And if I made you mad today, tell me would you love me tomorrow, please?
Or would you say that you don't care, and then leave me standing there.
Like a fool, who is drowning in despair and screaming.
I can't let you go...because you're holding up my world, so I need you.
-- So I Need You, Three Doors Down
It was barely a sound, more a vibration than anything else, but it made Simon look at Mal. The other man was stretched out on the bed, on his side, one arm buried under the pillow and the other on Simon's thigh. The fingers twitched with the next, soft, non-sound and Simon frowned, taking a closer look at his lover. There was a slight trace of sweat along the hair line and the brow was furrowed, just a bit.
Putting down the book, Simon hesitantly brushed his fingers across Mal's forehead, moving the dampened hair. Soft, he murmured, "Mal? Wake up, Mal."
But the other man remained asleep, fingers twitching against Simon's thigh more rapidly, as though Mal was trying to grip something but couldn't.
Louder, Simon ordered, "Wake up, Mal!"
Still no response. Worried now, Mal had been a very light sleeper for as long as they'd been lovers, Simon grasped Mal's shoulder and shook it. "Wake up! Malcolm! Wake up now!"
Crying out, Mal's body tensed and his eyes snapped open, focused on some internal image. Then, after a long moment, he sagged back against the bed, breathing heavily. Without a word, he curled around Simon, his face pressed to Simon's belly and his legs wrapped around Simon's legs. Shaken, Simon bent over him, holding Mal as the man shook with whatever night-terror he'd been battling.
It was a good long while before Mal's hands released their death-grip on Simon's waist and even longer before he whispered, "Simon?"
"I'm here," Simon assured him instantly, breathing it into Mal's ear.
"Don't let go of me."
Kissing the side of Mal's neck, the only skin he could reach without moving, Simon promised, "I won't."
As Mal drifted back into sleep, his body slowly relaxing, Simon wondered bleakly which demon had decided to come back and torment his lover.
* * * *
Mal woke feeling heavy and sore, as well as thick-headed. He was twined around Simon like a pretzel and, looking up, found that Simon was asleep with his back against the wall, sitting up. The long, elegant hands lightly gripped Mal's shoulders and he vaguely remembered making Simon promise not to let go. It warmed him, just a little, to know that even in sleep, Simon had kept that promise.
It had been a long time since that particular nightmare had reared its ugly fucking head. He couldn't remember it, never could, but he knew which one it was. He was well-acquainted with the visions that danced around his mind, in the dark recesses that usually stayed well enough locked down that Mal could get a fairly decent night's sleep.
He also knew what had triggered it and shied away from the memory of their most recent adventure, this one a mission of mercy. The revolution on Qui Kor. So many dead. Too many badly wounded for Simon and the other doctors to treat, but it hadn't stopped the young man from trying.
Gun shot wounds.
Bodies crushed by tanks.
Faces made unrecognizable through means that Mal really didn't want to contemplate.
Young men and women cut down before they'd had a chance at life.
It was all too-horribly familiar. He'd seen those sights before. He'd witnessed the destruction on a grander scale, but it was the self-same kind of destruction. Those who'd survived were walking zombies, too much in shock to be good for anything. Those who weren't zombies, were too much like Mal for his own comfort. But he hadn't left until Simon had admitted there was nothing further he could do. The ones who would live had been treated. There had finally been nothing left to do but the burying.
Shivering, Mal tried to force it back, but couldn't. It was too close, too much. The genie had been released again and he wouldn't be good for anything, not for a few days. Best to get dressed and go somewhere he couldn't do anyone any harm.
He climbed carefully out of bed, making sure that Simon stayed sleeping. Fortunately, he had fallen asleep with his pants on, so he just climbed out of the room, barefoot, and headed for the shuttle.
* * * *
Yawning, Wash rubbed his eyes and thought that maybe he'd actually try and get some sleep the coming night. He and Zoe had reconnected the night before, but neither had gotten any sleep. She'd been thrown into some weird flashback from the War, thanks to their little excursion on Qui Kor. It had taken all his strength to keep her in one piece, and he wasn't talking about the physical.
