Mal looked over the cargo with a casual eye. It was mostly medical supplies with some tinned food thrown in. From the boxes stacked high, he looked back at the woman who anxiously waited on his reply whether or not he'd accept the cargo. Wasn't no question in his mind that he'd say yes, but it was always good to make it seem like desperation had nothing to do with the decision.

"I'd say we can take it over for you," he said at last.

Myana smiled brilliantly. "Thank you so much, Captain Reynolds! You don't know how much these supplies are needed."

Mal shrugged and replied, "Oh I got a right good idea. Now, as for payment. You can give up half now and the rest when we get there, or all up front seeing as how this is a good cause and all."

"Well, as to that, we don't rightly have the money here," Myana replied hesitantly.

Didn't that just figure? "Then we got nothing to talk about. Thanks for wasting my fuel to come here."

"No, you don't understand!" she exclaimed, grabbing his arm. "We were going to sell half the supplies to get your money."

Mal shook his head. "All I need is to start hauling stuff for free. Word of that gets out, no matter how good a cause, my ship is sunk. I won't get any more work."

"But who would know?"

"Things like this just have a way of leaking out."

"What about...what about if you took me as like a hostage for payment?"

That actually got Mal to stop walking, just because of the bizarreness of the suggestion. He looked down at the petite woman and asked, "Why on earth would I do that? Everyone knows I don't kill innocent women, even for non-payment."

Besides which, Simon would up and kill him if he said yes.

"But it would secure your reputation if you just kept me for non-payment, wouldn't it? And since you'll get paid, there's no problem," Myana insisted.

"Look, Myana, you seem a right nice lady to me. You shouldn't go making offers like this to men with guns. It's just a bad idea," Mal advised. "They'll take you, and your cargo, and you'd never see planet side again."

Myana protested with, "But you're an honorable man."

"More than most, less than some," Mal allowed.

"So? Where's the problem?"

The earnest, almost innocent expression on her face near decided Mal to accept her offer, but the thought of what Simon would do to him, or more to the point what he wouldn't, if Mal said yes, stayed his words. Looking around the full hold, he struck on a compromise. "How about we sell half the cargo for you? Our contacts would most likely get more money for it anyhow."

Surprised, she asked, "You would do that?"

"It's a mite easier than explaining your body aboard Serenity as a, uh, hostage," Mal said.

Beaming up at him, Myana said, "I was also rather hoping to add myself as cargo as well."

Uh oh. Mal had seen that prospective gleam in a woman's eye before and it only signaled bag things. Extricating his arm from her grasp, he smiled politely and said, "That would be fine. We'll take your passage fare out of the profits."

The undiminished look to her disturbed Mal a bit, but if she was paying for her passage, how could he rightly object?

* * * *

"It's nice to have someone on board I can talk to about books aside from Shepard."

Mal glanced at Simon in surprise. "You been talking with Myana?"

Simon smiled with a nod and answered, "I have. She's very well educated for a woman so far out in the 'verse. And she has, actually, had more contact with the social scene than I have for a number of months."

Snorting, Mal put down the inventory sheet he'd been trying to tally and walked over to where Simon stood at the edge of the catwalk. He looked out over the sea of boxes and asked, "Something interesting I can't rightly make out?"

Simon tilted his head towards Mal and replied, "Just the very gentlemanly way you refused her foolish offer back on the planet."

Busted. "I was going to tell you about that."

"I see."

"Look, she was desperate and I wasn't going to say yes, I swear," Mal promised.

Simon chuckled softly and put his hand on Mal's forearm. "Relax, Mal, I'm not going to give you grief. The truth is, you found a reasonable compromise that saved her from a bad mistake and you from, well, something, I'm sure."

Mal straightened at Simon's warm approval, not that he needed it mind, and pointed out, "From losing my reputation as a man who, first and foremost, gets paid."

"Ah yes. There's that mercenary streak that we all know and love," Simon observed, eyes twinkling.

"It's that mercenary streak that keeps us fed and flying."

Simon's hand drifted upwards and slid around Mal's shoulder to bring him closer. Looking up at Mal, he murmured, "That it does, Malcolm."

God! How in the 'verse did just his name get him all hot so sudden-like? He leaned in, fully intent on doing something to mess up Simon's good shirt, but pulled back abruptly at the sound of an unfamiliar tread on the stairs above them. Cursing under his breath, he said, "Later."

Though obviously disappointed, Simon nodded and replied, "Enjoy the rest of your inventory, Captain. I'm sure it's much more...diverting...than my company."

Mal groaned to himself as Simon walked away. He was going to pay for choosing their passenger over Simon, that was for sure and certain. Taking a deep breath, Mal forced a smile and turned towards Myana. "Evening, Myana."

