Companions were, and always had been, a breed apart. Mostly, Mal stayed clear of the lot of them, not wanting to tangle with their snooty airs and waspish ways. He’d met more than one, despite all of that, and to a one of them, they’d been condescending, elitist and downright unpleasant.

None of which explained away his current fascination with the young male Companion just across the way. Mal had been sitting in the same booth for a couple of hours, ordering just enough food and drink to make sure he didn’t get tossed out on his ass. All the while, he’d been watching the dark-haired young man four booths up.

The Companion had arrived just as Mal’s meeting had broken up and he’d said good bye to Serenity’s new employer, a man with a lot of cattle that needed transporting. A world like this didn’t boast a Guild, so it was unclear as yet what the man was doing all the way out here on a backwater planet. It was plain to see that a Companion was just what the young man was, despite the lack of obvious entourage or luggage. There was just a certain set to the posture they always had which tipped Mal off each and every time.

Finally, Mal gave up guessing and went over to the other table. Wide blue eyes set in a flawless face looked up at him and for a moment, the sadness and beauty that Mal found there rendered him speechless.

A strangely gentle smile surfaced on the young man’s face and he asked, “Yes? May I help you?”

Mal stuck out his hand. “Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity.”

The smile remained, though the sadness was lightened only a little as he took the hand and replied, “Companion Simon, at your service.”

And the word ‘service’ sent so many images running through Mal’s mind that it took a long moment for him to remember to release the smooth hand. “Ah, hi. Mind if I sit?”

“Not at all,” Simon replied, motioning to the empty side of the booth.

Mal hesitated, then observed, “Hope you don’t mind me sayin’ so, but you look a little stuck.”

Dark eyebrows rose and Simon repeated, “Stuck?”

“Yeah. Like someone left without you,” Mal clarified. “And if that’s the case, Serenity happens to be a transport ship and we can take you wherever you need to go.”

A gleam of amusement entered Simon’s eyes and he questioned, “Out of the goodness of your heart?”

Frowning, Mal answered, “Yes, matter of fact. Don’t like seein’ nobody stuck where they ain’t meant to be.”

Simon stilled for a few seconds, then the smile reappeared, seeming more genuine somehow. “I apologize, Captain Reynolds, I didn’t mean to cast aspersions. I forget that there are decent people in the ‘verse, sometimes. Most times. The simple fact of the matter is that I am stuck, but I’m afraid passage off this world isn’t going to help.”

“Well, is there something else I can do?” Mal offered, leaning on the table. “My crew’s pretty inventive when it comes to getting out of trouble.”

“Thank you, Captain, but no. There’s really nothing anyone can do,” Simon answered.

“Simon!”

In a split second, Mal saw Simon transform from someone human and in trouble to a confident Companion who had not a care in the world. He turned to look at the man who’d spoken and found a man about his own age, dressed fancy of course, glaring at Simon. Mal stood when Simon did, keeping his hand near the gun at his waist.

“Atherton, this is Captain Reynolds of Serenity,” Simon introduced. “Captain Reynolds, this is Atherton Wing, my benefactor.”

Mal’s eyes narrowed at the description, understanding instantly what Simon meant by it. This was the man who was keeping Simon here, and more than likely, it was against Simon’s will, no matter what kind of contract he might have signed. Forcing a smile, Mal took the outstretched hand and greeted, “Mr. Wing.”

“Captain Reynolds,” Atherton replied.

Simon stepped into the tense silence with, “Captain Reynolds was just telling me that he runs a transport ship. You ship things around the local planets, don’t you Atherton?”

Nodding, Atherton seemed to come to some internal decision and confirmed, “That’s so. I’m having a party at my villa tonight, Captain. Why don’t you come?”

Mal wasn’t sure why, but Simon stiffened at the invite, despite the smile that remained on his face. “I’m afraid I have business tonight. Maybe another time.”

It was the right answer, because Simon relaxed a fraction and agreed, “Of course. Busy man like you doesn’t have time for parties and the like.”

“That’s too bad. Simon is an excellent host,” Atherton informed him, smirking a bit. “He always takes such good care of my guests.”

Mal’s hand was itching to curl into a fist and meet up with Atherton’s face, but he restrained himself. Simon was looking more than a bit stressed, so Mal decided it would be best if he took off and said, “Well, time for me to be heading back. I’ll see you around, Simon. Mr. Wing.”

They both nodded easily and said goodbye. But when Mal looked back from the door, he saw Wing holding Simon’s arm tight enough to bring out a distinct wince on Simon’s face. And the older man was plainly furious, biting something off to Simon, who stared at the floor, all manner of submissiveness.

