|The next time they met, it was in the town square.
When he walked into the square and saw Mal sitting there, sipping a drink, it almost looked orchestrated. It was so much like the last time they'd seen each other, after Simon and River had returned from arranging lodgings. Mal had been sitting on a rough bench, drinking, waiting to say goodbye.
Simon stood at the edge of the square for a moment, watching Mal's body language and admitting to himself how much he'd missed it. The scene was so well-remembered that at first Simon could almost see himself there, see his goodbye to Mal as River curiously looked at the surrounding low buildings.
It had been so long, but Simon still remembered the day he'd agreed it was time to leave Serenity, at least for a while. They had needed to break the string of sightings of the Tams and a Firefly. He remembered the care Mal had taken to find this planet, hunting down rumours of remote colonies; and finally one day loading River, Simon and an overly-generous amount of supplies onto a shuttle. Four days later, they'd landed here. The promise to return had been sincere, the goodbyes had been swift. Mal never had been one for lingering once he'd decided all was settled.
Snapping out of his memories, Simon resumed walking. It was only as he got closer that he saw how tired and careworn Mal now looked. Taking off his hat, despite the hot sun, he stopped a few feet from his former captain.
Swallowing a mouthful of his drink, Mal looked him up and down slowly, then said, "Told you I'd come back." His voice was colourless.
Simon smiled a little. "It's been almost six years."
"Didn't say when." Mal stood. "You look good. Different."
It was true. Years in the town, helping with the harvest when it was needed, had changed him. He didn't look much like he had when he first stepped onto Serenity. His hands were rougher, his skin darker from the sun."Thanks. I'm sorry that I can't really say the same to you."
Mal shrugged, his body sagging slightly. "Been sick."
"Are you hungry? I have food back at the house." Simon nodded his head in the direction of their land, ignoring the way the townspeople were watching their doctor talk with what appeared to be some scruffy stranger. "It's a bit of a walk, but you're welcome to come." He put his hat back on, grateful for the shade.
Slowly, they walked back to the house, taking in the warmth of the morning. It was a long, dull road to his home, the scenery familiar after years of making the journey. As they walked, the dust blew in their eyes. It had been too long since a decent rain, but River said it was coming.
Simon kept the speed leisurely in deference to the people he knew would be shadowing their steps. Mal paced him, hands in pockets. Half-way home, Mal started to talk. "How's your sister?"
"She's all right. She'll never be the same, I think I always knew that. She has good days, and not so good still. But she's better than when you last saw her. It took a while, but people decided they'd tolerate her differences if it meant having a doctor around."
Mal snorted. "I know the feeling." The tone was closer to what Simon remembered. "Remember having similar thoughts about the doctor too."
Simon shook his head lightly, bemused at how Mal still could find ways to insult him within a few minutes of contact. He brushed the snarkiness aside and continued talking about River. "She has friends now. She's good at predicting weather patterns; and she keeps half the machinery running. That makes her much loved by some around here."
"Took a hint from Kaylee, huh? That's good."
They were silent the rest of the way, eventually passing through the fence surrounding Simon and River's house and fields.
The house was small, a handful of rooms and fewer windows. It was sturdy though, with a wide porch on the front. River liked to sit there, chattering to her friends, or to herself. She was out right now, so when they arrived, Simon directed Mal to sit on River's favourite chair, while he went inside to get some drinks and food. When he returned, bread, cheese and beer on a tray, Mal was sitting, staring out at the fields.
"Nice place. Good location."
It was. Simon turned to watch the fields, the wheat gold and heavy-looking as it swayed in the breeze. It was almost time for the farmers to come and take in the harvest. He'd miss it once it was gone; he'd miss the familiar sounds it made, the way they soothed River. "Yes. We were lucky." He handed Mal a drink, balanced the tray of food on the porch railing, and sat down.
"You grow your own food?"
"Some. Mostly we trade. We lease the land out to farmers, and they pay with supplies. It's the same with most of the people I heal."
They were quiet for a long time. Drinking the beer, and the refills that Simon got, they watched the sun sink lower in the sky. Mal didn't touch the food.
It was mid-afternoon when Mal spoke again.
"I'm not sure. She'll be home soon."
