Serenity was a ship more faithful than any lover in her captain’s life. This was equally a credit to the name of the old cargo ship, an antiquated thing of beauty whose curved iron sides and glowing core revealed the romantic imagination of an engineer long dead, and a discredit to the love life of one Malcom Reynolds, whose surly tendencies did a poor job of hiding a gentleman’s spirit and marked the bloody death of a romantic imagination that had perhaps preceded the engineer’s. Serenity was a loyal machine, and perhaps it was in an attempt to remedy that very situation that on a standard run to the outer rim she quit and sat down like a stubborn old dog. It’s what River believed.
Whatever her motivations, the ship was doing no favors to her engineer. The moment the engine stuttered Kaylee had felt it and despaired, not for fear of losing control in the black and drifting until they starved, but because she was currently sitting on that engine with Inara between her knees, mere moments from cracking her willpower with her enthusiastic necking. Some time ago their soft touches and endearments had bubbled over into a tentative relation, devotion pure as white sugar, but Inara was a dreadful tease who insisted time was a luxury worth using and had held off on any kind of consummation. In contrast the engineer had always been a straightforward lover, impatient enough that she was considering strong disciplinary action against the engine that was as her own child.
After a cursory straightening of her boiler suit, Kaylee showed her face on the bridge to report the failure. The attendance on deck was Wash flying, Zoe keeping company, and the Captain, fretting. A belt had snapped, but they weren’t so lucky and the whip crack of it had shattered a compression coil for which there was no spare. She told them this and folks are distracted enough that no one comments on her birds nest hair.
“We’ve got enough momentum to coast to the nearest planet, no more no less,” Wash said. “But communications are totally black, so we’d be going in blind.”
“Any port in a storm,” Mal grunted. Zoe smiled at him sideways. “Don’t you start.”
Serenity cruises along like she’s got nothing at all in mind. Her captain is a regular amount of concerned for how unconvincing that is.
It’s not until Serenity was in spitting distance of planetfall that the ship received hail from the capital city of Amaterasu. The minister of public health sent them a wave asking their origin and destination, and Mal’s unease reasserted itself deep in his gut. They’ve come from Persephone, bound for a minor hub called Edo, and by the tone of the message that follows this was the wrong answer.
“Plague,” Simon said disbelievingly.
Mal sighed and rubbed his eyes. “The planet’s lacking proper immunizations for something nasty that swept the system a spell back. They’ll let us land, but we’ll be waitin’ a good forty days before they’ll so much as spit on us.”
“ ‘S not so bad. Consider it an enforced vacation,” Kaylee added, ever the optimist. The fact was there was no choice in the matter. Serenity was dead in the air. The health ministry sent them coordinates to an empty township and Wash took them down until the black melted away, a shell of dust and green appearing through steaming clouds.
Giving Amaterasu the name of a sun goddess was appropriately chosen. The planet was a median climate zone ten, with the current temperature hovering in the mid-eighties. It was a dry heat. Dry enough that the back of the captain’s neck had a cracking layer of red dust and sweat not half an hour after the cargo bay doors opened. Inara had taken one step out of the ship in her mounds of silk and turned directly around, calling for Simon over her shoulder. Mal had briefly wondered if she managed to acquire heatstroke in under ten seconds, but she soon returned in a fine linen shirt and pressed navy pants, both of which belonging to the doctor. She would not have settled for anything less.
Kaylee fawned over her, telling her how suave and debonair she looks in pants, squeezing her ass the minute no one is looking. Simon had taken the opportunity to shed his waistcoat, surveying the land with shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, surgeon’s hands perched on his hips. Mal only looked at him a moment before turning to follow his line of sight.
Calling the town rustic would be generous. It was a stand of four wood cabins and a general store with the windows boarded up, shelves bare for long enough that there was not an imprint in the dust. The community garden was overgrown with sunburnt leaves that stubbornly refused to die, sheltering a strange abundance of squash, beans, and even berries. Kaylee’s fingers were stained red as fast as Mal’s lungs were coated in dust. The land was flat as calm water, brushed with sage and olive trees growing close to the earth, beaten down by the force of the sun. But the land was not parched. The bubble of a river was audible to the east, its closest turns hidden by a bluff and an upshot of greenery.
“Paradise,” River breathed. Mal patted her on the head, ready to give a somewhat disparaging quip, but just then Jayne shouted from across the makeshift street.
“The ‘verse do have a sense of humor!”
He lifted a weathered wooden sign out of a tangle of brush. ‘Paradise’ was carved into its face.
Most of the crew was eager to sleep in something bigger than a thimble and quickly laid claim to the cabins. Wash and Zoe had one to themselves as a matter of course, and a protection of other people’s decency. Jayne took one all for himself with ill believed threats of violence, and Kaylee and Inara took one ‘for the girls’, though since one girl was married and another couldn’t be separated from medical oversight, this conveniently left just the two of them. In the last cabin River trailed her fingers over the grain of the oak floor while Shepherd dozed in his verse, and Simon organized and reorganized bandages and psychiatric medications. Mal could not be separated from Serenity if they’d paid him, and would stay in his own bunk.
