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Till The River Runs Dry

By Mara_DragonMaster

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 1

“It wasn’t our fault!” Simon protested as they made their fast way through the bay area. “It just happened.”

“Seems to me a lot of things happen around you.” Mal said, his eyes narrowed and his mouth tight. “And those things have a tendency to bring down harm on me and what’s mine, and I don’t exactly approve of that.” He started to turn away, to head up the stairs and out of the bay. “You are off at our next stop.”

Simon’s eyes widened. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“Captain, you can’t do that…” Simon ran up the stairs after him.

“Well I am doin it!” Mal roared, turning around so sudden that Simon almost ran into him. “I am tired of the Alliance always being just a hair’s breath away, and sick of havin people I’ve been on unsteady good terms with turn on me for the promise of reward.” His face and tone left no room for argument. “The next time we land, you and your sister will get off. Is that understood?”

Anger and confusion and desperation warred on Simon’s face. “What about what we’ve gone through together? What about Miranda? You stayed with us then.”

“Yeah.” Mal agreed. “And two of us almost died for it. I ain’t puttin the lives of my crew on the line like that again.” He voice dropped. “You will get off on Hieraz. No more questions asked.”

Mal stepped into the pub and took a deep, satisfied breath of air, looking around. “Nothing like a good drink,” he announced, making his way to the bar. “After a good job.”

“No, there isn’t, sir.” Zoe agreed, taking a stool at the counter.

“Bartender!” Mal tapped the counter top with his finger as he sat down. “Two, please.” Taking up the full glasses given them, him and Zoe took a good drink, then set the glasses down, and he sighed. “Life is good.”

Zoe looked at her glass, silent, and then raised it to take another drink.

Mal glanced at her. “What? You don’t agree?”

“I didn’t say that, sir.” Zoe said, her eyes rising to look at him pointedly.

Mal rolled his eyes and groaned. “Oh, come on.” He exclaimed. “That was over a year ago. You ain’t still all up in a twist about that, are you?”

“I didn’t say anything, sir.”

Mal stared at her disbelievingly. “Right. Okay.” He said, nodding though his eyes had narrowed slightly. “Bartender! Another one, please.”

As the man filled another glass and set it on the counter Mal looked around, feeling at home and relaxed in the dimly lit room filled with traders and smugglers and other fine businessmen. Then his eyes fell on a table in a corner, where a group of men sat playing cards and drinking. There wasn’t anything particular about them to hold his interest, but for some unapparent reason his attention was drawn to a young man at the table, dealing out cards and slapping them down when he got a good deal. His black hair was long on his shoulders and his beard a couple months old, and he laughed and jested with all the others there. Yet there was something dark about him, as though the laughter and easiness were just a front– a very good one, at that– to cover the danger and hardness underneath. Mal watched his movements, the steadiness of his hands, the way it appeared that he drank as much as his fellow card players but really hardly drank at all, the way his eyes were clear and calculating and betrayed nothing but saw everything. He was not someone a person would ever want to cross, Mal decided, taking another drink.

As though feeling eyes on him the man suddenly glanced up in the middle of laughing, searching for who was watching him, and as the light of the room shined fully on his face Mal felt his heart stop dead in his chest.

It was Simon.

“Mal? What is it?”

Moving slowly, so as not to attract attention, Mal turned back to the counter so that his back was mostly to the corner table. “Card table,” he said quietly. “Back corner, first player on the left.”

He knew when she identified Simon by the slight stiffening of her body.

“Yup.” He said, still quiet.

“Well,” Zoe said casually. “He looks different.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” Mal said. “Never figured him for the bad-boy look, but…”

“Who you talking about?” the bartender asked. He looked to where Simon sat playing cards. “Him? Oh– you don’t want to mess with him.”

Zoe looked at him. “Why not?”

“That’s Simon Rio; most round here just call him Rio for short.” The bartender said, keeping his voice low. “He’s a hard dealer; does one-man jobs better than anyone out there. He’s got guts, skill, and a mind like a steel-trap, and he don’t mess around. One time an employer tried to short him when it came time to get paid, and he shot the guy in the leg. Was ready to start shooting other parts, too, except the guy gave in. Hasn’t killed anybody that I’ve heard, but…” he paused, and glanced at the card table. “Just cause I ain’t heard…” he raised his eyebrows in meaning. “You do business with Rio, you better know what you’re doing.” He glanced at the table again. “Obviously, these men don’t.”