She smiled brilliantly at him, her eyes dark and warm. "Evening, Captain. Zoe said I might find you here."

"Oh she did?" Mal commented, vowing silently to have a little chat with his first officer. "What can I do for you?"

Myana's smile increased. "Nothing. I just wanted to see you is all. To thank you again for how good you were about, well, before."

Mal cleared his throat and replied, "That's no trouble. I'm just, ah, going to finish up this here inventory."

Before he could move away, Myana grasped his hand in hers. "Captain Reynolds, please, wait. There is something I'd like to discuss with you."

Uh oh. Should've known this was going to come up, but so soon into the flight? Keeping his thoughts to himself, Mal carefully didn't do anything to respond to her touch, or even seem to. "Yes?"

"I was wondering if you'd care to join me in my quarters this evening. And the rest of the voyage if that's agreeable to you," Myana murmured, looking up at him.

Well. That was clear enough. Grateful that Simon hadn't stayed, and thinking that this could be gotten out of the way at the start, Mal said, "Now, that's a right nice offer, Myana, but I'm afraid that I don't mix with clients like that. If you're a bit lonely, I'm sure Inara..."

To his surprise, she yanked him forward and down for a kiss. It was a couple of seconds before Mal recovered from the shock enough to pull back. By that time, she'd wrapped around him pretty good. When he finally got loose, a sound at the other end of the catwalk caught his attention.

Mal's stomach sank when he saw Simon, white-faced and thin-lipped, standing there. Before he could say a word, the doctor turned and strode the other way.

Why couldn't things ever go smooth?

* * * *

It was nothing. Just a kiss.

Simon repeated that thought over and over but by the time he reached the infirmary, he hadn't as yet convinced himself of the that. For all he knew, Myana had precipitated the kiss. Though it hadn't looked like Mal had been struggling all that hard.

Shaking his head, Simon pulled out a great many of the medical instruments and began to methodically and slowly clean each and every one of them. He felt more than heard Mal's approach some time later, but didn't turn from his work. His hands moved with the ease of long practice, dipping into the cleaning solution, then carefully wiping the tool dry.

"You're good at that," Mal observed quietly.

Simon's hands didn't stop, nor did he look at the Captain as he answered, "I always liked doing this for myself. The other doctors all thought I was foolish not to have the nurses take care of it, but there's just something about doing it yourself, it's more satisfying perhaps."

"Yeah, I get that."

There was a long silence where only the clicking of metal against metal as Simon replaced the instruments was heard. When he was finished, he looked to the other man and was unsurprised to find Mal seated comfortably in an observation chair. His gaze was steadily returned with no sign of guilt.

At which point, Simon subtly relaxed. Mal was an unusually honorable man when it came to certain things. If there was anything for him to feel guilt about, Simon would be able to see it in those slate blue eyes. Simon smiled briefly. "The silence doesn't bother you."

Mal echoed the smile and got to his feet. "Be a mite stupid for me to live in space if it did, now, wouldn't it?"

"On this ship? Not at all," Simon teased, stepping closer.

Mal's eyes darkened with humor at that and he closed the remaining distance, stopping inches from Simon. "Are you saying that my ship's noisy, doctor?"

Smirking slightly, Simon replied, "Heavens no. I would never imply anything about Serenity, other than she's the smoothest running ship in the 'verse."

Chuckling warmly, Mal cupped Simon's face between his hands and brought him in for a long, slow kiss.

By the end of it, Simon felt calm, almost peaceful, as though somehow Mal had transferred those emotions to him. Smiling up at Mal, he questioned, "Inventory done?"

Mal snorted. "And then some. Ms. Myana is properly chastised for her unseemly display and won't be doing that again."

"Well, I can understand the compulsion," Simon allowed generously.

"You can, can you?" Mal countered, resting his arms over Simon's shoulders.

The smirk grew more pronounced and Simon nodded. "Of course. A big, strong Captain like yourself saves her from a desperate situation...she's sure to be really grateful."

Mal eyed Simon's mouth as he asked, "How grateful?"

Deliberately licking his lips, Simon replied, "Maybe grateful enough to do this...or this...or even...this..."

Mal hissed when Simon's mouth sucked at his cock through the fabric of his pants.

Looking up at Mal from this position always gave Simon a sense of power. Others probably thought it demeaning to be on his knees for anyone, but especially someone like Mal. That he was being subservient, submissive even, to a stronger man. What they didn't realize was that Mal was under his control the whole time. Simon's mouth on Mal drove all thought from the other man. He'd discovered, early on in their physical relationship, that the best way to reduce Mal to a quivering wreck was to suck him dry.