No one did anything the rest of that day. Linens and creature comforts were moved into their rooms, quiet meals were taken, and most took advantage of rare open space to stretch their legs. Mal spent the better part of the evening leaning on a fence post watching the river churn, and when he went to bed he wondered if he could really do nothing forty more times.
Even shut up in his own bunk the captain could feel how empty Serenity was. There wasn’t a whisper. Even with the cooling of the night the walls didn’t so much as squeak. Mal had a feeling they were having a disagreement.
Mal found his loud heel strike against the gangplank particularly reassuring. Zoe found it eyeroll worthy and disappeared back into her cabin before he could start talking. It was mid-morning and there was no one else about on the pathetic main drag save a family of possums tousling under the porch of the general store. Mal strode through all ten inches of town, whistling as he glanced in the windows, disappointed there was nothing scandalous within.
“Captain!” Kaylee caught him around the neck, flipping up the battered collar of his war coat. “Just in time!”
He protested marginally and allowed himself to be lead into the house, where River was sitting on the kitchen floor peeking into a potbellied oven. The mechanic had made blackberry pie. She sliced it up in meticulous tenths and told him to fetch the doctor.
“What’d he do to deserve pie?” Mal asked.
“He made the dough. What did you do?”
“I’m the captain,” he said, and broke off a piece of the crust to stuff in his mouth. Kaylee smacked him with a dish towel in good nature until he was out the door.
Simon had gone out to read in the sun before it got too scalding. Mal found him a ways down the lane, sitting with an arm around one leg under an old olive tree, and was briefly struck by the sigh of him. Skin like milk glass dappled in the daylight, eyes like a dry summer sky downcast over an old book bound in leather. His sleeves were rolled again but his shirt was still done to the top button, crisp and starched against his neck. Simon fingered the page absently and Mal conjured an image he wasn’t there for of him kneading the dough for the pie. Surgeon’s hands. Just as quickly he shut the thought away. I have no business, Mal thought, I just have no business.
“Kaylee’s callin’. Up an’ atem.”
The doctor blinked and looked up under his dark brow, mouth parting. “Good morning to you too, captain.”
Mal smiled in a way he personally classified as roguish, on which point others had other strong opinions, and offered Simon a hand up. Simon hesitated just a moment before taking it, one hand clasping around the other. Neither of them said a thing on the way back up the lane.
When they crossed the threshold Inara had materialized at the table, primly slicing up the first piece of pie. Kaylee was watching very avidly as she licked stray berry juice off her thumb, so Simon ventured to fetch their slices himself. He gave Mal the one with the missing crust, because Kaylee was his best friend and they could play into each other’s teasing without even speaking. Mal thinks pie is pie and isn’t fussed.
Cooking quickly proved to be a popular pastime. Between Serenity’s sturdy rations and the miracle of fresh produce the crew suddenly had more options than they had seen in all their time in the black. That third night Jayne made a casserole that was downright edible, to the surprise of all involved, including himself. Wash managed to wrangle a pair of feral chickens, only falling on his face once, after which they had eggs aplenty. Jayne stooped to building them a hutch which River painted with daisies and cactus flowers. None of them felt settled but the week passed butter-smooth.
Day ten turned into a celebration when Zoe stumbled upon three casks of mulled cider and a rack of glass bottles of ale in a heretofore undiscovered root cellar. Kaylee built them a bonfire out by the river that cut through the cool desert night, and they all brought blankets to sit on and toasted to a quarter of their quarantine, done.
“Perfect night for a camp song, don’t ya think?” Wash teased. “Somethin’ ni-ice and romantic.”
“Now that’s a fine idea, husband. You got a suggestion?”
“I do at that.” Wash smiled conspiratorially, tapping his bottle against his leg. “Any of you good folks know Apple Blossom Bride?”
The captain scoffed. “No way no how.”
Zoe’s eyes flickered with humor and firelight. “C’mon captain. You’re the one that taught it to us.”
“It’s too complicated!” Mal hedged. “These savage criminals won’t learn it.”
“Captain’s got a point. Music ain’t my forte,” Jayne said.
“Was that a pun?” Wash poked.
“At the risk of sounding predictable, have a little faith, Captain,” Book added. Mal waved it off but Zoe reached over and ruffled his hair like they were young again. She raised her eyebrow pointedly at her husband, who clapped loudly.
“Okay! Harvest Wedding is a pass-it-on song, so you all can pick it up as we go.”
“Mutiny,” Mal muttered.
“There’s an opening I’ll do and then a chorus all together, then a verse you sing individual-like. Watch and learn.” He swayed into the first words of a folk song from a country long gone.
“Welcome to –Serenity—it’s a right alright place
We’re not rich in money or fine in the face
But there’s planet below us and sky up above
That’s enough to grow apples and sing about love!”
Wash slung his arm around Mal’s shoulders and bullied him until he joined in for the chorus along with Zoe. Mal ducked his head like he begrudged it but he was smiling.
