Mal pounded frantically on the infirmary door and shouted, “Simon! Simon! Zoe, hurry up! He’s killing him!”
“Going fast as I can,” Zoe answered through clenched teeth, working with bare fingers on the wiring inside the wall.
Jayne stared in a kind of horrified fascination at the scene inside and observed, “Think his skull’s busted flat now.”
“Simon!” Mal shouted again, futile.
* * * *
River cowered in the corner as blood again splattered across her, even from across the distance. Hands over her ears didn’t stop the sounds of metal on flesh and bone, detailing to her the damage being inflicted, even now, even after death. She’d stopped watching after the first bludgeoning, the face misshapen in that one blow.
She whispered one word, over and over, as she rocked. “Stop, stop, stop, stop.”
It was the silence that broke through her mantra. Panting breath filled the small room, but nothing else. No words, no comfort, no recriminations, nothing. There was nothing in the room with her.
Just two bodies – one dead, and the other without a soul or conscience.
* * * *
“Got it!” Zoe hissed, just before the door slid open.
Mal rushed into the room, slipping and almost falling on a patch of blood. Ignoring the heavy smell of death, firmly quelling the nausea trying to force its way out, Mal crouched beside Simon. Afraid to touch him, not sure what might set him off again, Mal whispered, “Simon? Baobei? Simon, can you hear me?”
Utterly blank eyes turned to him and a slither of fear joined the horror already choking him.
“Simon’s not here,” River announced through sniffles from behind.
Clearing his throat, Mal nodded and agreed, “I can see that, River, thanks. Zoe, get her out of here and fixed up. Jayne, take care of this trash.”
“Sir, are you sure you’re okay with him alone?” Zoe questioned seriously.
Mal nodded, putting his hand on the wrench that was slick with gore and blood. He tugged it free of unresisting hands, then brought Simon to his feet. “Simon won’t hurt me, Zoe. Will you, Simon?”
A frown crossed Simon’s face, but no words or recognition came from him.
“Danger’s past now,” Mal continued, guiding Simon away from the body towards the door. “I’ll get him cleaned up and taken care of.”
“Just don’t argue with me, Zoe!” Mal snapped, struggling to keep control of himself.
Zoe shut up, her mouth flattening into a tight line of disapproval and worry. With an arm around River’s shoulder, she led the girl out of the infirmary, going in the opposite direction from Mal and Simon.
Jayne looked around the empty room, taking in the blood on the walls and then down at the body that wasn’t much of one anymore and complained, “How come I always get the nasty job?”
* * * *
Mal took his time with Simon, washing the blood first from the thick dark hair and then moving down. The other man hadn’t yet said a word and while there wasn’t much in his eyes yet, Simon followed direction without any trouble. Mal prayed that whatever had happened, he would get the other man back. That this hadn’t caused Simon to slip over the edge of a cliff that none of them had even known was there and be lost to him forever.
He ran the sponge carefully over the lightly defined body, rinsing and soaping it more often than he cared to think about. The last few months had been hard ones for everyone involved. The only bonus that Mal had found in the time of hardship had been Simon’s friendship and growing affection. He hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, let alone anyone else, but Simon meant everything to Mal.
What had just happened, the violence Simon had just done… Mal couldn’t even think of it as belonging to the same man he’d fallen in love with. If he honestly thought that Simon was responsible for it, then he was afraid that he might go crazy, too.
Shaking the thought from his head, Mal concentrated solely on the task at hand. It was a good ten minutes later that all signs of the beating were gone from them both and he urged Simon out of the shower. Grabbing a towel, he dried the other man and then wrapped him in a robe. He guided the still-silent man to the bed and, after a bit of maneuvering, got him into it, tucking the covers around Simon. Once there, Simon’s eyes immediately closed and a peaceful expression settled on his face.
Mal looked down at the young man, wondering what form of insanity their lives were about to take this time. With everything the Tam’s had been through, were still going through, he wondered if they would ever catch a break. Sighing, Mal knelt by the bed, and combed his fingers through the damp hair, whispering, “Simon? You awake?”
Yawning, Simon’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled happily. “Mal!”
“Hey,” Mal greeted softly, continuing to scratch his fingers over Simon’s scalp. “How’re you feeling?”
Simon frowned and looked around with, “Fine, but, why am I in your quarters? Did something happen?”
“You don’t remember?” Mal questioned.
“I, ah, no,” Simon admitted, fear rising in his eyes. He pushed onto his elbows and demanded, “What happened?”