It galled Mal that he had to turn and leave, but he did. This wasn’t something he could interfere with. Not just yet, anyhow.

* * * *

“Inara!”

Inara paused on her way to her shuttle and glance back along the rampway to Mal, who was jogging to catch up to her. “Captain.”

“Look. Ah, I need to ask you for a favor,” Mal said when he stopped in front of her.

Blinking in surprise, Inara just barely managed to keep the expression off her face as she replied, “A favor?”

Mal grimaced. “Yeah. I need you to look up the details about a male Companion, name of Simon and posted on this rock. He’s young, probably twenty-six, twenty-seven, dark hair, blue eyes, ‘bout yea tall.”

Arching an eyebrow at him, Inara questioned, “What sort of details.”

“Any you can get. How he got here, what his benefactor has on him, when his contract’s up, all of that crap,” Mal answered.

“Captain…”

“No, I’m not meaning any offense by that, Inara, promise. Just, I know this one’s in trouble some how and it ain’t right.”

She took in his determined expression and a light dawned. Not that she was generally so obtuse, but personal feelings did sometimes get in the way of clarity. And despite the hot and cold way she and Mal ran, there were plenty of feelings to get in the way. Smiling gently, she promised, “I’ll find out what I can. I suppose you’ve no last name to go by?”

Mal shook his head. “Nope. And thanks!”

He was gone before she could respond. Shaking her head in amusement, Inara continued on to her shuttle to get the information that he’d requested.

* * * *

Simon staggered back at the backhanded blow to his face and landed on the bed, his head swimming.

“You are such a slut, Simon!” Atherton taunted. “You’ll spread your legs for anyone.”

Managing a smirk despite the bloody lip, Simon straightened up and replied, “You should know. You arrange the parties. And what were you thinking of to invite that uncouth man to one of them? Were you trying to embarrass yourself in front of your friends if he’d actually accepted?”

Atherton frowned at him and it was almost ludicrously easy for Simon to follow his thoughts. While Simon had, in fact, been extremely attracted to Captain Reynolds, could still remember the feel of his strong, callused hand holding Simon’s, he had to make it seem as though he hadn’t been. If Atherton knew, then his life would be made a living hell.

Well, more than it already was, of course.

“And you should be more careful, Atherton. If you break or sprain anything, I am out of the door without fear of reprisal,” Simon snapped, gingerly touching his lip.

Successfully diverted, Atherton snarled back, “I’ll do whatever I God damned want to you, bitch!”

And then he was gone, stomping out of the bedroom and shouting for his horse.

Shaking, Simon took several deep, cleansing breaths and was able to get to his feet again. It was a near-unbearable existence that he led, but Simon wasn’t anxious for it to end any time soon. No matter what he might throw at Atherton, this was all he knew. Despite being passed around from friend to business acquaintance to friend, and despite the awful name calling and insults, Simon literally had nowhere else to go, nor any real skills to fall back on.

Because if he left Atherton, he would never again be a Companion, that was one vow to himself that he would never break.

Sighing, Simon walked to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He was too thin, he knew that, but eating was such a chore for him. Hardly anything stayed down, thanks to his delicate stomach and constant agitation. Fortunately, Atherton liked the way he looked, even if his ribs were a bit too prominent for Simon’s tastes.

He wondered, briefly, how his family was doing. If River had become the doctor that she’d been planning on being. If his parents had returned to society once his father recouped his losses by selling Simon to the Guild. Bitterness and bile rose at the thought and he rushed to the toilet, making it just in time.

It didn’t matter how much time passed. He still grew sick at the thought of a parent selling their child into slavery of any kind, never mind to the life of a Companion. When he’d overheard what his parents had been planning to do to River, Simon had protested violently. There had been no way that he would allow them to do that to his baby sister. So he’d volunteered to go in her place. And even now, knowing how his life had turned out, Simon knew he’d made the right decision.

He rinsed his mouth and spat out the remaining vile taste. Sighing again, he started the preparation for being the evening’s entertainment. He thanked whatever Higher Power was out there that Mal had declined the invitation. There was no chance in hell that Simon would have been able to perform with that serious, blue gaze upon him. Simon couldn’t have stood it if that honest concern had changed to disgust.

When, not if.

* * * *

“You’re going to what!?”

Mal almost flinched at Zoe’s pissed exclamation, then stiffened defensively. “You didn’t see him, Zo! He’s…a shadow of who he was even three days ago when I first saw him. I don’t know what that hundan is doing to him, but it’s got to stop!”