Unfortunately, doing so where River might walk by, even given the lateness of the hour, was not an option. So Simon kissed the zipper seam and slid his way back up Mal, finishing by drawing the other man into a hot, wild, tongue mating.

"My quarters, now!" Mal ordered hoarsely, his hands clutching Simon's ass.

Swallowing heavy, body tight with want, Simon nodded. He was about to lock up the surgical tools when an alarm sounded. Eyes widening, his eyes snapped to Mal, but the Captain was already running out of the infirmary.

* * * *

"What is it?"

Wash looked up at Mal's explosive entrance and grimaced. "I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Mal demanded.

Irritated, Wash repeated, "I don't know. The proximity alarms definitely went off, but there's nothing there."

Scowling, Mal leaned over the console, looking for himself. Wash sat back in his chair, arms crossing over his chest expectantly.

"There's nothing there."

With an eye roll, Wash said, "I already told you that."

"So why'd it go off?"

Wash shrugged. "That'd be Kaylee's department now, wouldn't it?"

Mal pressed the comm button and barked, "Kaylee!"

A few seconds later, Kaylee's sleepy voice asked, "Cap'n?"

"There's an alarm going off for no reason. And while adrenaline is good most times, I don't rightly appreciate it just before sleeping."

"I'm on it," Kaylee said, more awake.

"Good."

Wash yawned and observed, "We've been getting a few mixed signals all day now. Told Kaylee about it, but she couldn't find anything wrong."

Frowning, Mal asked, "What kind of mixed signals?"

"Like the radar giving out ghosts and sensor readings not picking things up."

"That could make the odd asteroid a bit harder to find than usual," Mal commented.

Wash nodded. "My thinking exactly. Well, that and those pesky Alliance ships, too."

"Kaylee couldn't find anything?"

"Not a single, actual, mis-crossed wire."

"Damn. All right. Let me know if something else happens."

Wash gave him a jaunty salute and they shared grins before Mal left. Shaking his head, Wash looked back to the console and wagged a stern finger at it. "Stop messing with me! It's not like I meant to spill coffee on you, and anyways, I already apologized!"

* * * *

Simon was already in bed when Mal finally got to his quarters. After talking to Wash, Jayne had waylaid Mal and gone on forever about installing new security systems. Strange how he was suddenly taking his job seriously. Mal shook his head tiredly and cracked his neck. Then, of course, he'd had to stop and find Kaylee, talk to her about potential causes for these ghost problems.

Last and certainly least on his list of importance, was Myana, who'd been all aflutter about the 'excitement.' He'd had to assure her for too long a time that everything was all right when he really didn't know that that was so.

Groaning softly, Mal stripped, leaving his clothes where they fell, then climbed into bed. Curling up behind Simon was a pleasure he'd never get tired of. Their legs fell perfect together and he didn't even het a numb arm from Simon using it as a pillow.

"Everything all right?" Simon asked, twinging their fingers before kissing the back of Mal's hand.

Those simple little gestures that Simon seemed compulsive about giving never failed to move Mal. It was a few seconds before he could speak and he covered the pause by nuzzling the back of Simon's neck. "Fine. Operations stuff. Nothing serious, though, Kaylee's on it."

Simon yawned, already mostly asleep, and murmured, "Good. Figured something like that when no other alarms went off."

"Go to sleep," Mal whispered.

"Mhmm."

Mal smiled, loving how Simon grew heavy in his arms. It spoke of trust and love, two things he'd never had much of in his life. Not before Simon and River had come into it, anyhow. Closing his eyes, Mal allowed himself to fall into sleep as well.

* * * *

Down a short space, in the new room Mal had cleaned out for the nights Simon was in his room, which turned out to be most nights, River shifted restlessly in her bed.

Something was wrong.

Something was off.

The kilter switch was lopsided.

River shook her head, trying to drive away thoughts that scared her, thoughts that swirled and tried to overwhelm her. It was how she'd been before Simon had found a good medicine and she didn't was to go back.

But Serenity was hurting...

No! Serenity was a ship! Ships didn't hurt! They were metal machines that didn't feel!

Hurt, hurt, hurt, trap, trap, trap...

"Simon? Simon? Simon! Simon! Simon!"

* * * *

At the first call of his name over the automated comm from River's room, Simon rolled over Mal and off the bed. He grabbed his robe and slammed his hand into the door release, running down the short hall space to River's room.

When he got there, she was still screaming his name, curled into a ball. Instantly jumping into bed with her, Simon pulled her into his arms, holding tight and repeating, "It's okay, I'm here, it's all right, I'm here..."

It took far longer than he'd have liked, but eventually, River calmed. When she did, Simon discovered Mal kneeling beside them, his hand gently stroking River's head. Their eyes met.