“Easy now, everything’s fine. Just take it easy. You blacked out is all. No one’s hurt,” Mal replied. Which was true, after all. Someone was dead, but no one was hurt.
Relieved, Simon lay back down and breathed, “Thank God.”
Staring into Simon’s innocent eyes, Mal knew with every fiber that there was something else behind the outburst. Something artificial had caused Simon to beat that man to death and, like everything else that fueled the young doctor, River factored heavily into whatever that was. “I want you to get some sleep, okay? You shouldn’t push yourself so hard.”
Simon smiled at him, curling onto his side and answering, “I don’t generally push myself into a blackout, so I guess I just didn’t realize how much was going on. Maybe a nap is a good idea.”
Leaning forward, Mal kissed Simon’s temple. “Definitely a good idea. I’ve got something to talk to Zoe and Jayne about, so I’ll be gone a while.”
Wide-eyed, Simon exclaimed, “You just kissed me!”
“Can’t put anything over you, Doc,” Mal teased, enjoying the blush that heated the pale skin.
“But, I mean, what…”
Mal stopped the words with a finger across Simon’s lips and explained, “Just figured out that I don’t want nothin’ separating us anymore, Simon. Myself included. That okay by you?”
Astonished, but obviously pleased, Simon nodded.
“Good. So get some rest and I’ll be back in a few hours with supper,” Mal said, standing.
“I can get up for dinner,” Simon protested.
Thinking about the mess in the infirmary and how long it would take to clean, even with all three of them working on it, Mal answered, “Not a chance. Stay put. I’ll send River on down to keep you out of trouble a little later.”
At that, a frown crossed Simon’s face. “River…is she okay? I have the strangest thought now that she’s in trouble.”
“No!” Mal exclaimed, then cursed himself at Simon’s deepening frown. “She’s fine, I mean. Just a scratch from falling down the stairs. Cut herself on the edge of something. You were stitching her up when you blacked out. Zoe took care of her though and she’s right as rain again.”
Simon’s frown faded into a smile and he said, “Thank you, Mal. I still can’t believe I did that.”
Mal shrugged, more uncomfortable with the mix of lies and truth than with the killin’ Simon had dealt. “No trouble. See you in a bit.”
Snuggling into the pillow, Simon yawned and nodded, closing his eyes again.
Mal watched him a moment, then turned and crossed to the ladder. There were things that needed doin.’
* * * *
Grimacing as he scooped a bit of skull into the bag, Jayne grumbled, “Can’t believe a little thing like the Doc could do so much damage.”
“Anyone can,” Zoe observed from the door. “If they got enough motivation.”
Jayne shrugged and allowed, “Motivation he had, but damn. Prissy little thing gets upset when I make a mess in the mess.”
“The Doc weren’t exactly himself.”
They looked at Mal, who was taking in the remains of the disaster area stone-faced.
Zoe leaned against the wall and asked, “You got him put down for the night?”
“Choosin’ a better set of words might be a good idea, Zoe,” Mal replied calmly. “But yes. The good doc is sound asleep with not a bit of recollection on what went on here. And I aim to keep it that way.”
“Mal, he just killed a man,” Zoe protested. “Near enough to bare hands, on top of that!”
Pinning her with a sharp look, Mal answered, “Man was bent on rapin’ his sister, probably killin’ her after. You’d’ve done the same or worse, just been cleaner about the job.”
Jaw tightening, Zoe insisted, “He’s not right in the head to do things like that!”
At that, Mal nodded and agreed, “True enough. But it weren’t him that done it. I think… I think something was done to Simon, in the head, like River only, to make sure that he protected her at all costs. Maybe it’s part of what drives him so with her. We’ll get him checked out by a professional we can trust and in the meantime, not a word of this to anyone that don’t already know. Understood?”
For a second, it looked like Zoe was going to protest, but then she acquiesced, “Understood, Sir. What happens if we find out there ain’t nothin’ been done to him. Or nothing that can be done for him? What then?”
Grim, Mal answered, “We’ll figure it out if it comes to that.”
* * * *
“But I’m not sick!” Simon protested for what seemed the hundredth time.
Mal shrugged and replied, “Doctors need lookin’ after as much as normal folk. And you can’t tell me that blackout was normal.”
Sighing, aggravation rising, Simon reminded, “I was just overworked. I’m fine now! We don’t need to go to some kind of specialist just because I passed out.”
“Simon, just do it for me, okay? To make me feel easy about you?” Mal asked softly. He looked Simon in the eyes and continued, “It’s someone we can trust. He’s part of the family, so to speak. He’ll do a work-up on you, give you a clean bill of health, and I’ll shut-up about it.”