That got him a surprised look. "You let her go off by herself? Don't you worry?"
Simon laughed lightly. "She grew up, she has friends. I can't watch her all the time. Anyway, I told you she's doing better. And you picked a good place to leave us. The Alliance never comes here, and even if they did show up, they wouldn't be welcome. We're not the only ones here who don't want to be found, Mal. There are no cortex links, and barely any off-world trade. You saw the way the people looked at you. We aren't used to strangers." He leaned back in his chair. "Right now, there are people out there, watching you. They followed us home."
Mal sat straighter.
"It's something we always do with strangers. They'll stay there until I give the signal that you're safe."
Face surprised, Mal turned to him. "You haven't yet?"
"No. Not yet," Simon paused. "It has been almost six years." He looked out at the fields remembering the time he'd done the surveillance, watching with a couple of men as a bounty hunter tracked Sara O'Connor and her family. The 'hunter hadn't made it very far. Simon wondered where he'd been buried, sometimes.
Mal was still staring at him, incredulous. As he had done before with a difficult topic, Simon turned the conversation back to River. "I realised a couple of years in that I could tie myself up in knots worrying about River, or I could trust the people around me."
Mal nodded, still looking uneasy.
"So. Where are the others?"
There was a long silence, then, "Jayne got himself killed almost a year back. Shot up, couldn't do nothing for him."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Funny thing: got ourselves drunk one time, a while after we dropped you here. He got all strange. Said he missed your prissy ways. Said it weren't fun no more, no one left to bother."
The words made Simon smile sadly. He could imagine Jayne saying something like that, maudlin in his cups. "How did it happen?"
"Ain't interesting. Just a stupid mistake in a job that screwed us. He died in the infirmary. Said he always knew it was a mistake to let you go."
The words were a dig at Simon. He doubted Jayne had said such a thing -- the mercenary had always been the one who'd argued the hardest that the Alliance wouldn't stop coming until River and Simon were gone. The words are Mal's regret, and his attempt to ignore that it was he who had made the final decision. "The others?"
"Shepherd found himself a flock, left almost four years back. Inara got tired of me, said she couldn't be who I wanted, and that I was holding her back. She left. Ain't heard from her since. Kaylee's good. Little quieter maybe. Wash and Zoe are good too." He rubs his eyes.
When he looks back up, he's squinting. "Don't think they'll be sticking around much longer. We got a good job a couple of months ago, hauled in some decent coin. They're talking about starting a life of their own; figure they've saved enough to set themselves up independently on some trade planet."
Mal didn't look too upset about the prospect of losing Zoe and Wash, and it made Simon wonder what had happened to create such a rift.
"Kaylee'll go with them."
Simon raised an eyebrow in surprise. "She won't."
"She will if I tell her."
Always so stubborn. He now doubted that there was a rift between Zoe, Wash and Mal, at least not one that wasn't of Mal's making. Instead, Simon suspected Mal was isolating himself, and he wondered why. "Where are they now? Where did you land Serenity?"
As he asked, he stood and walked to the steps leading down from the porch. Leaning against the post holding up the roof, he crossed his arms. It was the signal, and he held it until he saw a flash of light; the acknowledgement of sun glinting off binoculars. The men or women out there would turn and go home. He turned back to Mal when the other man started talking.
"Didn't land her. Took a shuttle. The rest are off finishing a job. It's the first time we've been even close to this place. First time we've been free enough of Alliance hassles. Thought I'd come down and see how you held up."
There was no mention of taking Simon and River back to Serenity, nor would there be. "We have a life here. It was difficult at first, and it still is sometimes, but it has its good points. River's happy."
Mal nodded and stretched a little, grimacing at the movement. For the first time, Simon realised that Mal's shoulder was hurting him. It was something he should have seen right away. "You're hurt."
"Nah. Nothing recent."
"Yes. Come inside, I'll take a look. There's no point to being in pain." At first it looked like he'd have to force Mal inside, but instead, Mal stood and preceded him into the house. "I have an examining room to your left."
Inside, Mal looked around the wood-panelled room. "Ain't much."