“He’s moving.” Zoe whispered.

Mal turned and looked. Simon had gathered his winnings and was standing, sliding on a brown, weathered jacket, and he shook the hand of each man there, still talking and laughing and apparently leaving on good terms. It seemed the other men were too far-gone to realize they’d been completely cleaned out.

Turning back, Mal looked at Zoe. “Well,” he said chipperly, draining his glass. “Let’s go say hello.”

“You sure that’s wise?” Zoe asked.

“Why not?” Mal asked innocently, standing.

As they left the pub they saw him walking away down the street, and followed him to the mostly empty landing field. There were only three ships there: Serenity, another larger ship, and then a small, one-man ship vessel that had been modified to be a deep-space flier. It was to this ship that Simon was heading.

Mal started to jog, and opened his mouth to call out a greeting. Then the world exploded, and the air roared around him, full of hot wind and dust and smoke. When his ears finished ringing and his body realized that it was no longer flying, the fast rat-tat-tatting that followed registered somewhere in his brain as gunfire. Mal blinked, realizing he was on his back in the dirt looking up into a sky quickly filling with smoke. Sitting up he saw Zoe rising to her hands and knees beside him, and then he saw the men in the alley. Simon’s ship was a large orange fireball before them, pieces of broken and charred metal lying all around. Simon was behind the side of the other large ship. He waited, mouth set in a grim line and his eyes blazing, and then he spun out and fire spat from the guns in his hands, taking down two of the men in the alleyway. There was shouting, and dirt spat up around his feet, and he dropped the empty cartridges and reached behind and under his jacket, reloading from the six or so extra cartridges he had on his belt.

Pulling out his own gun Mal shot a man coming up on the doctor’s blind spot. “Simon!”

Hard eyes turned to him, shock evident for only a moment before he returned to shooting. He jerked as a red line suddenly cut across his cheek, and spinning around he shot the man behind him.

“Simon! Get over here!” Mal yelled, spinning and shooting another guy, retreating as the attackers turned some of their fire on them. Zoe hit a man who decided to make a daring and very foolish charge out of the alley and into the open, and then she pulled out her radio.

“Wash, get ready. We’re coming in fast.”

Giving a final burst of gunfire Simon reloaded his guns a second time, and then he turned towards Mal and began to run. Dirt clouded and spat behind and around him, and as he ran he raised one of his guns and took out another enemy.

As the engines of Serenity roared to life and began to glow orange above them Mal and Zoe backed up to the ramp, guns firing. Simon barreled into them, and they all turned and ran up and into the belly of the firefly, and with a heavy sound of wind and engine power the ship rose into the air and took off.

Simon skidded to a halt inside the bay, emptied guns still gripped tightly in each hand, and he stared at the bay door as it rose and clanged shut. Jayne stood on the stairs between the bay and the catwalk, holding Vera, frozen when he saw who had come in with Mal and Zoe. Kaylee, who had come running as they took off, stood on the forward walkway and stared, hands gripping the railing, her eyes wide. Wash appeared on the stairs, having set the ship on autopilot. Stumbling to a stop beside Kaylee his mouth opened in a question that died on his lips at Zoe’s warning hand, just as Simon gave a frustrated bellow, eyes blazing as his teeth bared. “Zǔ zhòu!” he yelled, throwing his gun at the door where it banged and bounced off, sliding across the floor.

“Nǐ bèi pàn zhě! Nǐ ér mǔ jiào shǎo shān yáng! Yú jiāng yào xiǎn nǐ!”

Mal raised his eyebrows.

“Tā wǒ chuán, nǐ shǔ!"

His explosion over, Simon spat on the ground, then jerked his head, shaking his hair out of his face. He only partially succeeded, because some of it stuck in the blood on his cheek. Giving a final glare at the door as he pulled the trapped strands free he turned his head to the right, and his eyes settled on the captain.