“I said won’t you come dancing tonight
Pick up your skirts by the bright firelight
Set down your troubles, lose them in the hay
And we’ll be apple married til the break of day!”
Jayne guffawed, sufficiently amused by the bawdy humor as was his nature. Inara discretely slid her arm into Kaylee’s, leaning into her. Wash picked up the verse again-
“Got a good friend named Zoe as fine as they come
Her manner of kissing would strike you right dumb
But she’s been on her lonesome all harvest at least
So I’ll give her one good chance to speak out her piece!”
Zoe laughed like bells and leaned on her husband, singing more to him than anyone. Mal mimed vomiting.
“My name is Zoe I’m a right alright case,
I’m not rich in money or fine in the face.
But my heart’s being called by the full apple moon,
So I’m looking to find my apple blossom groom!”
Most of the crew could pick up the chorus this time, heads dizzy from drink and singing. Zoe picks up the verse again and passes it back to her husband, as he knows the other part.
“My name is Wash I’m a right alright case,
I’m not rich in money or fine in the face.
But the apple tree in my heart’s blossoming wide,
So I’m looking to find my apple blossom bride!”
Wash kissed Zoe then and Jayne looked disgusted for all of a moment before he became intensely concentrated on getting the lyrics of the chorus right. Kaylee laughed to see it. No one noticed but Simon was fidgeting with his starched collar, eyes touching on each individual face around the campfire, thinking. River was in his head and nudged him in the ribs, communicating in a sibling way, egging him on. The thing about secrets is no one really wants to keep them. For better or for worse Wash caught Simon’s eye just then, and threw the verse to him. Decision time.
“Got a good friend named Simon as fine as they come,
His manner of—doctoring—would strike you right dumb.
But he’s been on his lonesome all harvest at least,
So I’ll give him one good chance to speak out his piece!”
Simon’s eyes flickered to Mal, who was reclining and smiling easily into his bottle of ale. His voice tremored slightly as he picked it up.
“My name is Simon I’m a right alright case,
I’m not rich in money or fine in the face.”
(Mal shouted ‘lies!’ and his tempo hiccupped.)
“But my heart’s being called by the full apple moon-“
(“Wrong one,” Jayne chortled. Simon raised his chin.)
“So I’m looking to find my apple blossom groom.”
It wouldn’t be accurate to say there was a pause. More an instantaneous recognition of an array of reactions. Surprise in all but Kaylee and River, which melted into more diverse expressions. Inara’s mouth pulled up at one corner, eyes approving. Jayne squinted in confusion. Book nodded minutely and Wash and Zoe shared a look that seemed to hold a whole conversation. Mal stared briefly before looking to the fire. River slapped his arm excitedly, mouthing ‘free’ to him as the crew resumed the chorus. Simon catalogued all these things in a second.
When the chorus ends Kaylee made purposeful eye contact and smiled at him. Not just support—next he threw the verse to her. Her smile widened with something reckless she usually wore when she was modifying Serenity’s engine to do something impossible.
“But the apple tree in my heart’s blossoming wide-
Cause I’ve already found my apple blossom bride!”
The low and yellow light hid the pinking of Inara’s face. Kaylee threw it to her and she repeated Kaylee’s moderation word for word. River crowed with delight and it loosened the crowd until they were settled with one another again, Mal raising a glass to the happy couple. Inara repaid him by throwing the next verse to him, and he rolled his eyes but grudgingly continued it.
“My name is Malcom I’m a right alright case,
I’m not rich in money or fine in the face.
There’s nothing but apples in my empty house-
So I’m looking to find my apple blossom spouse.”
Zoe laughed and ruffled his hair again as Mal ducked his head, play-shoving her away. “Well ain’t we the slyest boat in the galaxy,” Jayne drawled. Simon couldn’t keep himself from staring. Mal was loose like he had grown here with the grass, working hands turned gold as Midas by the fire. His smile was crooked but his head was cocked to favor his shooting eye until it came around to being straight again. His voice was nowhere near on key and floated below the others. It was hard for Simon to convince himself his words hadn’t been some kind of permission, but he did.
Later, when the fire had died down and people had begun folding their blankets and collecting their tin mugs, Simon asked Mal where the song had come from. The captain replied that he had learned it from ranch hands who made a living by shuttling from planet to planet doing seasonal work, including working apple orchards that spanned miles of hills on temperate, sunny worlds. “It’s a song for troublemakin’. If you’ve got enough people and not enough sense, there’s a dance that goes with it for pickin’ out a partner.”
“Is there,” Simon said, eyes on the grass.
“There is,” Mal replied.
Simon folded a quilt carefully over his arm, tugging the hem of his sweater. The wool pullover was more casual than anything the man was accustomed to wearing outside the home, which spoke to how changed things were. Serenity was a home, and he didn’t need silk like armor with these people. But the doctor found Mal’s sideways look fell heavy on him, and the vulnerability of little things like casual dress and cheeks flushed with cider suddenly became acute. The night was cool but felt to him smotheringly warm. All around their encampment bare land clung to open sky like a lover, and Simon could only bear so much ecstatic exposure before he turned and retreated, concealing himself again in his cabin and bed.