"I've got your kit," Mal said softly. "If you want to sedate her?"

Simon moved so that River was lying prone on the bed between them. Her eyes were red from crying and her face tear-stained. She looked exhausted and, simultaneously, wired. "I think that would be best."

River grabbed Mal's arm. "Serenity's hurting! It's a trap! Help her! But, don't help her, dong ma?"

Mal looked steady at River as he nodded. "I understand. You get some rest, okay?"

She smiled, relieved, and didn't protest when Mal handed Simon his portable kit. As the needle plunged into her arm, River sighed deeply and murmured, "Turning off Radio Serenity now. Night, Daddy. Night, Simon."

Simon continued to hold her hand until after she was well asleep. He looked over at Mal and saw the other man serious, and worried.

"She hasn't had a spell that bad in a while."

"I know," Simon agreed. Sighing deeply, he placed River's hand on the bed and continued, "I'm going to stay with her. Why don't you get some sleep?"

Mal shrugged. "Can't sleep without you in the damned bed anyhow. Scoot over."

Surprised, Simon moved. He watched, bemused, as Mal climbed over River and stretched out behind him, back to the wall. Tired and worried, Simon allowed Mal to pull him down and rested his back to Mal's chest. Twining his fingers with River's, he watched his sister sleep as his lover drifted into Morpheus' grip as well.

Even surrounded by the two people who meant most to him in the 'verse, or perhaps because of it, Simon could not relax his vigil.

* * * *

"How's River?"

Kaylee's anxious question took Simon by surprise, though after all this time, it shouldn't have. He'd learned early on that news on a ship as small as Serenity traveled faster than light. "Resting."

"What happened?"

Simon looked over to Inara, who stood in the infirmary doorway, and replied, "I don't know what set her off. She said Serenity was hurting and to help her. But then she said not to help her."

Kaylee's jaw dropped. "How'd she know?"

"Know what?" Simon asked.

"About Serenity," Kaylee answered. She tugged at her hair and continued, "Been getting funny readings since we left Na-jang."

"Those operation problems that Mal was talking about?"

Kaylee nodded. "It's like she suddenly took a split personality because she's seeing things that aren't there, and not seeing things that are."

"Delusional."

"What?"

"Delusional. The symptoms you described aren't for a split personality, it's for delusions," Simon clarified.

"Oh. Well, in any case, Serenity ain't much serene right now," Kaylee finished agreeably.

"Will you have to change her medication? She was doing so well," Inara added.

Simon sighed, more tired than he wanted to admit. "I'll leave it for now, check to see if this was an isolated event."

Inara rubbed his shoulder and observed, "You should get some sleep."

"Yeah. Did you get any at all?" Kaylee demanded.

Smiling, Simon answered, "Some. Not a lot, though."

With a grin, Kaylee threatened, "Make sure you get some sleep tonight, or we'll have the Cap'n sedate you."

Simon's smile grew. "There's a frightening thought. The Captain in charge of knocking me out."

"Like as not, he'd find a fairly painless way to take care of it," Mal's voice commented mildly from behind.

They all turned to find the Captain in the infirmary doorway, watching them with an amused look. Simon's body flushed as he observed the easy power residing in that lanky frame. Clearing his throat, Simon informed him, "We were just discussing River."

Mal smirked. "Sounded like it. Kaylee, I need to speak with you. And Inara? River's wanting to speak with you."

In sort order, Simon was alone in the infirmary, but that no longer phased him. Mal hadn't been annoyed to find himself under discussion, that much had been obvious despite barely doing more than nodding to Simon before leaving with Kaylee.

Stifling a yawn, Simon returned to his inventory of supplies. Mal had told them all to make a wish list in anticipation of the coming sale and Simon intended to stock up as much as possible.

* * * *

Kaylee squirmed under the Captain's steady gaze, hating that she'd let him down. "I'm sorry, sir, but far's I can tell, there's nothing wrong with her! Every time I chase after whatever Wash's tellin' me is wrong, it fades away like it never was."

Mal's arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against the wall. "That's not a good think, little Kaylee."

"No sir, it's not," Kaylee agreed unhappily. "I just don't know what to do about it."

For a few minutes, Mal thought and Kaylee let him. Most folks got too impatient to think things through, herself included, but the Cap'n had a mind like a steel trap. He could find an answer for just about anything if he had enough time and an answer to the necessary if there wasn't any time.

Comforting how people shooting at him seemed to make him think faster, too.

"All right. Set up an independent monitoring and tracking system. Attach it to the hull. Draft Zoe and Jayne if you have to, but get it done on the double," he said at last.

Kaylee's mind immediately started running through the assorted extra parts to see if it could even be done.