Mal stared for a moment, then he smiled and spread his hands. “Simon! It has certainly been–“

Simon moved faster than Mal could react, a murderous gleam in his blue eyes, and a moment later the captain’s head snapped back as a fist collided with his face. The next thing he knew he was on his back with a nose that hurt to high heaven and a ringing in his ears, and Simon standing over him.

“Hey, Captain!” Simon smiled cheerfully down. “Long time no see, huh? Here.” He reached down and grabbed Mal’s hand, pulling him up to his feet. Then his brows drew together, and he pointed to Mal, who was holding his nose with one hand. “Want me to look at that for you?”

In the infirmary Mal held a pack of ice on his face, his eyes peering over it warily as Simon moved around. The others crowded around next to him, staring as their changed ex-crewmember ignored them, going about his business and humming all the while. His cheek sported some butterfly bandages where the bullet had grazed him, his dark hair hanging loose around his face. While he had never been a weak man, his muscles were now hardened and defined, and on his right arm, under the sleeve of his t-shirt, they saw the bottom of a tattoo peeking out. Opening a cupboard he muttered something to himself, and scratched thoughtfully at his beard.

“You want to explain what in the shì jiè happened back there, Rio?” Mal demanded, his voice muffled by the pack and funny sounding because of the swelling of his nose. He winced as his nose pained. “And what on earth did you go turning my nose into a swollen plum for?”

“Relax, Captain, your nose will be fine.” Simon said, studying the shelves until he found the bottle of painkillers he was looking for. “As for what happened back there,” he said, walking over and pulling the icepack down to inspect its progress. “Was a misunderstanding between two business associates.”

“Seemed like a bit more than a misunderstanding to me.” Mal deadpanned. The icepack was put back on his face.

Simon smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It was a misunderstanding on his part.” He said quietly. Stepping back he returned to the cupboards. “I did a job for him, but his information was faulty. It went wrong, all of it, and he got caught.” He faced them, leaning back against the counter. “He blames me for it; mistakenly, of course.”

“Of course.” Mal agreed dryly.

Kaylee, who had been watching Simon with a mixture of horror, wonder, and confusion, raised her hand. “Um, I don’t mean to interrupt here,” she said hesitantly. “But–“ she paused. “Where’s River?”

Simon’s face froze, staring at her, and then a look entered his eyes that no one could read, and another casual smile crossed his face. “We, uh–“ he laughed. “We parted ways.”

“What do you mean?” Zoe asked.

We are not together anymore.” Simon said, crossing his arms and looking for all the world like he was explaining something to a group of children. “We parted company. She went one way, and I went another. And I’m pretty sure she’s better off where she is right now.”

“So she’s safe?” Kaylee pressed, her eyes hopeful.

The corner of Simon’s mouth lifted. “Yeah. She’s safe.” He said. “The Alliance can’t touch her where she is.”

Mal studied him. He noticed that Simon’s words were all light, and that he smiled and laughed as though nothing touched him, and that didn’t sit well with Mal. Something wasn’t right; but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Not yet, anyway.

The dining room was unusually quiet. Zoe put together something for supper that kinda, sorta resembled food, and Kaylee carefully set the table. “He scares me.” She finally blurted.

Zoe turned. Kaylee was standing at the table, holding a plate tight against herself and looking up with large, distressed eyes. “Simon.” She explained. “He scares me.” Shaking her head she walked over to where Zoe stood at the stove and set the plate down, leaning against the counter. “It’s just– he’s not like him. Not like our Simon. Not that he doesn’t look good all– bad , and– and dangerous-like,” she quickly stated, and her cheeks flushed a little bit. “But– he’s gone all hard and shelled up, like a clam or something.”

Zoe nodded, looking at the pretty mechanic quietly. “I know.”

“What happened? Back there, on the planet?”

“Someone blew up his ship.” Zoe said, keeping her voice low in case anyone else might hear. “There was a gunfight. You heard what he said in the infirmary; seems somebody took a high dislike to him.” She shrugged. “It happens.”

“Yeah,” Kaylee agreed doubtfully. “I guess. But what happened that could make him this way?”