Simon groaned at the faintly pleading look in the other man’s eyes and gave in sourly with, “All right, all right! You know I can’t refuse you when you look at me like that.”
Grinning suddenly, Mal replied, “Didn’t before, do now though.”
Eyes rolling, Simon nonetheless allowed Mal to lead him from Serenity onto the dock. It had only been a day since his blackout and though he didn’t want to admit it, Simon did feel more tired than usual. He wished that he could get rid of the nagging feeling inside that something terrible had happened, but everything seemed perfectly normal. Aside from Mal’s abrupt revelation of his feelings, but that hardly counted as something terrible.
He flushed as he remembered waking up in Mal’s arms just that morning. It had seemed unbelievable at the time, and yet so comfortable and right.
A long, firm body curled up behind him, an arm slung heavy over his waist. Waking slowly in comfort and the feel of soft breath against the back of his neck. Realizing that it was Mal and they were both naked simultaneously had him gasping in surprise and waking fully.
“Too early. Go back to sleep,” Mal yawned, arm tightening.
Simon turned to face him, unable to believe what his senses told him was true. He couldn’t find any words as Mal leaned in and kissed him, slow and gentle.
“That’s a good look for you, Doc.”
A smile surfaced at the low, rough words and Simon’s eyes opened to stare into the other’s deep blue gaze that seemed to hold the answers to everything if only he could remember the question.
Mal’s hand rested on Simon’s hip as he said, “We got time, baobei. Go back to sleep.”
Convinced by the words and urged by his own lassitude, Simon nodded and curled up against Mal’s chest, enjoying the strong arms around him.
“Thinking dirty thoughts, Doc?” Mal murmured in his ear.
Simon jumped in surprise, then glared at him and replied haughtily, “I was not. I was just, ah, thinking about this morning.”
Smirking, Mal observed, “Close enough, then. And we’re here.”
“You are entirely too smug with yourself, Captain Reynolds,” Simon announced as they entered a small, plain room.
It was a waiting room, clear enough, and there was even a receptionist sitting behind a glass window at one end of the room. The place was empty otherwise, children’s toys strewn everywhere.
“For which I got cause, Doctor,” Mal answered easily.
Simon yelped when a hand squeezed his ass and he moved quickly out of reach, glaring again at the other man.
Mal assumed an innocent expression as he leaned on the counter and said to the woman, “Cap’n Reynolds to see Doc Ian.”
She smiled and replied, “He’s expecting you, Captain. Go on in and take a right. Second door on the left.”
Simon ignored the arm the Mal offered and strode passed him, through the entryway and down the hall, following the woman’s directions. The second door on the left revealed a high-tech, state-of-the-art Scanner and Simon blinked in surprise when he saw it. Turning to Mal, he asked, “What kind of doctor did you say this man was again?”
“I didn’t,” Mal answered. “He’s kind of a jack of all trades of medicine, but he makes his livin’ healin’ kids.”
“Hardly a living, Mal, you know that!” a booming voice countered from behind.
Simon faced the newcomer and found an older man in his sixties with artificially red hair and just as artificially brilliant green eyes. His face was wrinkled and kind, though, so Simon dismissed it as vanity. He took the offered hand and greeted, “Good afternoon, Dr. Ian. I’m Dr. Simon Tam.”
Dr. Ian shook his hand heartily and exclaimed, “Good to meet you, young man, good to meet you! Why don’t you strip down, put on one of those nifty paper jammies, and have a seat? Mal and I can catch up outside for a minute.”
Frowning a little, though he couldn’t see anything wrong with the instructions, Simon nodded and agreed, “Certainly.”
Mal gripped Simon’s shoulder and said, “Be right back. Try not to get lonely.”
Snorting, Simon replied, “I’ll do my best.”
He watched the two men leave, talking about Zoe and Wash, and shrugged, grinning to himself and thinking, Well, now we know which side of the family Wash gets his red hair from.
* * * *
The second the door closed, Ian said heavily, “You sure can pick ‘em, Mal.”
Bracing for the worst, Mal asked, “What is it?”
“Don’t even need to scan him,” Ian answered, tapping just under his eye. “I can see the device right with my own eyes, thanks to my handy little artificial peepers.”
“Yeah. Newest of the new, designed to keep the lower classes in line.”
“Yeah, well, them too, though for a different reason.”