Arms crossed over her chest, Zoe stated, “And you’re going to be the one to stop it.”

Mal went in for the kill shot with, “He’s a slave, you know. Inara told me he’s a level two Companion, which means his folks sold him off when he was a kid. She said he was sixteen when he started training, which was almost unheard of, and that he was…well, she didn’t go into detail about what level two trainin’ was like, but she was clear that it weren’t no better than brainwashin’ and rapin.’ And now he’s stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, and no one thinks that there’s anything wrong with it!”

Zoe’s jaw tightened at the information and she looked away, gathering herself. Mal knew that he’d already won the argument at that moment. Zoe wasn’t going to give him any grief over it.

“What happens after?” Zoe questioned abruptly.

Mal frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

Looking at him seriously, Zoe repeated, “What happens after you fight and win this duel? You bring him on Serenity and what? Does he become your own personal Companion? Do we drop him off on another world for maybe an even worse life? We can’t ship him to his family, since they’re the ones that brought him to this in the first place.”

Angry, but keeping a lid on it, Mal stated, “Then he stays on Serenity for as long as he needs to. I don’t force myself on no one and you know it, Zoe.”

Softening a bit, Zoe replied, “I do know, but Mal, this is the only life he really knows. He’s going to look to you as his benefactor, as distasteful as that is to you. You break him out, then you’re going to own him. And you’d best be clear on understanding what that means before you change his life without him even asking for it to be changed.”

* * * *

Mal took everything into consideration, even if Zoe thought he was unprepared. He’d talked to Inara more in the last three days than he had in the year she’d been on board. He knew exactly what to expect when it came to Simon’s possible reactions to freedom. Not to say that he knew how Simon would react, but he knew all the possibilities.

And now he was standing in the corner of the ballroom, watching as the young man laughed and made sure all the guests had what they needed. Mal had seen more than one hand pass discreetly over Simon’s ass and his jaw had clenched every time. Simon had merely smiled politely at the offender and moved out of reach with an ease that spoke of long practice.

Mal kept out of sight for most of the night, talking to people when he had no choice, and his eyes rarely left Simon. Finally, when the dancing had been going on for a good while, Simon left the main ballroom. Mal followed at a distance and they wound up in the garden outside. He watched as Simon leaned against the wall, eyes closed as his face turned up to the silvery moonlight. The young man was like a beautiful statue come to life, only far more weary than any artist would dare make.

“You need some sleep,” Mal greeted.

Simon jumped in fright, hand going to his throat, then he realized who’d spoken and relaxed. A tentative smile surfaced and he replied, “Standard condition, I’m afraid. How are you, Captain?”

“It’s Mal. And I’d be better for a dance with you.”

The big eyes grew even bigger as Mal approached, stopping right in front of Simon and holding out a hand. Simon took it gingerly and allowed Mal to pull him into a dance position. They fell easily into step with each other and Mal appreciated the grace with which the younger man followed his lead to the faint orchestral music they could hear inside.

“Saw you in town, the other day,” Mal said softly. “You looked about at the end of your rope.”

Simon didn’t reply.

That was okay, Mal hadn’t really expected one. “Made me wonder what kind of party I’d been invited to, that other time.”

“Captain…”

“No, now hush a bit, Simon, and let me speak,” Mal interrupted.

Simon fell silent again. Mal just moved with him for a few minutes, enjoying the feel of them dancing together and really enjoying Simon’s implicit trust as his head rested on Mal’s shoulder.

“I don’t kid myself, what kind of life you’ve led. I have a Companion on board Serenity who plies her wares all over the galaxy, so I know. And I can be a judgmental, capricious hundan, more than most, but none of that matters right now. What matters is the answer to a very simple question.”

“Which is?”

“Are you happy?”

Simon’s breath hitched and his hand tightened on Mal’s jacket. He shook his head emphatically and Mal released the breath that he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. Kissing Simon’s temple, Mal continued, “I don’t offer much, Simon. Just a berth of your own and a steady diet of goop that no one rightly knows how to cook decent. You’d be free and clear. And as much as I like you, and want you, there’s no strings attached to this. No condition of us sharin’ beds, or you warming anyone else’s on Serenity, either. I just…no one should be living this life unless they honestly want to.”

“I can’t leave. The contract…”

“Is a load of yeh-soo, Simon,” Mal interrupted again. “Inara, that’s the Companion on my ship, says that level twos, which is what you are according to the Guild, are a Companion only until they smarten up and get out. The fee your folks got for you was worked off when you lost your, ah, with your first client.”