"Cannibalize the spare shuttle if you have to, just get it done. Flying blind's never been a favorite activity of mine."

Kaylee nodded. "Yessir. I'll get right on it."

* * * *

Inara moved easily through the hall to River's old room by the infirmary. She knocked politely, but there was no answer.

"Nobody home."

River's voice from above startled Inara badly. Looking up, she found the girl perched on an overhang, tucked almost into the wall. Smiling, she asked, "Are you all right, River? The Captain said you wanted to speak with me."

Wide-eyed, River nodded. "Need to ask you a question."

Well, that seemed simple enough. "Go ahead."

"How do you get rid of a viper that no one can see?"

So much for simple. Sighing faintly, Inara asked, "Could you come down before I get a sore neck?"

In an astonishingly agile movement, River gripped the edge and flipped herself off the overhang. Inara stared at her in surprise and exclaimed, "I didn't know you could do that!"

River shrugged. "Easy enough when things move slow or near not a'tall."

Pursing her lips with a distinct feeling of deja vu, Inara observed the slightly wild gleam to the girl's eyes and replied, "I suppose it would be. Now then, your question. If no one can see the viper, how do you know it's there?"

River's eyes closed and she frowned. "Hear it? Vipers're poison. Bite so fast, you don't know 'til it's too late. Gotta listen real close."

"So you can hear it, but not see it," Inara questioned. It was rapidly becoming a disturbing conversation, especially when River began swaying a bit.

"Hisses. It hisses and slithers. Dangerous."

Wondering if perhaps she should call Simon, Inara said, "It sounds more like something Mal or Jayne would take care of. Why ask me?"

River's eyes snapped open. "Because the viper's like you."

* * * *

"And I don't know what's wrong, but you need to re-think not changing her medication!" Inara insisted. "She was talking just like when you first came on board."

Mal looked at Simon and almost winced at the closed expression on the other man's face. "Doctor?"

"I sedated her again," Simon replied.

"You can't sedate her forever," Zoe pointed out, careful to keep her voice neutral.

Simon barely glanced at the tall woman, addressing Inara as he said, "I can't change her medication. I can adjust the dosage, but that's it for now."

Mal cleared his throat to get Simon's attention. "How come not?"

Irritated, Simon explained, "This isn't like getting a different allergy and picking whatever works! This is the human mind and, more importantly, it's River's mind. What they did to her changed not only what's actually there, but the chemical balance! It took me three weeks just to find something that didn't make her either pseudo-autistic, or manic, more manic. Changing anything will take time."

"So lock up the weapons and knives again, is that it?"

Mal glared at Jayne, but the man had a point. "Any idea how long she'll be like this?"

"No."

"Well my goodness! I didn't realize everyone had gathered early for supper."

Almost as one, the crew looked at Myana. If the action disconcerted her at all, it didn't show. She simply smiled and further entered the galley.

Mal forced a smile of his own and said, "Just an employee meeting is all, but we're done now. Book, your turn to cook, right?"

The older man nodded and agreed pleasantly, "Yes it is, Captain. Jayne, why don't you help?"

"What!? But it ain't my turn!" Jayne protested.

Mal tuned out the mostly good-natured bickering and caught Simon and Zoe's eyes, motioning outside the room. Both were close behind as he went all the way through Serenity to the cockpit. He met Wash's surprised glance, but the pilot just went back to work. Hitting the listening shield, Mal observed, "Seems a bit too coincidental-like that Serenity'd be having trouble and River'd go nuts all about the same time we get ourselves a new passenger."

Startled, Simon asked, "You think Myana's behind this?"

Mal shrugged. "Maybe yes, maybe no. Just don't like the timing. And River's words that our viper is like Inara? I don't think that was a slur to our lovely Ambassador. Zoe, see what you can dig up for background on Myana. Check with the Guild's database."

"Aye, sir."

"Simon? Keep an eye on River, but stop sedating her," Mal ordered. "If she's our early warning system, then I want her functioning."

Simon nodded. "Of course."

Mal looked to Wash. "Any more problems?"

Wash shook his head and answered, "Not since Kaylee hooked up the independent array. Serenity's been real happy with it."

"Good, good. Let me know if anything else happens," Mal said absently.

"Sure thing."

Mal paused, then added, "Zoe? Stay in here with Wash until this is sorted out. And spread the word for everyone to double up."

"Wouldn't it be easier to restrict Myana to her room?" Simon asked.

With a snort, Mal answered, "If it is just a weird coincidence, doing that would piss off a client. And if it's not, well, I don't really want to tip out hand anyhow."

The others nodded and he finished, "All right people, let's get to it."

* * * *

Wash nuzzled at the hollow of Zoe's throat and commented, "I like this doubling-up thing. Mal should do it more often."