Before Zoe could answer there was a step in the hallway, and then Simon came through the door. He smiled brightly at them, striding across the room to their side. “Hello!” he said, taking up the plate Kaylee had set on the counter. “Mm. Smells good.” He sniffed appreciatively, and started to spoon food from the pot onto his plate.

“Ain’t going to eat with us?” Zoe asked.

“Uhh–“ Simon chuckled, returning the spoon to the pot and pulling open a drawer. “No.” he said, getting himself a fork. “No, I don’t think the captain would like my company very much. I’m just going to eat in the infirmary.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that!” Kaylee exclaimed, looking at him hopefully. “Don’t mind the captain; he’s just ornery, you know?”

Simon smiled at her, and for a moment his blue eyes softened. “Thanks, Kaylee.” He said. “But, uh– I think it would be better if I didn’t.”

Kaylee watched him leave with an expression of disappointment. “It ain’t right.” She said. “This whole thing just ain’t right.”

Mal muttered to himself as he marched down the hall of his ship to the sleeping quarters. His usual talkative and laughing Kaylee had sat all through dinner without saying more than five words, and everyone had kept to themselves, glancing at each other and at him, and all because Simon had refused to eat with them! After the dishes had been cleared away Zoe had cornered him and told him to go and talk with the doctor, to get things said and squared away. So here he was, opening up the door to Simon’s passenger room and stepping in.

“Now I know you ain’t in a sharing mood tonight–“

An empty room greeted him with silence. The blankets on the bed had been pulled back, as though someone had thrown them off to get up, but that was the only indication of someone having been there. Simon’s jacket and shoes were also gone. As well as his guns.

“Zǔ zhòu zhī.” Mal muttered, turning around and leaving.

Sure enough, he found the doctor in the infirmary, puttering around and doing something with the inventory in the cupboards and muttering to himself under his breath.

“Supplies got a little low, you bein gone.”

Simon didn’t react to his voice, as though he had known all along he was there. “So I noticed.”

Mal nodded and looked around. He had no idea what to say. “So.” He stepped in, arms crossed.

Simon turned around, and there was a look in his eyes that Mal didn’t like, as though he were laughing at some mockery, and the corner of his mouth lifted. “Let me guess,” he said, gesturing with a roll of bandages that were in his hand. “You came down here to talk with me; to find out my story and confront me about what happened today– you know, the whole honorable ‘Captain Mal’ thing.”

Mal’s brows drew together, his eyes narrowing. “Sure.” He said. He was not much liking the person Simon had become, all smart-mouthed and ‘devil may care.’ “Since you seem to be all knowledgeable about my wonderings, why don’t you go ahead and answer them.”

Simon shrugged, setting the roll of bandages down on the counter. “What’s there to tell?” he said, leaning back against the counter with his arms crossed. “I got my own ship, did some jobs, ticked off a guy– as you saw–“ he ducked his head with a grin and scratched at his beard. “Yep. That’s it.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“Told you. She’s safe. We parted ways a year ago.”

Mal took in that bit of information with surprise, though he did not show it. “A year ago. Huh. So you two parted company right after leaving us, did you?”

Something glinted in Simon’s eyes, and his smile as he bit his bottom lip was suddenly not so friendly. For a moment he did not answer, staring at Mal. “Yeah.” He finally said, and his voice had a slight edge to it. “Right after leaving you.”

The boy had gotten dangerous on his own. The more he spoke with the doctor, the more Mal realized he needed to tread lightly, like walking around a bomb that was liable to go off. “Why’d you move your stuff here?” he finally asked, pointing to the cot set up against the infirmary wall, indicating the coat and shoes and guns on it. “Room not good enough for you?”

The corner of his mouth twitched, the muscles of his face tightening almost imperceptibly. “Too big.” He said. “I’m used to a smaller space.”

“We got other rooms.”

“This suits me fine.”

Mal clenched his teeth. The boy was being downright frustrating. “You going to eat in here too?”

“Why not?” Simon said. “Used to eating alone.”

Mal nodded, and eyed him up and down. “You’re not as pretty as the last time I saw you.”

Simon’s eyes widened, and a burst of laughter escaped him. “No,” he chuckled. “I expect not.”

“What may I ask triggered this miraculous transformation?”