Lack of trouble was not in Serenity’s nature. The next day River woke up with the flu—just a flu, Simon confirmed, over and over again. Feverish River was unsettlingly quiet, and Simon was running himself ragged taking care of her. Eventually Kaylee got the captain to bodily move him out of the house, promising to watch over the girl for a spell so he could rest.
There was a moment when River said something to Mal, just then. She wrapped her cold fingers around his wrist and tugged him close when Kaylee was out speaking to Simon, eyes startlingly lucid. “Have you ever seen a dog hold another dog’s leash?”
“Well, not as such,” Mal replied mildly.
“Me and gē gē are the same kind of animal, but one holds onto the other. If it gets loose, it’ll be bad. Dong ma?
It struck Mal as odd that River would ever care if he understood her rambling. She pulled her rough cotton sheets up to her chin and tried to glare an answer out of him, and after so long listening to her he could start to understand.
“Simon’s got your leash, huh. What about it, little lady?”
“No,” River sniffed. “I’ve got his.” Despite the baking heat a chill ran up Mal’s spine, hair raising on his neck. River shivered like she could feel it too. “Can’t hold on. Promise you’ll watch him, if you like him so much.”
Mal sputtered. “Who likes the who now?” River laughed at him. “Now listen here, girl, you’re not near close enough to your deathbed to be makin’ grand pronouncements.”
“Not dying. Just worried,” she said. Mal sighed, head hanging low. This much he understood. “Promise.”
River held out her pinky finger and he frowned but wrapped his own around it. Kaylee would watch River, and Mal would watch Simon. Whatever that means, he thought.
Lack of trouble was not in Serenity’s nature. Not three days later seven riders appeared over the hill with the dawn, silhouettes twisted into odd shapes by plague masks and rifles. Just precaution, their leader said. It could have even been the truth, but they asked to see all nine passengers and Mal could only stall for so long before they found River, color high in her cheeks from the fever. In an upright and businesslike manner, they were told they were going to be shot and burned.
“It’s a common flu!” Simon pushed, eyes ferocious, “I’m a doctor, I know the difference!”
“Diseased outworlders is as diseased outworlders do,” A mask responded. The anonymity of their dress was intentional. One bled into the next, so no one could say who exactly fired the first shot. The answer was Zoe.
One of the men was a decent shot and catches her in her shooting arm not a second later. Jayne was yelling from the cellar with covering fire but the riders were fast and only a couple went down before Mal ran plum out of luck and felt a lance of pure fire through his shoulder. Gunshot does not actually knock you backwards but the butt end of a rifle sure as hell will, and he was knocked clean to the ground before he could think, even if he did get off a shot or two first. Clutching at his generously bloodied shoulder, he saw the doctor’s eyes widen like a breaking wave, and then still. As if they were replaced with glass ones. The hair on Mal’s neck raised again at the sight of Simon’s face, utterly removed from his soft and nervous look in the firelight.
When Simon moved, he moved like smoke, fluid and rolling in a way that recalled River without her airy sense of dance, passing through foreign bodies more than engaging them. He didn’t seem to do much at all, but suddenly a hot slash of blood falls like hard rain in the dirt and there were three riders, then two, then one. Mal couldn’t make sense of it, staring dumbly at those surgeon’s hands, red to the cuffs. River was screaming from the porch, hanging off the front pillar like she could collapse any moment.
“You promised!” She shrieked at Mal. “Simon!” The doctor made no response, looking somewhere off his shoulder in the distance. “Simon! Come back!”
Simon finally blinked like he was trying to clear the daze from his eyes, but the cast of his limbs remained otherworldly. River pressed her fists against her skull and screamed in frustration and panic. “Look! Look over here! You can fix him!”
His gaze wandered in her direction through the open air like he was seeing something they couldn’t, eventually fixing on Mal. His blank face slowly bloomed into a gentle smile, and he strode forward like flowing water to where Mal was frozen in place, hands to the earth. Simon knelt down, fingers feathering against Mal’s temple in a way that somehow convinced Mal to turn his head without any conscious volition. Mal thought distantly that it was like being a rabbit staring down a hawk. Simon leaned forwards and kissed him warm and sweet.
“My apple blossom groom,” He murmured.
And then Simon Tam passed out on his bleeding shoulder.
“Eventful ruttin’ morning,” was all Jayne could say. Zoe pursed her mouth in agreement, fingering the bandage on her arm. The two of them had witnessed an interesting picture today, but neither were of a mind to discuss it. They leaned against the two corner windows, watching the uneventful doings of corpses in the dirt.
Wash and Kaylee had retreated to the intellectual safety of the bowels of Serenity, never quite as adjusted to close brushes with death. The ship hardly changed, but it was easier to count copper wires than bodies, for them. Inara was walking by the river, full aware that no one was in the mood for company. River had taken to bed again with the Shepherd to watch her. She was sleeping fitfully, waking up on a clockwork schedule to ask about her brother.