All night long, she'd suffered tremors and tears, though the tears had been slow and bitter as they fell. It was a rare thing for Zoe to breakdown enough to cry and Wash hated it. He hated the fact that she'd been exposed to the horrors of war. That he hadn't been there to prevent her going through it alone. Well, not alone because Mal had been there, but most times, she may as well have been.
He couldn't rightly see Mal as a comforter.
So he'd held her all night. Kept his arms tight around her as she shook with nightmares and flashbacks. Ran his fingers through her hair. Rubbed her back when his hands weren't locked together. Rocked and murmured to her, kissed the tears as they fell and silently damned the Alliance for the damage they'd inflicted on his wife.
Feeling as exhausted as if he'd been sleep deprived for a week, Wash was slow to realize that someone was starting up the spare shuttle. By the time he noticed the launch sequence had been activated, it was too late to do anything but use the comm. "Who's taking out the damned shuttle and why haven't you cleared it with Mal, gorram it!"
"Because it's me taking out the shuttle."
Frowning at Mal's tone, Wash asked, "What's up, Mal?"
"Nothing. Just got some business to take care of," Mal answered.
"And that would be...?"
"None of your business."
"Okay then. When're you going to be back?"
"When I get back."
"More informative yet. Simon with you?"
"Simon's still sleeping."
Growing uneasy at the detached tone to his Captain's voice, Wash asked, "Are you sure you don't want..."
The comm went off-line.
Worried was fast overtaking the uneasiness and Wash commed his quarters, hating to wake Zoe, but feeling like he should. "Zoe, honey? You up?"
"I am now," Zoe answered after a moment.
"Sorry. Ah, Mal just took off in the shuttle. Wouldn't say where he was going or when he'd be back. Is this something we should worry about?"
There was a long silence, then, "Fuck!"
Pursing his lips, Wash guessed, "That would be yes, yes?"
"Yes. I'm on my way. If he still in range?"
"Not anymore. I can follow the basic trajectory, but there's no guarantee he stayed on it," Wash offered.
"No need. Lay in a course to Hera."
* * * *
The search party consisted solely of Simon and Zoe, though everyone had, of course, volunteered. Zoe had put everyone off, stating unequivocally that only she and Simon were going. Zoe, because she knew where Mal would be. Simon, because they didn't know what kind of shape Mal would be in when they got there.
The trip to Hera had taken three days on top of being delayed by a detour upon being spotted by an Alliance cruiser. All told, it was five days after Mal took off that they reached the planet. It had been easy enough for Serenity to lock onto the shuttle's coordinates, but there had been no sign of Mal. Inara had offered the use of her shuttle and the moment a stable orbit was reached, Zoe and Simon were on it.
Zoe and Simon landed directly beside the spare shuttle and stepped out from lavish comfort to a ruined landscape. Even years after the battle, the ground was scarred and blackened from the firefights. Unnatural holes, foxholes Simon realized, dotted the landscape as far as he could see. The atmosphere was an odd purple color and he asked, "What's with the sky?"
As unemotional as Simon had ever seen her, Zoe answered, "Too much damage. In another decade or so, there won't be an atmosphere left and this'll be a moon instead of a planet."
Sick at the thought of how much had happened at this one place, Simon wished he didn't have to see any of it. "Which way?"
Zoe didn't answer, instead starting to walk. Simon had to move fast to keep up, stumbling over loose shale and uneven ground. She leaped over the narrower of the pits, and Simon followed, determined not to slow her down. He nearly fell several times, but managed to keep his footing and keep up with her. He was worried about her, the lack of expression telling him more than anything just how much Wash had warmed the woman up.
Given how much this trip was costing her emotionally, Simon was frantic about Mal.
It seemed forever than they climbed over the decimated earth. So far as Simon could tell, there weren't any kind of structures and, somewhat breathless, he questioned, "Where are the buildings? Shelter?"
"There aren't any to speak of, though the bunkers offer some protection from the acid rain."
Wonderful. Mal had been without any kind of nourishment for five days, and no shelter for at least two.
Several minutes and a few hills later, Zoe said, "He's..."