Mal frowned, not getting it at first. Then his eyes widened and fury flooded him as he gasped, “Breeding! They want the breeding done right!”
Touching the side of his nose, Ian confirmed, “Got it in one. Though the behavior you described doesn’t follow the device’s regular programming. It’s supposed to make the wearer more pliant, more biddable.”
With a snort, Mal said, “I’ve never met a less biddable man in my life, save maybe Wash.”
“Explains your attraction then,” Ian teased, humor briefly lighting the green eyes. “In any case, I can’t remove it.”
Mal’s stomach dropped and he couldn’t speak.
Sympathy etched into his face, Ian explained, “I can find out what the programming is, no doubt about that. And depending on what it is, I can maybe make a workaround. I could even, possibly, shut it down. But I can’t get rid of it. The brain’s grown around and into it and it’s a part of him now. Taking it out would kill him, sure as a bullet to the brain.”
Still feeling sick, Mal nodded and said, “Whatever you can do. Find out how it works, what trips it, how to keep from having something like that happening again. Anything you can.”
Gripping his shoulder, Ian informed him, “You might as well head back to Serenity. I’m just going to knock him out and hook him up. It’s going to take a while.”
“Could be hours, could be days.”
Stunned, Mal gaped at him a few more moments, then gathered his composure and ordered roughly, “Keep me updated.”
Without waiting for an answer, he strode to the exit.
* * * *
Two days Mal waited for news from Ian. Two days of bringing the ship up to speed, of concentrating on nothing but the task at hand. Two days of mind-numbing work and back-breaking labor, depending on his mood. Which ranged between panicked, depressed, black and foul. Zoe kept him company through most of it, silent and comforting. Wash and River hid out in the cockpit playing dinos and making plans for when they picked up Kaylee and Book. Jayne had left the ship altogether, probably to whore his way through the city while they waited.
Every so often, a message from Ian’s receptionist, Wash’s cousin Mary, arrived with an update, but Ian himself was too busy working. Mal preferred not to think of the cyborg-type existence that Ian lived, even as he was grateful for the stamina and longevity the artificial parts gave the older man. Wash had introduced him as Uncle Ian, but after some digging, Mal had found out the older man was actually Wash’s great-uncle and going on ninety-five.
That had been seven years ago.
“Mal? Ian’s on the comm.”
Sliding out from under the engine, Mal rolled to his feet and rushed to the comm in the wall. “Ian! What’s the news?”
“Partial success,” Ian’s weary voice answered. “I can’t shut it down, but I circumvented the programming. He’s fine, just groggy from the anesthesia wearing off. You can come get him any time. I’ll give you details when you get here.”
“Thanks, will do.”
“I’ll collect Jayne,” Zoe offered, wiping her greasy hands on a rag.
Nodding, Mal replied, “Thanks, Zoe. And, thanks for bein’ here.”
She half-smiled, though it didn’t reach the dark eyes, and answered, “You’d be here for me were our positions reversed.”
“Count on it,” Mal agreed.
Their gaze remained locked together another moment. Zoe turned to leave and Mal sighed deeply, knowing how lucky he was to have her. He followed her out, the two of them as in-step as they always were.
* * * *
“It’s his sister, like you suspected.”
Mal’s fingers were twined with Simon’s and he kept his eyes on the tableau the joined hands made as Ian explained.
“Any real danger to her and he flips out. It’s programmed into him, to protect her at all costs. The programming takes over, Mal, so what he did, it really wasn’t him. And if he can’t save her, well, he self-destructs. Whoever designed that thing knew exactly what they were doing. It remains completely dormant until there’s a substantial threat to the girl.
“The man you love, it’s really him. You don’t have to worry about having fallen for some kind of programmed personality. I wish I could say it was kindness on their part, but the makers needed something to build on and that something was Simon’s natural devotion and love for his sister. I’ve really never seen anything quite like it. It’s almost a work of art.”
“Will it hurt him?” Mal asked in a harsh whisper. “What if something does happen to River? Something he can’t control or stop? What if she dies on us? Is he going to, to self-destruct?”
“No, no. I put a stop to that. That was part of what took so long. Learning the programmin’ was easy enough. Figuring out how to subvert it without hurting Simon or causin’ any harmful effects, that was the hard part. I want to see him once a year, without fail, just to keep an eye on him, but I don’t expect any trouble from that thing,” Ian assured him.
Mal finally looked up at him and questioned, “And when you’re gone?”
Smirking, Ian answered, “I fully expect to outlive you all, but just in case, my work is completely documented and it will be entrusted to someone safe if anything happens to me. I’ve already left appropriate instructions with Mary.”