In the side room of Shepherd and the Tam’s cabin, Simon was laid up as he had done for others many a time. When he finally woke the first thing he knew was that Mal was at his bedside.
“Well hello there, sleeping beauty.”
Simon groaned and stuffed his pillow over his face, hiding.
“You gave us quite the scare. We had to dislodge Kaylee’s favorite kitchen knife from a man’s cervical vertebrae. Anything you feel like sharing with the class?”
Simon removed the pillow and sighed. “It hasn’t been a problem.”
“Doc, you made vigilante soup out there. I think we got a gorram problem.”
The house creaked and groaned under them as the wind picked up, blowing a lock of hair across Simon’s forehead. He looked pained. Mal took mild offense to this as the one with a bullet hole in his shoulder. But he was also a soft touch, and Simon’s cracked, whispered voice broke through his fronting with ease. “Didn’t you ever think… it was a little strange, a sheltered ‘core boy’ getting in and out of a secure Alliance facility on his first try?”
“Well it was. Strange.”
The wind was howling through the gaps of the doorframe. The houses were imperfect shells, little protection against a world only partially tamed. Simon waited a good while to speak again, and Mal let him.
“They wanted to see if I was like her. Compare genetic strains, use me as a kind of control group. The data was invaluable. I wasn’t like her, but they made me something close. Kind of. Sort of. It’s unclear. I don’t go testing it and River can suppress it in my brain, as easily as she could look into yours.”
“A dog with a leash on another dog,” Mal murmured. “She lost her handle on you because she was sick.”
“Probably. It’s not exactly peer reviewed,” Simon huffed. “But what about the crew?”
“They’ll live. Probably still laughin’ on account of you kiss like a blushing dairy maid.”
Simon went red and his voice shot up three octaves. “You!—”
River practically busted down the door in her hurry, the frills of her skirts swirling around her like a summer storm as she dove to her brother’s side, throwing her hands around his neck. “I heard you wake up!”
“Oof! Hey mei mei.”
She held his hands up to the light, turning them this way and that, searching for blood in the ridges but satisfied to find none. Simon examined her in equal, judging the color of her face, the heat of her hands, the clarity of her eyes. Mal thought it was a rather apt representation of their apparent symbiosis, and only somewhat begrudged the interruption. He thought it was more time to remind himself not to do something stupid. He quite convinced himself on the matter, and slipped out the door while he had the chance.
I have no business, Mal was thinking, I don’t have no right. He was thinking this in a hammock strung between two scrub trees, regarding Simon where he was laughing with Kaylee over a loaf of freshly baked bread. But that don’t change that I’ll personally thank the sun goddess for stripping that man of his gorram layers.
Some men would find a hidden murderous streak a turn-off. Mal was settling in with the fact that he was not one of those men. It didn’t change that he was a captain with certain responsibilities to uphold, but he remembered that Simon killed four men in so many seconds solely because Mal was shot and he still knew he is not one of those men. A little friendly murder never hurt nobody, and it would be mighty hypocritical to think otherwise at this point. All this had done was make Simon more of a puzzle-box than he already was at the start.
River’s voice in his ear almost flipped Mal out of his hammock. She had recovered quickly over the last few days, seemingly rocket propelled to health by the threat illness proved to her brother’s mind, like she could do it through sheer will. The tree trunk was rough where he grabbed it, dragging against his skin. He cussed profusely as she laughed at him, pale shadows moving across her face.
“You think he’s pretty, not like the apple blossom but the apple itself,” she said, almost upending him a second time.
“Why don’t you go play in someone else’s head, huh?”
She told him she was. Jayne was down by the river thinking about fish stew. Inara was thinking about investing in a lighter wardrobe next time they touched down on a major hub. Simon was remembering a different time he and Kaylee had made bread, to which there was no discernable difference between then and now.
River scrunched up her face. “Boobs.”
Mal laughed then, deep and from the belly. It caused Simon and Kaylee to look up, and Simon by default gravitated towards anything involving River and a loud sound, eternally ready to prevent catastrophe. The sun fell hard on his dark hair, and the droning of cicadas rose in waves. His first two buttons were undone, an unheard of occurrence. “You being funny, mei mei?”
“I’m being honest, you should try it,” she drawled.
“I don’t have anything to hide,” He said lightly.
Mal snorted. “Doc, you’ve been givin’ out revelations like candy these last few weeks.”
Simon pinkened, but it could have been the sun. Mal could have been satisfied with it if River didn’t immediately betray him.
“No leg to stand on,” she said.
“Hey, I never claimed to be a good man but I am an honest one,” Mal shot back.
River stuck out her tongue. “Then tell him you think he’s pretty already.”
The captain choked. What a wonderful day for her to be lucid, he thought to the sky. “Why you—I—what in—”
“It’s okay, he thinks you’re pretty too.”
“River!” Simon shouted, voice cracking as he stumbled back a step. The girl just cackled maniacally and darted off. Kaylee caught her around the middle and swept her back up to the house, giving her a discrete high-five.
“You—need to get a handle on that sister of yours,” Mal finally said, eyes anywhere but Simon.