“Well, you know the old me.” Simon said mockingly, straightening up from the counter and walking over to the cot. “Always so neat and clean, with my soft hands. After I left you I realized a change was in order.”

Mal nodded, then pointed. “Just never figured you to get all rough lookin, or– tattooed.”

Simon glanced down at his arm. “Yeah, well,” he looked up. “Never figured you for a fěi nào.”

Mal’s eyebrows drew together. “Hey!” he protested.

“Course, with this ship, and the fewunsteady good terms you still have, I suppose you can’t afford to risk driving anyone else away.” Simon sat down on the cot and set one foot on the edge, pulling his knee up as he leaned back in a casual fashion.

Mal clenched his jaw. “Don’t know as I like the new you.”

“Really? Oh no!” Simon widened his eyes with a mock expression of surprise and disappointment. “But– then, you didn’t much like the old me either, did you?” His mouth curled up at the corner as though the idea had just occurred to him. “So– I guess that means that– I don’t care.”

A frustrated growl was working its way out, and Mal stepped further into the infirmary. “Your sister know what you’ve become?” he asked, his voice low.

It happened so fast Mal didn’t know what had happened until he finished blinking and found himself bent backwards over the infirmary table with an arm crushing his throat and a knife against his jaw. Freezing, wondering how in the world the Core-planet doctor had gotten the drop on him, he held up his hands– and found himself staring into blue eyes that were seething with rage and a deep, burning hate that turned his blood cold. “Ah!” he gasped, the edge of the blade sharp and tingly against his skin. “Ahh– guess I walked into that one, huh?”

“Never mention my sister again.” Simon whispered, a threat and a warning in his tone.

“Right. Never again.” Mal agreed. “I get it.”

Simon let go of him and backed away, and Mal released a heavy breath, hand going to his bruised throat. Slowly sitting up he sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his neck, and he looked up warily. Simon stood away from him, staring at him with a hard, unblinking gaze.


“I’ll work in your infirmary.” Simon interrupted, “Patch you up and keep you well to pay my fare.” his voice was dangerously low, and he said his next few words slowly and with care. “But I am not a part of your crew. So don’t go and start getting ideas about treating me as one.”

Mal blinked. “What…”

“You heard me.”

The exclamation and sharp retort died on Mal’s tongue at the look on Simon’s face, and he frowned. Under the anger and the hate and the hardness he thought he had seen pain, a deep pain like a person has when there’s a wound that won’t heal. Deciding not to push it, Mal backed down. “All right.” He said, and he kept his voice quiet. “Where you headed?”

“Don’t know yet.”

Mal nodded. “Well, we just have to pick up Inara, and then we’re going to Tillion. That okay with you?”


Mal sighed. “Right then. We’ll see you in the mornin.”

For the next week life went on as usual, except that if anyone needed anything medicinal, they went to Simon in the infirmary instead of attempting to take care of it themselves. He kept to himself, and never ate with them. Sometimes he would speak with Inara, or with Wash, and sometimes with Zoe– not that they had ever talked much together– but he barely said a word to Kaylee, though he was never unkind to her. He ignored Mal and Jayne completely, as though they did not exist. Mal watched him closely, wondering what in the ‘verse had happened to change the doctor so. He had caught Simon on more than one occasion using Jayne’s exercise equipment in the bay area, late at night, when everyone else was asleep and he thought he was alone. Definitely not like the doctor.

Inara wrapped her robe around her more tightly, tying the sash against the chill of the ship as she made her way from her shuttle to the kitchen to make some tea. As she stepped from the hall to the catwalk she heard a thump and some heavy grunts, and looked down to see Simon, a sandbag hanging from the ceiling, practicing some form of fast martial arts. He was shirtless, and under the light the colors of many tattoos glowed. Stopping, Inara pushed her dark hair behind one ear and watched, amazed at the speed and skill and agility Simon demonstrated, and she wondered where he had learned the martial arts so well and so fast.

Simon punched and spun and kicked and hit, and then finally leapt, hitting the sandbag so hard with his foot that it swung dangerously wide and threatened to break free from its rope. Breathing hard, a fine sheen of sweat glistening on his skin, Simon paused, and he looked up. “Hey.”