Though she chuckled, Zoe's eyes didn't shift from the monitor flashing pictures of women. "I'll be sure and mention it to him."

"You do that," Wash agreed, nibbling on bare skin. Trying to distract Zoe when she was working was fun.

A few minutes later, Zoe swore and exclaimed, "Well I'll be!"

Wash looked up from the patch of dusky skin he'd been licking and craned his neck to see over her shoulder. There, on the monitor, was a seductive photo of the prim and proper passenger they were carrying. Surprised, he said, "So River was right. Never thought I'd hear myself say that."

Zoe leaned closer to the screen and read, "Lin Mi Tan, deceased. She's pretty lively for a corpse."

"Well preserved, too," Wash added.

Zoe stood and said, "Lock the door behind me, I'll find Mal."

"Yes, dear," he called after her. Sighing, missing the firm weight of his wife on his lap, Wash reached over and enabled the locking mechanism. It was never a good idea to piss off the woman you loved and received sex from. And nothing pissed off Zoe more than not being obeyed.

* * * *

As soon as he heard Zoe knock on the hatch, well, pound was more like it, Mal knew things were going to take a bad turn. He got out of bed, still dressed since he'd had a feeling that he wouldn't get much sleep, and headed for the ladder. Pausing at the base, he looked back at Simon and River sitting on the bed and ordered, "Lock yourselves in."

Simon nodded and whispered, "Be careful."

"Vipers like dark places," River advised seriously.

"I will," Mal replied to Simon before glancing at River. "Thanks."

Snagging his gun belt and buckling it on, Mal climbed the ladder.

* * * *

When the door to Myana's room was finally unlocked, they found the room empty. Scowling, Mal went to the shipboard comm and pressed it. "Everyone sound off, right now!"

"Cockpit's secure."

"My shuttle is clear."

"Engine room's locked up, tight as a drum."

Mal waited, but Simon didn't check in. Worry tightened his gut as he pushed the button gain. "Simon? River? Check-in!"

Nothing.

"Okay. Zoe, with me. Book, Jayne, search the cargo area, maybe she went to ground there," Mal ordered.

There were nods all around and Mal headed back towards his quarters at a run, Zoe right beside him.

* * * *

The room was empty and looked like it had been hit by a cyclone. All his things were knocked over, clothes were strewn about and shelves had been upended.

"Sir? Over there."

Mal looked at the floor by the bed and saw the pool of blood, partially soaked up by a shirt. Oh God. Simon, or River? Jaw tightening, he ordered, "Check River's room to be sure. I'll meet you topside."

Equally as grim, Zoe nodded.

Mal searched the wreckage until he found Simon's portable med-kit.

* * * *

Simon locked both the ladder hatch and the door to River's room as well. No sense in taking chances. When he looked back to River, she was staring at the hatch as though it would come alive. Hesitant, he asked, "River? What's wrong?"

Big eyes turned to him as she answered, "Viper's hissing at the door."

Great. And Mal had taken the guns with him. Not that he wanted to trust River with a gun in her current state, but she was, apparently, a better shot than him. He strode to her and assured her, "Stay behind me, okay? I'll...think of something."

A fey smile lit her face and River said, "Always thinking. Sometimes, no thought is the smartest state of being."

Simon regarded her for a moment. "That sounds a bit more profound than I'm able to deal with right now."

Even though he'd keyed in Mal's personal security code, the hatch opened. As it did, Simon belatedly thought to use the comm unit on the wall. He leaped towards it, but just as his fingers touched the buttons, something hard slammed into him, knocking him off balance.

Simon hit the floor beside the bed and fought to breathe. Before he could do anything more than gasp, Myana was on him, plunging a knife into his stomach. River screamed and tackled the woman. Through the haze of pain in his gut, Simon tried to get to his feet, determined to help his sister. Unfortunately, by the time he'd struggled up, Myana had River pinned to the wall, knife to the slender throat. "Let her go!"

The hard eyes staring back at him were utterly alien from the soft ones of before. "Or you'll do what, Dr. Tam? Bleed on me?"

River's words from before echoed through his mind. "Sometimes, no thought is the smartest state of being." Seeing no way out, Simon groaned theatrically and fell backwards, groaning for real at the impact. His hand touched something under Mal's bed and he realized it was a knife. Nimble fingers tucked it up his sleeve as Myana dragged River forward.

"Get up, Doctor!"

Simon groaned again and gasped, "I'll never make it up the ladder."

Which actually wasn't all that far from the truth. He was losing blood at an alarming rate and starting to feel light-headed.

Mal's voice echoed through the ship and Simon knew that all he had to do was stall. The Captain would come tearing back when Simon didn't check in.