"No. But I have some good equipment. Not as great as on Serenity, but it's better than what they had here before. It was kind of you to let us take what we did." It was also lucky that several years ago, Simon got his hands on some more supplies from a trader to took the time to seek the colony out Pulling on some gloves, he turned to Mal. "Take off your shirt and lie down, please."
It was a relief that Mal did as he said with a minimum of grumbling. "Tell me what happened." The wound in Mal's shoulder looked awful. It was oozing and clearly not healing properly. When he stepped closer, he could smell infection.
"Got shot. Thing hasn't been getting much better."
"Is the bullet out?" He probed the edges of the wound, the skin red but not quite bordering on necrotic. Most likely, the bullet had been coated with some kind of poison, hindering the healing process.
Wincing, Mal grated out, "Yeah."
Well, that was something at least. "How long has it been?"
Internally, Simon sighed. "Couldn't you get to a doctor?"
"Got here, didn't I?"
The belligerence in Mal's voice made Simon want to hit him, but the impulse faded when he looked down at the wound again. "What have you tried?"
"Been shot before, I figured it'd heal if I kept it clean. It didn't work out that way."
Simon closed his eyes briefly. The news was both frustrating and relief. He'd wondered if Mal had some drug-resistant infection. As it was, Simon probably still had the right treatment. Mal was just lucky there hadn't been any serious epidemics in the past six years.
He cleaned the wound thoroughly and prepared the syringes, saying, "All right. I'm going to give you a couple of shots. One is a painkiller, and it will make you tired. Don't argue, you need the sleep. The other one should start fighting the infection. I'll know within a day if it's working." He injected the painkiller swiftly, and followed it with the next shot. He was about to suggest Mal move to his room, but was distracted by the clatter of the door opening and the sound of feet running into the house.
River always knocked first when the examining room door was closed. She did so now, but ducked her head in right away. "Simon?" Sorry it took so long, I was on the far side, out at the Holden stead. Who's here?"
She looked a little wild and was breathing fast. She had probably run all the way home once she'd heard the news that all was safe.
Simon stepped away, and River's eyes found Mal, still on the examining table. "Oh. Oh!" She turned to Simon, eyes wide. "He took me out of the box! And then I was in another one, but it was all curvy! I remember!" Her hands flapped in excitement.
Simon nodded. River's memories of Serenity were almost always muddled. In some ways, he thought it was a good thing. "Yes. This is Captain Reynolds."
Pushing himself up a little, Mal said, "Hi, River. You look good." His words blended together a little as the painkiller started to work.
"Hello." Her voice sounded tentative, but Simon was glad to note, not scared.
The examination table wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep, and if Mal was going to be moved, it would have to be soon. "River? Can you go set up my bed? The captain is going to need to sleep there for a little while."
She nodded, her eyes still a little wide, then left the room.
Mal was fading fast, but he did his best to help Simon move him. "She's real pretty."
"Yes." River was beautiful, she always had been.
"Don't have to put me in your bed." They were taking small steps, and Simon was glad for the size of the house. His bed wasn't so far away.
"I want to." They stepped into his room, and River had pulled the covers back. She was hovering in a corner, chewing at her hair. It was an old habit, one she only started when she was feeling uncertain. Simon wasn't at all happy to see it, but they'd deal with it later. "River, would you mind making me some tea?" The actions would help settle her.
He got Mal down onto the bed, pausing to pull off his boots and pants before pulling up the covers. Mal smiled up at him, an expression that looked like he was hurting and relieved; regretful and hopeful. "Always wanted to be in your bed."
A hand stroked across Simon's fingers, and he smiled down. "I'd wondered." He brushed Mal's hair out of his eyes. The man needed a haircut. "Get some sleep." Standing, he walked out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
The kitchen was a large room, doubling as a place to gather. It was the brightest room in the house, and even as the sun set, there was still light. Simon placed the lanterns out anyway. As he busied himself with lighting them, River stood at the stove, her hands clenched tightly as she watched the pot.
"I don't want to go back." She didn't turn from the stove.
"I know." River loved the town, the outdoors.
"He wants us to go back. He misses you."
"He didn't think he would."
Simon moved towards his sister, and reached out to unwrap her fists. There were small nail marks in her skin, but they'd go away. "We're not going to leave, River. This is home now." It didn't matter how dull the town could be, how routine their lives were. They'd stay.