Simon looked sharply at Zoe. It was the first time she'd initiated any kind of conversation since the morning Mal had left. "What?"
Stopping short, Zoe faced Simon and said harshly, "He's going to be in bad shape. Last time this happened...I don't know where he went, in his head, but it was...bad. Really bad. Dong ma?"
"Yes," Simon whispered, fear clogging his throat. Psychology wasn't his specialty, but he knew as much as any surgeon did, having had the prerequisite in school. He'd even taken a few extra classes, just because it was so fascinating. It was coming in handy with River, and he was unpleasantly certain that it was about to become very handy with Mal.
She stared at him a moment longer then nodded abruptly. "He's down there somewhere."
Startled, Simon looked to where she pointed and discovered a mostly hidden foxhole. There was a decrepit ladder sticking out and Simon moved towards it without hesitation. He climbed down carefully, but fell the last couple of feet when a rung collapsed. Taking a moment to get his breath, Simon stood and pulled the flashlight from his pocket, turning it on and shining it in both directions. It was a tossup as to which way he should go, so he called softly, "Mal? Mal, where are you?"
There was no answer, not that he really expected one, so he sighed and started east. It wasn't a minute later that he came to an intersection. Remembering Zoe's warning that the foxholes could be a maze, Simon hesitated then turned north. If he went east and north each time, he should, logically, wind up back where he started. Hopefully. And if he got lost, Zoe was there to find him and guide him out to start over again.
Simon was seriously praying that it wouldn't come to that. All he wanted was to reach Mal and make sure that he was safe. Ever since he'd woken up, alone, Simon had known that something was desperately wrong. He'd known in his bones that Mal was in trouble. Always, Mal had been his rock, the one thing in his world that Simon could count on as he'd never counted on anything before or since meeting the other man. There had never been a time that Mal hadn't been in complete control of himself.
The nightmare that Simon hadn't been able to wake Mal from. The almost panicked request for Simon not to let go, had scared him. It was so out of character for the other man that he hadn't wanted to fall asleep, half-certain that the Captain would somehow disappear on him. Which, of course, had become a certainty the following morning.
The faintest of sounds came to him and Simon paused, straining to determine the source. Not trusting the acoustics, Simon called, "Mal? It's Simon. Please tell me where you are."
The noise stopped at his voice and Simon gritted his teeth in frustration. "I just want to see that you're all right. Please, Mal, call out to me so I can find you."
"All right then. I'm just going to stay here and keep talking so that you know it's really me," Simon said at last, dropping his voice to a conversation level. "Everyone on the ship is worried sick about you. River had a screaming fit not ten minutes after I told her that you were gone. I had to sedate her because she was positive that the Alliance had you and were going to do the same to you, as they did to her. And Kaylee's been pretty much in a constant state of tears. Zoe's gotten really scary, I don't mind saying, and Jayne...well...Jayne's not much affected that I can tell, aside from working out more than usual. I'd really like to let them know that you're okay."
There was a slight scraping noise to his left, but Simon didn't react. He just kept talking, hoping that the sound of his voice would help bring Mal back from wherever he'd gone. "I've been so lonely without you. I remember you said once that you can't sleep well without me anymore and I have to say that I seem to be suffering the same malady. I've cleaned the infirmary rather obsessively and have taken to roaming the ship in the night because you're not there to do it. I can't tell you the number of times I've started to look for you to tell you something, and then realized that you weren't there."
"You should leave. I'm not fit to be around just now."
Mal's voice came directly behind him, but Simon didn't turn, not just yet. "You just can't seem to grasp the fact that I'm not leaving you. Is the concept so difficult?"
"I'm not...me...right now."
Eyes closing at the pain in that statement, Simon replied, "You are you. Always. This is just a you I haven't met yet."
"Didn't...didn't ever want you to."
"I gathered that was the source of the disappearing act. Please, Mal, let me in. You don't have to protect me from you, and I might be able to help. If you let me."
The only sound was their breathing for a few minutes. Simon didn't hear Mal come closer, so the arms that slid around his waist startled him. His hands lightly gripped Mal's wrists and he whispered, "Thank you."