A little bit of hope and relief began to surface and Mal asked, “He’s really going to be okay?”
Ian stepped close and gripped his shoulder, “He really is, Mal, I promise. Now take him home. I’ve got a poker game tonight.”
* * * *
Simon woke up in Mal’s bed, which more than surprised him; it shocked and sent a bolt of panic through him. Bolting upright, he was in the process of climbing out of the bed when hands from behind hauled him back into it. He flailed before falling backwards against Mal, then exclaimed, “Let me go!”
Mal released him and Simon stumbled to his feet, turning to face the other man still stretched out on the bed. Calm, Mal sat up and told him, “You were awake when we brought you back, but still pretty out of it. You’ve been asleep for a good ten hours.”
The very sluggishness of his thoughts and body told Simon that something was very different about him now. Fundamentally different. Fundamentally wrong. Hugging himself, Simon demanded, “What did you do? What’s wrong with me?”
Wincing, Mal shifted so he could sit with his legs over the edge of the bed and explained, “You have a device in your head, Simon. It’s programmed to make you violent when something threatens River. It’s been there a long time, Simon. Ian couldn’t remove it without killing you.”
Simon shook his head, disbelieving. “You’re lying. I would know if there were something inside me!”
“I’m not lying,” Mal stated. “Wish I was.”
It was unbelievable. Utterly, incredibly unbelievable, but Simon believed it. Not just because it was Mal telling him so, though that was part of it. Also because he did feel so different. Thicker, somehow. As though everything were just slightly off-kilter. And if it had been there a long time, that meant his parents had known about it. Possibly instigated it. Just about sick to his stomach, Simon hugged himself tighter and whispered, “What is it?”
Mal stood and slowly walked over to him, one hand reaching out to lightly hold his arm. “Ian gave me some fancy name, but it comes down to mind-control. He said you were yourself, but under certain circumstances, that changed.”
“And those circumstances are when River’s in danger,” Simon repeated. Something occurred to him and he asked, “How did you even know to check? What happened?”
Mal’s grip tightened a bit as he told Simon, “You killed someone, Simon. Tore him apart. Took us overnight to clean up the infirmary.”
Simon lost it. His stomach heaved and he dropped to his knees, vomiting. Strong hands held him from behind, one rubbing his back as he emptied what little was in his stomach. When his body was through with him, Simon collapsed against Mal and was pulled carefully onto the other man’s lap. Curling against Mal’s chest, Simon rested completely on him and didn’t move for what seemed an eternity. He sat there, draped over Mal as the other soothed a hand over Simon’s stomach and tried not to think.
“Come on, Simon, let’s get you cleaned up,” Mal said at last. “We’ll talk about this when you’re feeling better.”
Even though Simon let Mal help him up and over to where the sink came out of the wall, Simon knew he didn’t want to talk about it. When Mal was finished wiping him down with a wet facecloth, Simon took hold of his hands and asked, “Will it happen again?”
Mal shook his head. “Ian made sure of it. He wants to see you once a year to make sure the programming sticks, but he’s confident.”
And if Mal trusted him, so did Simon. He knew just how short a list of names it was, those whom the Captain trusted. That his parents could sanction something like this had his stomach on shaky grounds again and he breathed deep to settle it as best he could. Mal guided him back to the bed and helped him down on it, neither seeming to trust his body all that much. Once he was down, Simon watched as Mal cleaned up the mess on the floor. It was all taken care of silently. He wasn’t surprised that Mal said nothing else as he returned to the sink to splash some water on his own face before rejoining Simon in bed.
Then he was surprised, because Mal pulled him in close again and said, “What was done to you…I got no words for the hate that brings up in me, Simon. Just know that no matter what, I ain’t never abandoning you. Never.”
Simon bit his lip to keep his emotions in check, unsure enough of himself to not want to lose control. It would be a long time before he stopped wondering if what he felt or did was his own, or the result of artificial programming. If he ever did. Pressing his lips to Mal’s bare chest, he finally whispered, “Thank you.”
It seemed like such a bad start, the beginnings of love from such awful violence. Then again, maybe that was just his fate. Those he loved, he did so with all his heart and soul and like Mal’s list of those he trusted, it was very short. There were, in fact, only two names upon it and one belonged to the man in whose arms he lay.
“Sleep, baobei. We’ll talk more later,” Mal ordered quietly.
Simon sighed deeply and closed his eyes, though he knew he wouldn’t be sleeping any time soon.