“Yeah,” Simon replied, a little breathless. For once he made no pretense at defending her. The sound of cicadas seemed louder than a kettle drum, drowning the sound, heat drowning the air, the mechanics of simple magnetism drowning their skins. It was a beautifully suffocating summer. The word ‘pretty’ hung like an anchor, and there was no room for any other words at all.
Mal looked at Simon sideways. His hand was fiddling with his open collar, like he had half a mind to close it. The harsh sun made his cheekbones severe, casting him in a classical look that suited his strong bones. He leaned from one side to another, wavering like a flame.
Simon looked at Mal sideways. One of his legs was still cast off one side of the hammock from his near tumble, the toe of his boot planted firmly in the ground. He uncrossed his arms, folding his hands behind his head to match his usual devil-may-care affect. Simon could name the individual muscles of his arms that shifted under his shirt as he did this.
They said nothing at all, each waiting for the other to leave. Neither did.
The days blurred together incomprehensibly, even though it was not much different than a long haul on the Serenity. What day it is was less relevant to Mal than knowing it’s his turn to draw up water from the river. He certainly knew one and not the other, and he had the buckets in hand for the river.
The path down to the river had grown tamer over their stay, grass crushed flat by hard soled boots. It ended in a copse of greenery that fed off the fertile riverside soil, tucked under a small bluff around the east edge of town. It’s impossible to hide a river, but this one damn well tried. Rushes grew high and willows swung low, knotted up with growth in the heart of a veritable desert. Mal tread into the bank and his boot sucked deep into the mud, which he considered downright unfair considering there was a sandy shore not twenty feet away. He swore absently at his luck.
A splash sounded and Mal had drawn his gun before he could think. Quiet as a snake, he pressed against the trunk of a willow tree and peered through the curtain of leaves.
“Wǒ cào,” he breathed.
It was a scene out of a myth. The bather, full of unguarded youthful beauty; the accidental spy stealing upon the scene. Simon was laid bare in the afternoon light, the skin usually meticulously hidden under buttons and cuffs alive with goosebumps from the touch of cold water. He ducked under the surface and tossed back his hair out of his eyes, swiping his hands over his face and standing at his full height, water running down his chest. Mal thought, I am going to die right here of unresolved sexual stress.
Simon had heard Mal cussing out his boot and was quite aware of the situation. Sense told him to freeze and maybe die of embarrassment, but its voice was drowned by a more headstrong part of him that was in tune with the cicadas as their humming pulsed high and low. Air thick as water and water thick as oil. It was summer, and the body was divine. For a moment he shed modesty like a skin and became naked in the biblical sense, where the concept didn’t exist until you eat the fruit and gain knowledge of it. He wanted Mal to see him and know him. If that wasn’t what Mal wanted he could always look away. Under the guidance of that logic and the burning heat of that gaze, he reclined against a jut of rock smoothed over by decades of pounding water and brought up his hand to pleasure himself.
Mal did not look away. His hand tightened around the bark of the willow tree, nails scaping at the wood. My headstone, he thought, is going to be powerful stupid. Simon looked to him like a nymph, melting into the river, a mystical extension of the soul of nature and a treatise on the natural meaning of the human body. He also looked like a man, with all the fine and boastful qualities that could entail. One hip was canted out of the water and the other submerged, water lapping along his stomach to catch flashes of sunlight as he stroked himself lazily. His smart mouth fell open slightly, chest rising with a puff of hot breath. Man of silk, mouth of silk. Simon hummed in content and Mal felt it in his bones.
Mal was frozen, thunderstruck. The marshy earth sucked on his boots like the hands of the grove itself were reaching up to hold him fast, even as a niggling part of his mind berated himself for acting like a common peeping tom. It didn’t ring true. What would be dirty in the shadows of the home was made clean by the water, any sense of impurity washed away. The cicadas were deafening, twisted up with Simon’s voice as he groaned softly in a way both unrestrained and unperforming. It was simple self-fulfillment. His shoulders twitched and he sighed hard, coming over his stomach.
Mal bodily shivered, slowly coming to his senses like a bewitchment had been broken, air finally moving again where it had gummed up. He abandoned the buckets by the riverside and quickly slipped away into the brush, making a pace for some kind of safety. Later he discarded with dignity and pulled out his pained cock and jerked off into the bushes.
When Mal next saw Simon he was back in shirt cuffs, crisp fabric following in lean lines all the way up his limbs. Only now Mal knew what was underneath it all, for which reason he developed a sudden habit of tripping over his own boots. Never has an ironed crease looked so sinful.
After dinner Inara and Mal got stuck with dish duty. Simon passed through the kitchen to steal a second slice of lemon tart and Inara happened to ask what he had been up to that afternoon. Simon’s mouth was full of pastry and Mal unthinkingly replied for him that he was down by the river.
“Fun,” Inara said benignly and swanned off. The doctor looked up at Mal from where he was licking lemon curd off his thumb and lifted an eyebrow.
Mal stuttered the beginning of several sentences that never saw the light of day, silencing his own self with his first knuckle over his mouth before trying again. “Saw what?”