Inara straightened, chagrined at being caught, and she smiled to cover her embarrassment. “Hi.” She said as he went to a bench and sat down, still breathing hard. “I didn’t know you knew Taekwondo.”

Simon shrugged. “It’s a new skill.”

Inara nodded, then gracefully made her way down the stairs. She tipped her head as she approached him, eyeing the tattoos that seemed to gleam under the perspiration. On his right arm there was a gun, and with some surprise she recognized it as Jayne’s favorite– Vera. Spilling down his back in a trickle, and over his right shoulder and down his chest and abdomen in a torrent– splashing off boulders and crashing to rapids at his waistline– was a brilliant blue river. A pink and white cherry blossom curled open at the nape of his neck, and on his left shoulder blade was a Firefly ship– and below it, its pages fluttering in a breeze, was an open book with a blue ribbon. On his left arm was the Chinese symbol for life, and around it a green leaf blew on the wind. Last were plump, ripe strawberries nestled on a soft green vine with curling leaves and little flowers on his belly. “When did you get the tattoos?” Inara asked, sitting next to him.

Simon glanced down. “What– oh.” he touched the strawberries on his skin. “Nine months ago. Give or take a day or two.”

Inara reached up with a fair and slender hand, and gently touched the tattoo of the leaf and the Chinese symbols. For a moment she wondered at his choice of pictures, and then suddenly, as she stared at the leaf, she realized what they were– symbols, for each member aboard Serenity. Glancing up she caught his gaze, his eyes steady as he watched the realization on her face and waited for her reaction.

“I couldn’t think of something for Zoe,” he said quietly. “But her name means ‘life,’ so…”

Inara’s eyes ran over the tattoos with new understanding as his voice trailed off, and looking up she smiled. “They are very beautiful.”

A hint of a smile touched his mouth.

“Why did you get them?” she asked.

His jaw tightened, and he glanced away, looking forward as though the sandbag still swinging from the ceiling would offer him an answer.

Inara frowned slightly, her perfectly shaped brows curving together. Dropping her gaze to the tattoos again she studied them, and then her eyes widened, and quickly scanning the rest of the pictures she felt her chest tighten. Hidden within the pictures were scars, some faint lines, others like ropes. Within the river there claw marks, raking down his chest and ribs; a circular, mottled patch of skin was within the engine of the Firefly; a gash formed the barrel of Vera, and another formed the blue ribbon of the book. The cherry blossom’s soft curling petals were rippled edges of a burn; scattered scrapes were within the Chinese symbols and the leaf; and there was another, puckered scar that made up the largest strawberry. Inara recognized it as the bullet wound he had received on Miranda. And where the water spilled in a trickle down his back, Inara discovered that it was actually a long rope of skin that traveled from the back of his shoulder to his waist.

As she blinked, her mind reeling, Inara noticed that there was only one scar that was not hidden within a picture, that was kept in plain sight. A bullet wound on his chest.

Simon saw the emotions in her eyes, of surprise and horror and tearful sympathy, and his face softened. Covering her hand with his, he drew her gaze from the damage of his body to his eyes. “I didn’t want to go around looking like a walking accident.” He said quietly, offering a little smile as he attempted to make light of the situation.

A brief smile touched Inara’s lips, and she felt herself relax slightly. Yet her eyes were still large with sympathy and distress. “How?” she whispered.

Simon swallowed and glanced down, and for a moment he did not answer. “Reaver attack.”

Inara’s breath caught.

When he looked up again, his eyes were for once un-shuttered– and they were sad, and so very, very tired. Yet he smiled. “It was a long time ago, Inara.” He whispered. “I’m okay.”

Inara tried to answer, but her throat was too constricted for any words to find their way out.

Simon stood, and offered her a final reassuring glance. “Goodnight.”

She found her voice, and swallowed tightly. “Goodnight, Simon.”

Kaylee bit her lip, her brows drawn together as she wrestled with the nut that refused to come off of its bolt. Laying on her back, grease spread across her cheek, she blew a strand of hair from her face and took a deep breath, then set all her strength to the wrench with a loud grunt of exertion.

“Need a hand with that?”