Simon stopped short and pulled back in Mal’s arms to stare up at him. The hurt and betrayal in the wide eyes nearly broke Mal’s heart. As did the pain in Simon’s voice when he asked, “You mean my parents could have come back for me after, after that first time?”

Almost wishing Simon hadn’t connected the dots so fast, Mal nodded and explained, “The longer you worked for the Guild, the more money they got, but you weren’t told that of course. And the division between level ones and twos, Inara’s sort and yours, makes sure that no one ever tells you that you can leave pretty much any time you want.”

Tearing away, Simon fell to his knees and threw up, retching so violently that Mal was afraid something would rupture. He knelt beside the other man, rubbing Simon’s back in soothing motions. When it was all done but for the final heaves, Mal carefully pulled Simon into his arms. Simon collapsed against him, shaking and crying, and Mal just held on tight, rocking them as he tried to comfort someone whose world had just been snatched from under them.

“What the hell is going on here!?”

The words were accompanied by a boot to Mal’s back that sent them sprawling and split them apart. Mal was on his feet instantly, standing protectively between Atherton and Simon. “What’s going on, is that Simon’s coming back to Serenity with me.”

Atherton laughed, an ugly sound. “He’s deceived you with his sniveling and whimpering, Captain Reynolds. He’s trash, not worthy enough even for you.”

Mal’s fist slammed into Atherton’s nose with a satisfying crunch and spurt of blood. The man staggered back, right into the crowd that was gathering. Mal dismissed the other and turned to Simon, helping him to his feet. “Are you okay?”

Wiping his face as clean as was possible, Simon nodded and answered, “Fine.”

“Good. Let’s get out of here,” Mal said, putting his arm around Simon’s waist.

With someone’s kerchief to his nose, Atherton stood between them and the way out. “I demand satisfaction.”

Mal snorted. “Looks like you should quit while you’re behind.”

Atherton’s eyes narrowed and he asked coldly, “Are you refusing to fight me?”

Like quicksilver, Mal’s mind went through all the different possibilities, pros and cons, but what decided him was the woebegone and shamed look on Simon’s face. It was like the young man believed that he wasn’t worth fighting over, and that was a damned lie. Straightening, Mal answered, “Nope. Just giving you the out you obviously need. Name your weapon.”

“Mal, no!” Simon exclaimed, gripping his arm.

Atherton laughed, another ugly sound, and said, “Swords. Time?”

“Tomorrow, noon. I want to shake the dust of this place off my boots.”

“Mal, please! Don’t!”

Mal looked at Simon and said softly, “It’s done, xiang ren. I won’t have this turd speaking about you like that.”

Stunned, Simon replied, “He was insulting you.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Mal countered. “And I won’t stand for it. Hundan needs to know that he ain’t fit to lick your boots clean.”

“I will see you tomorrow, Captain.”

Mal put his arm again around Simon’s waist and led him through the crowd.

* * * *

Zoe’s first thought when she saw Simon was, Someone needs to fatten that boy up.

Her second was, Must be love and it’s about damn time.

Aloud, all she said was, “Swords? Are you crazy?”

Mal gave that lopsided grin of his and answered, “You know the answer to that.”

She snorted. “True enough. Kaylee, do us a favor and get Simon bunked down and some clothes.”

Kaylee smiled tentatively at Simon and gestured to the stairs leading out of the cargo hold. “C’mon then, let me show you around.”

Once Kaylee and Simon were gone, Zoe shook her head and pointed out, “You don’t even know how to hold a sword, let alone how to use one.”

“Can’t be that difficult, right? Pointy end goes out?”

Zoe sighed.

* * * *

Simon stood anxiously between Zoe and Jayne as they waited for the duel to begin. It was a little intimidating, being alone with the two of them, even in the middle of a crowd. They both dwarfed him and he was pretty sure that neither of them had any use for him whatsoever. Jayne’s lip had curled in disgust when Mal had offered an explanation to the duel and Zoe hadn’t had any expression at all.

Mal rejoined them, smiling at Simon before looking at Zoe and saying, “He’s fussin’ over the weapons. Should be a while.”

“Mal, you shouldn’t be overconfident,” Simon said. “He’s an excellent swordsman and has fought and won more than one duel.”

“Relax, Simon, I’ve got it covered,” Mal assured him.

Zoe chuckled and even Jayne gave a hastily smothered laugh. Frowning in confusion, Simon asked, “What don’t I know?”