"I suggest that you find the strength or little sister here will have a red smile across her throat. Don't need her alive to get the bounty, after all."

"You'll never get off the ship with us," Simon stated, slowly pushing himself upright.

Myana nicked River's throat with the knife, drawing blood. "Hurry, Dr. Tam."

Simon grabbed a shirt and held it to his side, using the arm with the hidden knife to hold it in place. He watched as she used a pair of Mal's suspenders to bind River's hands. Myana kept the knife at River's back as they climbed the ladder.

For himself, climbing was as close to agony as he'd felt since the blue handed men had had him. Having the perspective of just how much pain he could take, however, stood him in good stead. Simon just gritted his teeth and kept climbing.

They didn't go anywhere that he expected. Instead of to the cargo hold or a shuttle, Myana drove them into the belly of the ship. Simon hadn't actually been there before, there'd never been a need to go.

"The Captain knows every inch of this ship. You can't hope to hide from him," Simon pointed out.

Myana gave him a hard grin and replied, "Not going to hide. We're not staying on the ship."

Simon frowned. "The shuttles are the other way."

"Escape, escape, escape," River sang.

Nodding, Myana confirmed, "That's right, girl. These old ships are equipped with life pods. With Serenity's sensors off kilter from the scrambler I planted, we'll get picked up well before they can find us."

Simon strived to look panicked. They'd get picked up all right, but by Serenity. And hopefully Mal would just flush the woman out the airlock once they were safe. Horror at what he'd just thought must have shown on his face because Myana laughed.

"Just realized what's going to happen, did you doctor?"

"Poor Simon," River whispered. "Wants the viper squashed flat, but doesn't want to do it."

Simon met his sister's eyes and saw truth reflected there. It was all right to shoot at people who were shooting at you. It was all right for Mal to blow up an entire space station in revenge. But it wasn't all right to kill a woman who'd stabbed him and was going to sell them to the Alliance? Was he such a coward as to let Mal fight this battle as well?

Shaking his head to battle the light-headedness, Simon pleaded, "Don't do this. Please. We've done nothing. The Alliance experiments on River, altered her brain. Don't you have any compassion?"

"Why? Because I'm a woman?" Myana scoffed. "Sorry doctor, but I don't care why they want you, just that they'll pay good money to get you."

And there it was: she didn't care. Simon stiffened, his fingers gripping the knife inside his sleeve, sliding it out. A wave of dizziness assaulted him and he glanced at the shirt stanching his wound to find it soaked through, slippery with his blood. Another wave of dizziness and his knees trembled with fatigue."

"Night, Simon."

Simon looked back at River's soft face and shook his head, trying to stave of unconsciousness long enough to act. "No, River..."

Then he was look up at both women, not sure of when he'd fallen. He reached a bloody hand towards his sister, gasping, "River..."

* * * *

Simon needed a doctor. Too much time spent dilly-dallying as it was. He'd become a man, though, like he'd always wanted to be. Like Daddy Mal. Not doing didn't matter. Simon was a man like Daddy Mal now for wanting to do, and that would both make him happy and tear him up.

River looked at the viper who was cursing at Simon's collapse. "Time to kill the viper. Poison's bad you know."

The woman frowned at her and ordered, "Get walking, girl!"

It would be so easy to pluck the knife from her. Visions, memories, indoctrinations of how to kill flooded through her, no longer held in check by Simon or drugs. "So many ways to die. So many ways to kill. Too many."

That was the warning she gave to the viper. The suspenders around her wrists were no barriers. She just reached up and grabbed one of the many pipes overhead, swing her legs around the viper's neck and twisted.

River was at Simon's side and pressing the shirt more firmly to his wound before the viper even stopped twitching.

"River?"

Looking over at Daddy Mal, she informed him, "Snakes don't stop twitched until after the sun goes down."

Daddy Mal didn't even look at the viper, just stared at her with sad, careful eyes and asked, "Can I tend to Simon? Me and Zoe both?"

Realizing that she was holding the knife Simon had been going to use, River tossed it aside and backed away from her brother, tears forming. "I didn't! I'd never hurt Simon! Just protected him. Tried to."

But Daddy Mal wasn't listening. He was near-frantic trying to figure out how to use Simon's tools to heal Simon. Stomping her foot, she exclaimed loudly, "Daddy!"

He paused, looking up at her before asking clearly, "What is it, River?"

"I didn't hurt Simon! Use that. Press the gray button to stop the bleeding."

With barely a hesitation, he grabbed the device, yanking up Simon's shirt at the same time, then activated it. The thick, slow lead of blood from Simon stopped almost immediately.

"We should get him to the infirmary."