Simon smiled sly and artful. “Pervert.”
Mal watched dumbly as Simon stuck his thumbs in his pockets and sauntered away.
“You, little Kaylee, have an entire garden in your hair.”
Kaylee smiled like sunshine. “Oh, I’m aware,” she sing-sung.
“You seem mighty pleased about it,” Mal added.
“passionate sex in a field of flowers will do that to ya.”
“Sweet Christmas—What is it with this crew and the telling me things I don’t no ways need to know?!”
Kaylee bopped him on the nose. “It’s cause yer wound so tight. Can’t help but poke ya, see if you’ll pop.”
“Pushin’ my buttons is fast becoming Serenity’s official recreation, it seems.”
“Simon?” she intoned. Mal stared at her.
“And what is it with the womenfolk on this boat and yer fantastical notions? Simon is a professional, and that’s what I appreciates about him.”
Kaylee grinned smugly. “That’s what you appreciates about him?”
“I’m gonna need you to take about twenty percent off there, little Kaylee,” Mal gritted.
Mal spent a week or so failing to mind his own business. He would spend long nights in his bunk in Serenity, wrestling down the memory of Simon’s voice soft with pleasure and thinking captainly things that put him in a practical frame of mind, and it wouldn’t be noon before he had clapped his hand around the back of the doctor’s neck while they laughed about something or other, thumb swiping the hair on the nape of his neck. Simon was a dangerous game, he told himself. If the captain let himself fall into his rhythm, he was convinced he would quickly lose control of his own emotions. As if they weren’t so far past that point it was barely a speck on the horizon. Even as he always seemed to have some point of contact with Simon—knees knocking, a hand ruffing his kempt hair, brushing dust off his shoulders—he swore on the pale moons above it wouldn’t amount to anything. River recalled something from ancient Earth-That-Was studies when she heard him think it: O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,/ That monthly changes in her circle orb,/ Lest that thy love prove likewise variable. Perhaps he should have chosen something more constant to swear by, if he had meant it.
With only a few days left before Amaterasu Proper opens her endlessly hospitable arms to them, the crew of Serenity was left with only time and a physical examination between them and returning to the black. So despite his avowal, the captain found himself sitting bare chested in the infirmary with Simon’s fingers skimming over the underside of his jaw.
“No inflammation in the cervical lymph nodes,” Simon murmured, utterly focused. His hands slid under Mal’s arms. “Or the axillary. We’ll see about the Inguinal.”
“Well that’s a funny wor—Whoa! Buy me a drink first!”
Simon’s clinical touch had slipped past his belt, pressing lightly but firmly into the crease separating his hip and groin. The doctor bit back a grin.
“Don’t tease the man who sticks needles in you for his living.”
Mal rolled his eyes as Simon noted something on his chart. “Cause I’m the tease,” he muttered. Simon looked up, just with his eyes.
“You are, you know. I think I’ve made myself clear on the subject.” His mouth drew in that haughty way of his. “It’s not nice, hanging someone out to dry the way you do.”
Mal stared as if he had been hit over the head. The silence drew and Simon shifted, trying not to fidget with his hands.
“I’m not a nice man,” Mal said. Simon frowned at him. It was a poor excuse to anyone’s ears. The words had been locked up in Mal for so long, and it was hard for him to find the proper ones. Zoe always said he spoke best with his fists. Mal’s eyes wandered on the infirmary walls as he thought, and when he could shed the cowardice for long enough he looked Simon in the eye—something they didn’t do much of. Always sideways glancing, stolen looks. “I’m a no good scoundrel, and if I have you I don’t mean to let you go.”
Simon blinked. “You are the most infuriating man I’ve ever met.”
The doctor inelegantly shoved their mouths together, and the enthusiasm did plenty to make up for lack of art. Mal knew the feel of his lips—silk, just as he thought—for all of half a second before he bowed to the recognition that he was sunk a long time ago and kissed back with fervor. Simon pushed his knees apart and slotted up against him and Mal caught his face in both hands, calluses scraping over unblemished skin.
Eventually Simon pulled away to catch his breath, mouth slack and wet. Mal watched the bob of his adam’s apple and wondered how literally he could take the phrase ‘kissed senseless’. Before he could investigate further, Simon huffed a laugh.
“I have to get back to work,” he said.
Mal gaped. “Are you kiddin me?”
“If you ejaculate in my infirmary I’ll have to get a biohazard kit.”
“Darlin’ you know I love it when you talk dirty.”
Simon laughed softly, stirring warmth in Mal’s chest, and took hold of the captain’s belt, which stirred warmth elsewhere. “Come round the house later.”
Mal left his physical with a spring in his step and his hands in his pockets, humming Apple Blossom Bride. On the gangplank he stopped and knocked on Serenity’s hull.
“Okay,” he said, “I got it.”