Pausing, Kaylee gave the nut a final, withering glare, and then she slid out from under the engine. Immediately her eyes brightened. “Oh.” She sat up with a grin, and chuckled ruefully as she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “Simon. Hey.”

“Hey.” His blue eyes shone with amusement as he watched her, leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed. She liked his blue eyes; they almost always had a certain twinkle about them, especially when he was with her– though that had been rare the last week.

“What’r you doing here?” Kaylee asked, drawing her legs in so they were crossed, and she sat up, balancing herself on her hands.

“Well, there aren’t any terribly important injuries to patch up, and the infirmary’s been organized at least a dozen times now, so…” Simon shrugged, his quick smile revealing the joke, and she grinned. Then his expression grew quiet and pensive, as it always did when there was something serious to be done or talked of. “Kaylee,” he said, his voice soft and his eyebrows drawn together. “I feel I owe you an apology.”

The corners of her mouth pulled down for a moment in thoughtful confusion, and then, unable to think of anything, she shook her head. “What for?”

Studying his feet, Simon didn’t answer at first, though his mouth opened a few times as though trying to find what to say. “I’ve been ignoring you.”

“Aw, Simon…”

“No, I have,” Simon said, and as he looked at her Kaylee suddenly felt like it was the old Simon talking to her, apologizing for some believed wrong-doing on his part, his blue eyes so serious she couldn’t help but forgive him. “Of most people on this ship, you– you’ve always been kind.” He said. “And I’ve repaid you by being all cold and closed up. I’m sorry.”

Kaylee stared at him, her lips pressed together and pulled in, and then she nodded. “Why?” she asked.

Simon frowned. “I don’t…”

“Was it something I did?”

“No!” He looked at her like he couldn’t believe the thought had even occurred to her. “No, it was…ah,” he shifted his weight and ran a hand through his hair, suddenly uncomfortable. Kaylee wrapped her arms around her knees, waiting. While different emotions played out on Simon’s face, he stepped into the engine room and lowered himself to the floor, sitting down facing her, his legs crossed, and he studied his hands.

When he didn’t say anything, Kaylee blinked, rocking a bit to calm the nerves in her. “I thought you loved me.” She finally said.

Simon’s head whipped up, and his blue eyes were wide. “I do! I do, it’s just–” he exclaimed. “That’s the problem!”

Her soft, innocent face pulled into an expression of surprise. “What?”

Simon opened his mouth, but in his hurry the words got tangled up and he couldn’t get them out. Sighing heavily he closed his eyes, and started again. “I’m not good with girls.” He said. “Especially girls I like. A lot. So when I got kicked off–“ he paused for a moment, studying his thoughts. “I always say something or do something wrong,” he said quietly, looking at her with a soft, sad expression. “And I end up hurting you. I just– I didn’t want to hurt you anymore.”

Kaylee looked at him as he lowered his face, staring hard at his fingers as he drummed them against one another, and then she rolled her eyes. “The ‘verse is a funny thing, ain’t it?” she said. “By protecting me you did cause hurt, Simon. Real bad. I mean, here you were not talking to me and barely even noticin’ I exist and I been thinkin’ I had gone and done something wrong, something so terrible that it made you not want me anymore!”

“No! Zǔ zhòu zhī…” Simon shook his head.

Kaylee stared at him, studying him. “You’re an idiot.” She announced.

Simon’s head whipped up, his eyes wide, and then– quite suddenly– he started to chuckle. Kaylee joined him, laughing as a weight was lifted up and out of her heart. Finally Simon shook his head, pushing dark strands of hair behind his ear.

“Wish sometimes I could stay mad at you.” She said, shaking her head.

He looked at her. “You mean to say– you forgive me?”

A large, sweet smile filled her face and eyes. “I mean to say.”

•“Zǔ zhòu!”: Curse!
•“Nǐ bèi pàn zhě! Nǐ ér mǔ jiào shǎo shān yáng! Yú jiāng yào xiǎn nǐ!”: You traitor! You son (of a) mother-less goat! I will kill you!
•“Tā wǒ chuán, nǐ shǔ!": She (was) my ship, you rat!
•shì jiè: world
•“Zǔ zhòu zhī.”: Curse it.
•fěi nào: big softie

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