There was a harsh laugh and Mal replied, "Don't thank me. I'm a mess, Simon. I'm completely fucked."
Without another word, Simon turned in Mal's arms and wrapped his arms around his lover's neck, pulling him close. He could smell how unclean Mal was, and the sour-taint of sickness to his sweat. Resting his hand on the back of the other man's neck, he felt the heat and knew Mal had a fever. Not a surprise given the conditions he'd been in the last several days, but it would make things more difficult, he was sure.
Pulling back slightly, Simon got his first look at Mal and privately agreed with the Captain's assessment. His face was covered with sweat-streaked dust and there were dark circles under Mal's eyes, given extra emphasis by the harsh light in Simon's hands. The worst of it was the slight tremor to Mal's body, from exhaustion, Simon was sure. Exhaustion and the horror locked together in the other man's mind.
Simon cupped Mal's face and whispered, "You don't have to be perfect, Mal. What you went through would have broken a lesser man."
Despair etched into Mal's face. "It has, Simon, it has broken me. I can't...I can't do this...not anymore..."
The flashlight dropped to the ground as Simon caught Mal in his arms, slowing the collapse. Once on the ground, Simon rolled onto his back and pulled Mal on top of him, not wanting the cold ground against his bare skin. Mal was motionless, lying on Simon, not shaking, or crying, or anything else that would have told Simon that he was working through his memories. He wound his arms around the lax body and asked softly, "Tell me, Mal. Tell me what you went through."
Mal was silent for so long, that it didn't seem a response to Simon's request when he finally began. It was almost as though he were just starting a conversation on his own, but for the subject matter. "It seemed like it was always dark when it happened. Maybe that was some kind of psychological thing on the Alliance's part, but it seemed like they only attacked at night. Though most times, the bombardments lit up the sky bright enough to make it day. And loud. Forget being able to think about anything except what was going on. I remember once, being woken out of sleep because they stopped shelling us. The quiet freaked me out that bad."
Simon didn't push when Mal fell silent again. Even getting the other man to talk as much as he had was a victory of some kind. Why was it that the people he loved were the ones hurt most by the Alliance? The hatred slowly building inside was coming to some kind of crest, but Simon pushed it down to deal with later.
One mental breakdown at a time, he thought firmly.
"Do you think..."
"What?" Simon asked softly.
"Do you think it's some kind of punishment? Me being alive and all? I wonder sometimes if those who died didn't have an easier time of it," Mal admitted, shame replete in his voice, the words obviously costing him a great deal. "All I see sometimes, is the blood. The broken bodies of people who trusted me, who thought I could pull a miracle out of my ass. People like you."
Simon's breath caught as his throat closed with emotion. Struggling, he murmured the first thing that came to mind. "I'm sorry."
"That you went through the war. That you saw what you did and were forced to make the choices that no one should have to make," Simon said after a moment. "I want to fix it. I want to make it so that you're never subject to another single nightmare. I want to hold you and heal you, but I can't. And I'm, I'm so sorry, Mal. I wish...I wish I could..."
Tears fell as his voice drifted off, unable to continue. He felt weak and pathetic, helpless against the pain Mal was feeling. Finally, Simon was able to go on. "If I could have gone through that in your place, I would have. I hate the Alliance and what they've done to you and River. I hate them with every fiber in my being, but I can't do anything. I'm impotent against them. There's not a thing I can do to them that would right the wrongs that you've suffered and it makes me so furious..."
Silence reigned again. Simon could feel each breath that Mal took and prayed that nothing ever happened to stop it.
"Take me home?"
Relieved, Simon nodded and lightly squeezed his arms, kissing the closest patch of skin he could find and not even noticing that it tasted like dirt.
* * * *
There was no one in the cargo bay when they returned to the ship. Zoe had called ahead to make sure that no one was there to witness the Captain's state. And it was a state, because all Mal wore were the filthy pants he'd been in several days ago. He was covered with dirt and sweat, his hair was caked with it. There wasn't a shred of the confident man who commanded Serenity present in evidence.