She didn't turn to him. "I remember homes. Pretty sparkles, daddy swinging me high in the air, saying I'm so smart. Everything is so high, so high up. And then higher, a new home, all dark with secret holes. Secrets. Lying and betraying and wanting and hair everywhere. Pretty friend, her smile like the best berries."
Simon smiled at the description of Kaylee. He wished Mal had brought her along.
"They were nice. I liked those homes. I like this one the best though. I want to stay, Simon."
He squeezed the hand he was still holding. "I know."
It was far from the life he had envisioned for himself. Years ago, if he'd pictured himself in this place, he would have been disgusted. The rough woodwork of their home, even with the improvements they'd made over the years; the primitive conditions under which he worked; a sister who was this side of crazy too often, despite his best efforts: they would have been the ultimate nightmare.
The first few years, he thought he might go insane from the boredom. The town hadn't offered much of a challenge, intellectually, and the injuries he'd treated were generally mundane and straight-forward. He'd thought River would be even unhappier, but she'd found things to amuse herself, and being around the people had been a challenge in itself.
For his part, Simon had learned about farming, what little he needed to know, and tried not to show his boredom. He wasn't sure when he stopped feeling constrained by the town, and started to feel more at home. It was still more dull than not, but Simon had some friends, and people relied on him. The boredom was an acceptable trade-off for relative safety. Although he was surprised to realise it, the idea of returning to Serenity was unappealing, no matter how much he once yearned for the ship to come back.
It didn't matter. River was right: Mal wanted Simon to come back to the ship. But he hadn't come to gather them up, that was clear enough.
Even from their brief contact, it wasn't hard to see that Mal was shedding his friends and responsibilities. It had been a long time coming. Simon remembered the early signs, the way Mal started alienating Zoe and Wash, a purposeful thing. Inara had always been an easier target, her place in Mal's heart less assured, less cemented by a shared history.
He remembered Mal once talking about freedom and Serenity, how he didn't want anyone telling him what to do. Simon wondered if at that point Mal had already started realising that Serenity offered only a partial freedom; that he would never fully be free from the Alliance, raiders, Reavers and betrayals.
No one truly argued against the wisdom of Simon and River leaving. Since Ariel, they'd had one too many close brushes with the Alliance, and they had needed to break the trail for a while. Simon could see now that they had also been the first layer Mal released, part of a process of trying to get back the freedom he'd dreamed of having.
Letting go of River's hand, Simon took the kettle off the stove. He made some tea as River put together a cold meal. They ate in silence, but it was an easy silence.
After, as they cleared the table, River said, "It'll rain soon."
Later, he took a book and a lantern, and went to sit in his room. He alternately read and dozed while he waited. Simon had grown used to waiting. He was half-way though a chapter when Mal woke up.
"How long did you wait?" The question startled him from his book. Even though Simon was tired, he knew Mal wasn't talking about tonight.
"About a year. I kept a couple of rooms in the town, telling myself you'd be back. It took a while to sink in. I treated people. They were cool towards us, then a little kinder. One day, I heard about some land that had become available." He smiled at the memory, the sly way one of the town councillors had just dropped the information during a routine exam. It had been their first real invitation to stay on more permanently. "I guess I figured you weren't coming back, and River needed some more space."
He didn't say that really, he never stopped waiting. They had a life here, they'd put down roots in a way Simon never imagined possible. But he had always felt disconnected; he had been waiting, even if it had become muted with time.
Setting his book aside, he stood and moved to the bed. Reaching down, he took Mal's pulse. "How are you feeling?"
Mal would say that if his leg had just been shot off. "Anyway, so it turned out that I had enough money left to buy it. I built the house, with a lot of help from the townspeople. River designed it."
Mal's eyebrows lifted, and it made Simon laugh. "Yeah. She was still so strange back then, nothing like she is now. You should have seen the first couple of drafts."
They laughed together as Simon offered some details. He kept talking until Mal fell back asleep.
Mal slept on and off for much of the next two days, only waking for short intervals.
