing the commotion from their bunks. Simon arrived shortly after, red bag in hand.
"Zoë, get the gurney," he ordered.
"I can carry –"
"Not this time," Simon interrupted as he injected Mal with something. Mal stirred and looked at the lot of them in weary confusion.
"He ain't moving," Jayne pointed out, wondering why Mal wasn't reaching for him or pushing Simon back.
"Can you squeeze my hand?" Simon asked, slipping his fingers into Mal's. The strain was apparent on Mal's face, but his fingers finally moved and he squeezed Simon's hand lightly. Zoë returned with the gurney and they carried Mal to the Infirmary.
"It's been almost a year, Doc," Jayne said. "What's going on?"
"It's not uncommon in brain injuries," Simon explained patiently as they transferred Mal to the bed.
"Hold still," Simon told Mal gently, and he started attaching wires to Mal's forehead. Mal moaned angrily and ripped at the wires, but Jayne took hold of Mal's hands and held him steady while Simon continued to work.
"Jayne," Mal groaned, his head lolling against the pillow.
"Try to hold him still," Simon requested. Jayne cradled Mal's chin and Mal pressed against his palm.
"I don't want this life," Mal whispered wearily, his eyes begging for escape in that same bone-chilling way as before.
"Please don't make me… Don't make me live like this."
Jayne nodded, swallowing his fear at the intensity of Mal's plea. Jayne had thought those words a thousand times when his arm was mangled and he was laid up in bed all those months, but he'd never had the guts to say them out loud.
"We gotta think through this, Mal," Jayne stalled. "If I let you do what you're saying and you change your mind in the morning, you're pretty much humped."
Mal's face twisted in pain, but then he broke into a heartless chuckle. Their eyes met as they shared the humorless joke and Jayne fought hard against the deep foreboding in his heart.
Mal had another seizure in the middle of Simon's test, and Simon decided it best that Mal stay in the Infirmary overnight. The monitors flashed and beeped in rhythm to Mal's life and Jayne sat on the side bed wrapped in a blanket of his own, determined not to leave. He'd gone back to the room to get some warmer clothes to sleep in and that first book they'd read – 'Bees, beer, and other things that buzz.' When he tipped open the book and started reading, Mal glared at him angrily. Simon supposed Mal's moods were related to the problem with his brain.
"What the hell are you doing?" Mal growled. "Is this your solution for everything?"
Jayne shrugged unaffectedly. "You started it."
"I tell you I don't want to live and you bring a book?"
Jayne looked at the book in his hands and his heart wrapped around its meaning. "Do you remember why you bought this gorram thing?"
"You were hurt," Mal stammered, not seeing the relevance. "You were bored."
"No." Jayne shook his head. "You say you remember me being hurt, but what do you really remember? Do you remember me screaming all the time?"
Jayne waited, but Mal didn't answer. He glowered, rolling his tongue in distaste for memory lane.
"Do you remember that look in my eyes?" Jayne continued. "It's the same look you got now. It's the same and I hate that I recognize it because it's the worst damn thing I ever felt and I'd never wish it on another living soul. And all I know is that you brought me this and started reading and every time you did, I didn't have to feel it no more."
Mal's jaw set and his eyes hardened, but Jayne kept going.
"The Doc can't do anything for you right now and maybe this isn't the answer. But it's all I have, Mal."
"You don't read me like you think you do," Mal seethed. "I don't know who you see when you look at me, but it is not me. Maybe it's the old me, but I'm not the man who bought you that book. You don't even know me anymore."
Jayne closed his eyes and willed his heart to beat through the pain.
"Maybe," he allowed. "But you sure as hell act like my best friend. On jobs. Around the ship. Going drinking. You want to quit being more, fine. Tell me. I've given you a dozen outs, but you're the one that always insists I stay in your life."
"I don't want my life!"
Jayne let the shout echo into silence and he waited, listening to his heart, knowing the right response was in there somewhere.
"I know. But it's my turn to act like your friend right now."
"If you don't want me to read, I'll just sit here. I'm not giving you an out today. Not till you settle down."
Mal turned his head away and stared at the opposite wall, but he didn't tell Jayne to leave. Knowing he shouldn't expect more, Jayne opened the book again and started reading.
The days were a blur to Mal and he'd ceased to become aware of where the Infirmary bed ended and his skin began. He wanted to go back to his own bed, but whenever he tried to voice that opinion, his mouth never seemed to be working properly. When words were coming out properly, he was so desperate to say everything important to his crew that he never mentioned moving. He didn't like how Simon kept steering the conversations toward his physical health because Mal knew he wasn't long for the world and any one of these words might be his last.
He opened his eyes to the blurry world, and couldn't see much beyond the glaring ceiling lights. His mouth was completely parched and a tube taped to his face offered concentrated oxygen under his nose. Thankfully, his arms responded easily to his brain's command and he ripped the irritating tape off his skin and pulled the tube away.
"Good evening, Mal," Inara said in her calm soothing voice. She looked blurry, but Mal recognized that black dress with the embroidered flowers on it. It sparkled as she walked, making her look like an angel. Her cool, soft fingers met his and she took his hand in one of hers. Then she pressed a damp cloth to his face and cleaned off the sticky residue the tape had left behind.
"Are you thirsty?" she asked, holding the moist cloth to his lips and letting droplets of water coat his tongue. He closed his eyes and squeezed her hand, concentrating on not choking.