Simon wasn't sure that Mal would've noticed anyone if they had been there to greet them, he was so dead on his feet. With Simon on one side and Zoe the other, they managed to get Mal to the infirmary and into a warm, soothing shower. Once clean, they walked him to Simon's old room and lay him on the bed.
"How is he, physically?" Zoe questioned softly, looking down at the unconscious body in the bed.
Simon sighed, rubbing his eyes. "Dehydrated, run-down, and exhausted. I'm going to start him on an IV to make sure he doesn't get into trouble. I'm hoping the antibiotic will clear up the fever and it's not anything exotic leftover from that planet. Aside from that, bed rest is all that's needed. I would appreciate you keeping everyone out. I don't want to chance him up and about before he's ready."
Nodding, Zoe reached out and squeezed Simon's shoulder. "You did good, Simon. It usually takes me a couple of days to get him out of the bunker."
"How often does this happen?"
"Not often. Usually only after we've seen something too close to the War."
"Something to be thankful for, then," Simon observed tiredly.
She nodded again and ordered in a kind voice, "Don't forget to get some rest your own self."
Half-smiling, Simon assured her, "I'll be fine."
"Driving yourself under won't help him get better."
"I know," Simon agreed. "I'll be fine, I promise."
Zoe stared at him a long moment then nodded. "See you in a couple of days."
For a few minutes, all Simon did was watch Mal sleep. The exhaustion was plain in the other man's face, even though he was sleeping. When had this man become so very dear to him? When had he become vital to Simon's own well-being? Simon had loved Mal for a long time, even before their relationship had started, but the depth of emotion he had discovered with this episode was more than a little frightening. He felt raw and exposed; as though his underbelly were being shown to some fiercesome carnivore and about to be sliced open.
He knew now that love wasn't the gentle emotion he'd always thought it was. It wasn't the easy thing his parents had shown him with their marriage. It wasn't understandable or logical, and his mind was having a great deal of trouble with that fact. He felt out of control and that was something Simon tried never to be.
Shaking his head, Simon pulled himself together and repeated firmly in his mind, One mental breakdown at a time, and it's not your turn.
He moved silently into the infirmary and retrieved the things he needed. It took several minutes to get it set up in his bedroom, but finally Mal was hooked up and getting the nourishment that he needed. It was a sign of how exhausted Mal was that he didn't even twitch when Simon pushed the needle into his arm and attached the tube to the portable IV.
Turning off the lights, Simon climbed carefully into bed, though he doubted the other man would've woken had he jumped in, feet first. Simon spooned up behind Mal, one arm folded up between them and the other on Mal's hip where it wouldn't interfere with the tube.
Of course, once there and comfortable, his brain wouldn't turn off. Wide awake, Simon twisted a bit and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. His mind and heart were filled to overflowing, and he didn't see any way of expressing it to Mal, knowing the man wouldn't want to hear it, especially not once he was better.
Sighing deeply, Simon spoke softly, barely at a whisper. "I know you went through hell, Mal. I know that you won't ever give up any of that control you've fought to hard for, and I respect that. I feel that way myself, as you've probably noticed. But...God...sometimes I feel like I don't know you at all. That the part of you that stays hidden, is the real you. I wish...wish that I could make it better for you, make you feel safe enough to share all of yourself with me. I'll never hurt you, Mal, I swear to God that I will cut my own wrists before I hurt you. I wish I could make you believe that."
Simon fell silent, unable to speak further through his emotions. Instead, he pressed himself flush against Mal and rested his face against the soft hair on the back of Mal's head. "God, I need you, Mal. Please stay with me. Please?"
Hating the pathetic whimper that had escaped, Simon was grateful Mal was thoroughly out of it and hadn't heard a word that he'd said. Slowly, too slowly, he started to relax, his taxed body overriding his violently whirling thoughts until he fell into sleep.
* * * *
Mal swallowed convulsively at Simon's final words, but otherwise didn't move. His eyes remained closed and his breathing steady until Simon fell into an uneasy sleep. Once he heard the familiar half-snore that indicated Simon was sleeping, Mal's eyes opened and he stared sightlessly at the wall.
It was going to be another long night.