True to River's word, it rained on the second day, at first coming down in heavy sheets, hard enough that Simon feared the crops would be washed away. But the rains slowed after a short time, and his worries were unfounded. By the third day of Mal's stay it was clear outside, and Simon opened the small window in his bedroom before he examined Mal's injury.
The wound was better, the smell gone and the skin slowly knitting together. Only a few more shots would be necessary. He wasn't surprised when Mal said he was leaving, insisting that Simon pack up the required drugs.
Quietly, Simon nodded and retreated to his examination room. Carefully, he put drugs and syringes together in a small package. When he returned to his bedroom, Mal was dressed and standing. He still needed that haircut.
Handing over the package, Simon said, "You could come back." He'd like that. Mal had always been tight-lipped about his past, but Zoe had dropped hints here and there, enough that Simon knew Mal had a ranch background. He could imagine Mal working the fields, the way maybe he had growing up on Shadow. Maybe he'd like to get cattle too, Simon could see that. There was certainly enough land. Or maybe Mal never wanted to run cattle again.
Simon can imagine Mal getting involved in town politics and kicking up trouble with some of the old ones who were hidebound and wary. Or Mal could help organise against the periodic raids by hill bandits.
No matter what Mal might want to do, it was easy for Simon to imagine a long day of making unremarkable rounds to the far-out homesteads, coming home to Mal sweating in the fields. Simon had had suitors, both men and women, since they settled. He had never been able to imagine them in his home or his fields.
"You can't stay on Serenity forever."
Mal looked more like his old self, cocky and in control. "I could."
"Without a mechanic or a pilot?"
"I can hire new people."
Simon tried to imagine Serenity full of different people, unlikely to be as interesting or loyal. "I suppose." He looked around his bedroom, the large bed and half-empty shelves. "Or you could come back. Stay here."
Mal gripped the package of medicine more tightly. "Thanks for the help."
His tone was final, and Simon squashed his disappointment, nodding quickly. "I'll walk you back to the shuttle." They walked out of the room, Simon expecting to find River. She wasn't anywhere he could see though, and he suspected that she was in one of her hiding places. The last few days had been difficult for her, and Simon would have to do some damage control later today.
The walk back to the town square was quiet, quieter than their first walk a few days ago. On the way, Simon realised that finally, he had stopped waiting. He said as much to Mal, then sighed at the grunt that came in reply.
It was late afternoon when they stopped in the town square, Mal claiming he'd hidden the shuttle well and that there was no need for Simon to come any further. They were both standing in the bright post-rain sunshine. It highlighted the lines on Mal's face but hid the grey in his hair. Simon didn't want to stop looking; he wanted the picture fixed in his mind.
It didn't immediately register that Mal was staring at him strangely. "I've got things to clean up."
Simon nodded, not really listening.
"Never did give Wash and Zoe a wedding present. Could give them Serenity, I guess. Let 'em use their money for other things than buying a ship."
Again, Simon nodded automatically when the words stopped, wondering what Mal would look like after a few months working the fields. He thought about the hue Mal's skin might take, and how he'd never know it beyond his imagination.
Mal was still talking, something about loose ends. Simon was thinking about how they first met, and the number of times Mal hit him in the period of a few days. He smiled. If he'd met himself then, he'd have been likely to hit him too.
It was the first time since they met in the town square that he can remember Mal using his name.
"It'll take six months. No longer."
For a moment, Simon thought he was remembering the conversation from when they first landed here. He replied with the words he remembered so clearly, even now. "Be careful." A pause, "I don't blame you for this. It has to be done. Tell Kaylee not to worry." His voice shook, just a little.
He focussed back on the present. They watched each other for a few moments, then Mal smiled. "You're skirting the edge, Doctor. Hope your sister's crazy didn't move from her to you." Reaching out, he patted Simon's shoulder. "Be back in a few months. You'd best spend the time finding me something to do in this here town. I get real cranky when I'm bored."
Wordless with surprise, Simon watched as Mal turned around and walked away. By the time Mal left the square, Simon was almost smiling.
Spoilers: Our Mrs.Reynolds, Ariel, Serenity.
Disclaimers: Not my characters
Summary: Future fic. Simon has settled, Mal hasn't.
Notes: Huge thanks to Unovis for pointing out plot holes and weak points.