"Are you not talking?"
Mal blinked as he debated the attempt and pulled her hand over his heart. She leaned a little closer to him and stroked her fingers through his hair. The sad thing was she never would've done it if she didn't think he was dying.
"'Nara," Mal whispered, unable to keep himself from smiling at the sound of her name. He had loved her deeply and wanted her fiercely for so long, and somehow he was remembering that better than he had in months.
"Yes, Mal?" she prodded with a coy smile.
"I remember," he said softly, pulling her face closer to his. Inara tottered as he pulled her off balance, but she regained her center quickly. Mal reached for her, cradling her face in both hands, and kissed her softly. She resisted immediately and he let her pull back.
"Don't be afraid," he told her. The words were important and they were right there on the tip of his mind, but he didn't know how to express them. "Don't be afraid to love."
Inara stared at him for a moment, slack-jawed and speechless. Then she leaned down and kissed him again. The intensity, sadness, and spirit of their friendship pulsed between their lips to the rhythm of lost forevers. Mal ran his fingers through her silky black hair, tracing out the waves, until he felt her teardrops on his face. Breaking the kiss, Mal wiped the tears from her cheek with his thumb, and then traced her lips softly. Inara stood stiffly, blinking the tears from her eyes and letting them fall down her cheeks.
"I love you," she confessed in the faintest of whispers.
Mal smiled. He knew she loved him, and she knew that he knew. So he tapped her nose playfully and said, "Took you long enough."
He was glad when she smiled too.
"Are you alright?" Jayne asked Inara as he came into the Infirmary swiftly. He took Mal's hand and kissed his forehead lightly by way of greeting.
Inara tried desperately to cover her tears. "Fine."
"Inara –" Jayne tried again, but Inara cut him off and fled the room quickly. Jayne looked like he wanted to chase after her and Mal wondered when exactly Jayne had started caring after Inara.
"What's with her?" Jayne mused and Mal tugged his hand lightly to get his attention. With a raised brow, Jayne touched Mal's lips with his finger and examined the red stain Inara had left behind. His eyes met Mal's and Mal broke out laughing, but Jayne shook his head and groaned.
The Captain's seizures were getting worse, and Simon was running out of options. The surgery he wanted to try required facilities that only existed in the core, and despite the hard burn, Serenity couldn't get there fast enough. Kaylee was staying up day and night making sure the ship didn't fly apart as she went, but it wasn't just the metal coming apart at the seams. Zoë had buried her soul so deep, no one could get close to her. Inara sat alone in Mal's old bunk crying her eyes out like he was already dead. Jayne never left the Infirmary anymore. Garbage and dishes were piling up and the dirt that had kept mostly to the corners before was encroaching on the halls. When Kaylee wasn't in the engine room, she would go around doing everyone's chores for them, because it was all she could do to help the Captain.
It had been almost a week, and it was quiet on the ship even though it was the middle of the day. Kaylee pushed up her shirt sleeves and started cleaning up the lounge. She wondered if someone had brought food to Jayne any time recently, but she'd told him last time that she wasn't going to do it anymore and he had to start taking care of himself.
The croak sounded from the Infirmary and Kaylee looked inside. Mal's eyes were blinking rapidly and his head tilted in such a way that she knew he saw her.
"Hey, Captain," she greeted cheerily. "You got your voice back."
Mal's lips drooped haphazardly as he struggled to speak. Kaylee took his hand in hers and patted it twice. Jayne was balanced carefully on the bed as well, cuddled so tight next to Mal that she worried any sudden motion would send him toppling to the floor.
"I'm impressed," Kaylee commented, nodding toward Jayne. "I thought this bed was a tight fit for me and Simon. Can you breathe okay with him on you like that?"
Mal looked stronger than he had in days, but Jayne wasn't exactly a feather-weight on his shoulder. Mal glanced sideways at Jayne, squirmed a little, and smiled.
"He levitates. It's how he walks so soft."
"Ahh," Kaylee grinned conspiratorially.
"Look after him for me."
She cocked her head, trying to ignore the true meaning of Mal's words.
"He thinks if he stays here, it'll keep me from dying."
"Naw. He thinks if he stays, it'll keep you from kissing anyone else. You should be more careful with his heart."
"He can take it," Mal chuckled weakly. He shook his hand free of Kaylee's and touched his own lips. "He has the heart of a lion. 'Nara … I had to tell her. I don't have much –"
"Don't talk like that," Kaylee ordered playfully, taking his hand again. "We haven't let you die on us yet, and it's not for your lack of trying – going and getting shot at all the time and crashing the ship and saving the 'verse."
Kaylee's breath caught. Mal hadn't called her that since before he'd been injured.
"You're the heart of my ship, you know that, right? Keep her going for me."
"Sure thing, Cap'n."
Mal closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then his head lolled to the side and his hand went limp.
"Cap?" she said uncertainly, shaking his shoulder. Her heart raced and she shook Jayne awake. "Jayne get up!"
Jayne lifted his head groggily and rolled nimbly off the side of the bed as Kaylee ran to the hall and hollered for Simon. She stayed by the door as the Infirmary became a whirlwind around her with Simon and Jayne rushing around. As if by instinct, the rest of the ship roused, but in the end, all they could do was stand there and look numbly at each other. Mal was dead.