Daddy Mal nodded at Zoe's words and carefully scooped Simon into his arms, standing with the tall woman's help. River watched, not sure what to do.

Zoe looked at her with soft, dark eyes and said, "C'mon, River, time to go."

Relieved, River smiled and rushed forward, liking the solid arm around her shoulders. There was always something soothing about Zoe.

* * * *

When the world returned, Simon only felt a minor ache in his abdomen, which meant that he'd been treated. That, in turn, meant that they'd been rescued. Opening his eyes, the first thing he saw was Mal. Seated in an observation chair right next to the bed with a hand lightly gripped Simon's thigh. He looked utterly exhausted.

Smiling, Simon moved his hand and began stroking Mal's hair. It was so soft, like a caress really, or some exotic pelt. Grinning, he thought, Mal-pelt, the most elusive and rare of all pelts.

Mal woke suddenly, jerking upright with wild eyes. When he saw Simon awake, Mal stared hungrily for a moment, then got to his feet and left.

Shocked by Mal's reaction, Simon just stared dumbly after the other man, though he was no longer in sight. Before he could even call out, River and Kaylee cam running into the infirmary.

"You're awake!"

"Simon, Simon, Simon!"

Simon grunted at the impact of River to his chest, but smiled and put an arm around her, kissing the top of her head. He shoved down the hurt Mal's behavior had caused and smiled warmly at Kaylee. "How is everyone? What happened?"

Grinning near to split her face, Kaylee answered, "Everyone's great! River here took care of Myana, broke her neck like a doll! You almost died, you know!"

Nonplused both by Kaylee's casual regard of Myana's death and the somewhat ghoulish relish Kaylee portrayed going into detail about his own near death experience, Simon mostly tuned out her words. One thing did catch his attention though. "Wait, wait, wait! Jayne was the only one with a compatible blood type for a transfusion!?"

"You betcha doc," Jayne's smug voice called. "You owe me your life now!"

Simon groan. He was never going to hear the end of this, he could just tell. Jayne sauntered into the room, followed by everyone except Mal.

By now, River had settled into the bed with him, and Kaylee was making herself at home beside him with an almost proprietary air.

"Hope you don't mind visitors," Shepherd said. "The Captain said you were awake."

"Did he," Simon murmured. What on earth was going on? He recognized a stalling tactic when he saw one, but couldn't understand why. Why didn't Mal want to see him?

Zoe interrupted his thoughts by saying, a little too casually, "Cap'n's dealing with some port authorities or he'd be here."

Simon met her dark eyes and knew she was lying, though no one would be able to tell the fact from Zoe herself. Bitterness rose in his heart at the thought of how close Zoe and Mal were. There was no guilt whatsoever about lying for him, that much was clear. Simon shrugged and replied simply, "I understand."

At that, her gaze narrowed, but Simon ignored her, closing his eyes and resting his head against River's.

"All right everyone, visiting hour's over," Kaylee ordered. "The Doc needs his rest."

Simon didn't open his eyes even after he knew everyone was gone. Well, everyone except River, who lay quiescent in his arms. "I'm sorry, River."

"Poor Simon," She whispered back, kissing his throat. "Poor Daddy. Two broken hearts without a bridge."

Sometimes, Simon thought she was the smartest, most perceptive person on Serenity.

* * * *

He was a coward. It was that simple. He was a complete and utter coward who deserved the treatment he was getting from everyone.

Mal sighed and wondered vaguely if any other Captain had ever had a mutiny for breaking up with someone.

Not that there'd been an outright mutiny, because so far he hadn't found hisself floating in space without a suit. Still and all, it might be more merciful-like if that had actually happened. It had taken a few days for everyone to realize that he and Simon weren't together, and that it had been his decision. Once that got around, the shit had knocked over the gorram fan altogether.

Kaylee wouldn't speak to him unless absolutely necessary. The dino that Wash had given him for his birthday had disappeared from his quarters. Zoe was cold enough to give him frost bite and Inara hadn't smiled at him in a week. Book was quietly contemplative, like he was trying to decide which lecture to give, making Mal avoid the other man so he didn't have to listen to any. Even Jayne had gotten into the act, sharpening his knives with excessive force if Mal happened to be around.

The only ones not treating him like a turncoat were Simon and River. They were acting exactly as they had before Simon and Mal had gotten together: friendly and real, if a bit aloof at times. River was back on her medicine so, if anything, she was sweeter than when she'd first arrived.

Mal sighed again and rubbed dry, tired eyes before staring blankly at the ceiling. He hadn't slept good since the night before Myana had showed up. Apparently, his body had joined the plot against him, refusing to rest until exhausted and even then, only for a few house at a time.

It was going to be another very long night.