Smiling at him, Zoe explained, “The Captain has a unique fighting style, no matter what the weapon. Not saying that he never gets his ass kicked, because he does, frequently, but he does okay.”

It felt like Simon was still missing something, but Mal was called up before he could question further. He jumped in surprise when Jayne’s hand landed on his shoulder and the big man said, “Don’t you worry. Mal ain’t going to let no prissy bust him up none.”

But that was exactly what happened, at least at first. The sword fight was awkward and painful to watch as Atherton made short work of Mal and then toyed with him for a few minutes. And then Simon wasn’t sure what changed, but Atherton’s sword went flying and his legs were kicked out from under him.

“Sure, it's humiliating. Having to lie there while the better man refuses to spill your blood. Mercy is the mark of a great man,” Mal observed, poking Atherton in the belly with the sword. The blade went in. “Guess I'm just a good man.”

The blade went in again. “Well, I'm all right.”

Then Mal tossed the sword aside and staggered back to them. Simon shook his head in dismay at all the wounds and fussed, “We need to get you fixed up before you lose too much blood!”

* * * *

Mal grinned wearily as Simon finished bandaging up his last puncture wound. He was lightheaded, in pain, and exhausted, but felt weirdly good as he watched the nimble fingers wrap him up.

“There. You’ll mend,” Simon announced, taking his hand away.

Catching the hand before it could vanish completely, Mal commented, “Looks like we found you a job.”

Startled, Simon shook his head and denied, “No, I couldn’t! I don’t know anything about being a doctor.”

“You’ll learn,” Mal dismissed. “Besides, you’re prettier to look at than Jayne and gentler than Zoe.”

Simon flushed, a reluctant grin tugging at his lips. “I, I was thinking about medicine, you know. Before…before.”

“I think you’d be a great doc,” Mal assured him.

Shy now, Simon asked, “Really?”

“Really! And you’re smart, so you’d learn all that stuff in no time.”

“You barely know me.”

“I want to know more.”

Simon paused, looking down at their joined hands, and admitted, “I’d like to know you, too. But Mal, I don’t know if, I can’t…”

Mal brought his hand up and kissed the back of it. “It’s all right, Simon. I ain’t askin’ you for a commitment or nothing. I know you’ve got a lot of things to work through and don’t need someone else along for the ride. But I just want you to know, I’m interested. Real interested. If all we ever are is friends, well, that’ll do for me too.”

“You fought over me.”

“Got the punctured shoulder to prove it, too,” Mal agreed, grinning.

Shaking his head, Simon explained, “I was always told…one of the things that was drilled into my head over and over, was that I wasn’t worth fighting over. That I was only worth what someone would pay. That if I wasn’t servicing someone, I wasn’t worth anything. And, and I tried not to believe them, tried to remember that it wasn’t true, but the years passed and no one ever looked at me like, like a human being, you know?”

A bit helpless, Mal said, “Simon, I…”

“No, it’s okay,” Simon interrupted, putting a finger over Mal’s lips. “What I’m trying to say is that yes, I’m grateful to you for caring enough to get me out of there. And thank you for believing that I’m worth fighting over. But I’m not a fragile flower who needs to be shielded from the person who saved me in the first place.”

Mal frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Would it shock you to hear that the first thought I had about you that day in the restaurant was, ‘I wonder what he tastes like.’ Followed fast on by, ‘I’d really like him to fuck me.’ In other words, it was lust at first sight,” Simon explained, smiling. “You said that my sharing your bed wasn’t a condition for staying here, and I appreciate that. You’ll never know how much I appreciate it. But what if I want to? What if I want to sleep with you, suck you, be fucked by you, and all manner of other interesting things that have crossed my mind in the last couple of weeks since meeting you.”

Heat rushed through Mal at Simon’s words and he squirmed a little at the images that ran through his mind. “I ah, I wouldn’t rightly object to any of those things.”

Simon laughed, a clear, happy sound, and replied, “Good! They will, however, have to wait until you’re healed.”

“But…”

“No buts. Who’s the doctor here?”

“Bossy thing, aren’t you?” Mal teased, relaxing back against the pillows.

Simon leaned in and kissed him, slow and sweet, then pulled back and replied, “Scoot over.”

Though it was a tight fit, they managed to both lay on the infirmary bed. Simon on his back with Mal sprawled over him so that there wouldn’t be any pressure on his wounds. Mal knew he wasn’t going to fall asleep, thanks to the throbbing of his wounds, but he was more than content to lie there with Simon.

It was a strange beginning, no doubt about that, but it was definitely a beginning.