Whatever spirit had possessed Simon in his moment of courage had left him by the time dinner came to pass. He had foisted River off onto Kaylee for the evening, and Book had holed up in Serenity on account of a particular chill in the night air, which was extremely fortuitous considering he neither wanted to have the conversation to sexile the Shepherd nor have carnal relations with a man of god in the same domicile. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Three moons were out in the nine pane window, along with a glut of stars from a relatively thin atmosphere; even the night was bright on the world of the sun goddess. With a stock of oil candles lit on the hearth, the dim receded enough that one could mark the details of a face. Simon sat at the little four-top table and grew his nervousness like a prize squash.
Simon had grown up a gifted student, but while he tested exceptionally well he always spent the lead up to important exams in the bathrooms trying not to vomit. It was part of what appealed to him about trauma surgery: there was no waiting, only doing as much as you could as fast as you could. He thought now he had set himself up for disaster asking Mal to come by later and not even specifying when.
This lead to him jumping out of his skin when Mal snuck up to press his lips to the back of his neck.
“Easy,” Mal said with a smile, holding up his hands. “It’s just a criminal lowlife.”
He had a bastard twinkle in his eye, rocking forward on his toes like it wasn’t nothing. Simon rolled his eyes and lost all sense of intimidation at the man. Mal was capable of playing the hardened outlaw very well and had stared many beasts of men into submission with the hard edge that came with knowing war and the black with equal intimacy, but as he was now all his frayed ends just seemed soft, the way his own well-worn clothes took a beating only to come out closer to velvet. “How did you get in?”
“Unlocked. Someone left the light on for me.”
Mal bent down and kissed him then, slow and sweet like molasses. Neither man was one to shut up before his mouth had gotten him into all kinds of trouble, but this was trouble enough and neither found themselves in a talking mood. Something in the night was whispering to settle down, keep mum, burrow in. There was still cider on Mal’s tongue where it push-pulled against his.
“Take me to bed,” Simon murmured against his mouth.
He obliged. There was a brief moment of sorting risk, but as two deeply celibate people there simply wasn’t much to worry about. Mal joked that they ought to use olive oil—more rustic—but didn’t actually intend to, had thought further ahead than that. Simon offered to prepare himself, no shyness left to the mechanical points of the human body, especially in something that when it came down to it shared a lot with a routine prostate exam. Mal made deft work of his buttons and caged him in with his arms on the bed and watched him become open for him. The reflection of the single candle by the bedside flickered in his blue eyes. When all is said and done Simon’s body took him in easily, Mal exhaling long into his shoulder as he bore down. Mal’s skin was molten, the shift of muscle simple and hypnotic. Simon tensed experimentally and a tendon jumped in his neck. Coarse cotton sheets that smelled of dried lavender dragged under Simon’s shoulders as Mal worked in him, sweat beading on his brow.
It felt like a necessity, like fresh water and a pound of flour, integral and basic and something he would surely need again and again. Mal brought it back to him as such and Simon hooked his legs around his back, moving to meet him and bring him deeper and deeper. Simon’s nerves lit like stars. He threaded his fingers into Mal’s chestnut hair and tugged. Abruptly, Mal began to drive into him harder, making Simon’s spine tingle as he shuddered and groaned and spilled. Simon shivered at the thought of his seed inside him and it didn’t take more than a deft few touches to bring him off.
Mal collapsed against him, dead weight, though Simon suspected it had less to do with fatigue and more with scrounging for as much contact as possible. Simon pressed his lips against his ear and smiled. “I feel like I just consummated something.”
Mal didn’t respond at first and he immediately regretted the weight of the statement even in jest. Mal was a skittish creature, one who didn’t always know or acknowledge what he himself wanted. But after a moment Mal looked him in the eye and grinned almost imperceptibly.
“I reckon you did at that.”
Days later they rode into Amaterasu Proper fronting as a convoy of a few high bred folk with a contingent of bodyguards and crew for the sake of defending their legitimacy. Simon had the rare chance to wear his finest and not so secretly relished it, and not just because he knew every button he closed was another Mal later would undo with enthusiasm on interest. By necessity he kept the outfit light, a loose and shifting cadet blue top with a mock neck and tailored beige slacks. Jayne made fun of it a regular amount but Simon didn’t care. He always enjoyed dressing up. Almost as much as he enjoyed singlehandedly solving epidemic crises in a scant afternoon. It wasn’t anything related to his field but it also wasn’t a complicated matter—Amaterasu was a backwater that lacked medical expertise full stop, and he had the golden ticket of information. After spending a few hours passing on the proper social procedures and vaccines from his old contacts in epidemiology, he was able to walk under the sun standing tall and utterly at home in his skin.
“Lookie here, the big damn hero,” Mal said when he saw him. He was leaning against the façade of the health ministry building, thumbs in his belt loops. “He’s a mite prettier than I expected.”
Simon grinned despite himself. “All that talk, someday someone’s going to hit you.”
Mal sauntered up to face him with a heavy step, spare inches between them. “You might have to shut me up, protect me from myself.”
“Might just,” Simon said breezily. “But you’ll have to manage yourself long enough for us to collect our reward, at least.”
Mal’s face lit up. “We’re getting’ rewarded?”
“Gift of the minister. Four bushels of apples.”
Mal’s laugh echoed high into the sky.