Inara heard them talking even before she rounded the corner.
“Stop pacin’, Doc,” Mal said from the couch, where he sat with a cup of coffee in his hand, the scent filling the room. One of his feet tapped against the table. “You’re gonna wear a hole in the hull.”
“I’m not pacing,” Simon said. “I’m...doing very short laps.”
Inara descended the stairs. “River will be fine,” she said. “She needed to get out. People are less likely to recognize her if she’s with Zoe. They’re not just looking for her; they’re looking for you, too.”
“ Alliance don’t so much come to Prospero, anyway,” Mal said. “They got a couple of lawmen, but nothin’ you need to be so worried about.”
“Please, Simon, sit down,” Inara said, a practiced warmth in her voice. “Let me make you some tea.”
As Simon sat down, Mal rose. “I need to check on some...cargo. In the cargo bay. Where the cargo is.” Like a shot, he was gone up the steps, leaving only the scent of strongly brewed coffee behind.
Inara shook her head slightly as she took down a teapot. The truce she’d reached with Mal since she’d told him she would leave felt less like peace and more like a series of strategic retreats on his part. She put the kettle on to boil and drifted over to sit next to Simon. He was perching on the edge of the couch, ready to spring up and begin pacing again. Inara covered her hand with his.
“Your sister is a big responsibility,” Inara said. “You spend a great deal of time worrying about her, and that’s understandable. But…” Inara began gently, almost imperceptibly, massaging Simon’s hand. He wouldn’t be amenable to overt methods of relaxation, but if she could start on a subliminal level, perhaps she could get him to let go, even a millimeter. As it was, his anxiety was contagious; she could feel her foot aching to tap with nervous energy, just as Mal’s had been.
She continued speaking, lowering her voice and taking on a more lulling tone. “Doctor Tam, if you don’t release some of this tension, you won’t be any good to your sister or yourself. You aren’t the only one standing guard over her. We –” she laughed “– well, perhaps except for Jayne, we are all willing to take a little of that burden from you.”
Simon began to relax just a little bit, his spine inching closer and closer to the seat back. “I can’t – I feel that I always have to be ready when she’s out without me, in case something happens to her. I have to keep her safe.”
“But you’re not the only one who can keep her safe,” Inara said. “In fact, someone like Zoe is better equipped than you are to keep her safe in a place like this. She’s had training. She’s got experience. And she doesn’t…”
“Stand out?” Simon gave her a half-smile. “I’m aware that even now, with…” he gestured at his clothes, the bulky sweater a hand-me-down from Jayne, the worn black cotton pants also a little too big, bought at some second-hand clothing store on some farming world, “I don’t quite blend in.”
Inara smiled, turned her head at the precise angle she’d been taught to show warmth, caring and shared amusement, and said, “No, Simon. I’m afraid no matter how you dress, you’ll always be a gentleman.”
“But on a world like this, you can still spend time in town without being concerned about harassment. How do you manage it?” Despite being comparatively relaxed, Simon’s tone was still intense. The priestess-in-training in her immediately thought, If we could just train him how to interact with people, he has such a way of focusing his full attention on a person, such a beauty, a rarity like a Doctor-Companion would be an honor to House Madrassa –
She cut those thoughts off. She was no longer part of the house, and even if she were, House Madrassa would never allow him to take care of his sister.
Some of their lessons, however – if he could just learn those things…
You’re betraying the House!
– The simple lessons will help him get by out here.
You’re revealing trade secrets!
– In his position, he’s not likely to talk to anyone with influence, even if he did make the connection.
Inara took a deep breath, and stilled her rebellious mind. There was nothing she would tell him that was dangerous to the Guild; it would simply help him survive in the Black. She smiled.
“Because I’m a Companion, people are unlikely to touch me; they know they’d have to face the Guild if they did. But there are also small things, ways to interact with people to make them more comfortable, and make yourself stand out less. For instance–”
She was interrupted by the sound of pounding footsteps coming up the stairs from the cargo bay. Kaylee burst into the kitchen, with Mal at her heels. Her face was red. Simon sat up immediately; Inara could see the worry creasing his eyes as he turned to look at them.
“Someone’s…” Kaylee gasped out. “Someone’s taken River and Zoe.”
Inara found herself on her feet. Simon was standing, too, and moving toward Mal. “Did anyone see –”
“Book and Jayne’ve got ‘im,” Kaylee said, cutting Simon off. “They’ve got one of the guys that grabbed ‘em. They’re bringin’ him back here now.”
Simon began climbing up the stairs, heading toward the cargo bay. Mal walked next to him, with Inara right at their heels, listening. “We’re gonna get them both back,” Mal said. “Once we find out where they took ‘em, we’ll figure out a plan.” Simon’s back was straight and tense.
As they entered the cargo bay, Book and Jayne were coming up the ramp. Jayne had a man thrown over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “We tried to be as quick as possible,” Book said.
“We was trying to come over here all subtle-like,” Jayne added. He punched the man he carried, apparently unconscious, in the thigh. “My manner didn’t seem to encourage him to talk none. Book hit him over the head; figured we’d take him back here an’ try a little harder.”
Mal responded, “Well, let’s –”
“Bring him to the infirmary,” Simon said, his voice cold, calm, and a little distant. “I’d like to question him, if you don’t mind.”
Mal blinked for a moment, then recovered. “Jayne, why don’t you bring that fella into the infirmary, and then stay a spell and help Simon out?”
“My pleasure,” Jayne said, an ugly grin on his face.
“Just make sure you make it quick,” Mal said. As Jayne moved to follow the doctor, Mal turned to Book. “We’re still missing Wash, and we’re going to need him here quick if we’re gonna get the jump on these guys.”
“Any idea where I can find him?” Book asked.
“Look down at the jewelry stores,” Kaylee said. Inara jumped – Kaylee was standing at Inara’s elbow, and she hadn’t even heard the engineer come up the stairs. Kaylee continued, “He was getting a ring for her. For their anniversary.”
Mal sighed and muttered something foul in Chinese under his breath. Book said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” and ran down the ramp toward town.
Mal led Inara and Kaylee back to the kitchen. “Kaylee, what happened back there?” he asked.
Inara put more water in the teapot as Mal and Kaylee leaned against the table. There wasn’t much she could do to be useful at this point, but tea was never a bad idea.
“I was lookin’ to get a new hex wrench set, ’cause the one I got is all bent and beat. Took a shortcut down the alley an’ saw Zoe fightin’ with a few guys. Two of ’em had grabbed River and were holdin’ her, draggin’ her off. Ran out an’ got Jayne and Book from the grocery store, an’ when we got back the guys were takin’ off.” Kaylee’s eyes were wide. She looked scared. “It looked like they’d knocked Zoe out. They were draggin’ her with. Anyway, Jayne and Book managed to grab one of the guys, and I came back to tell you what happened.”
Inara came over to put an arm around Kaylee’s shoulder. “We’ll find them, Kaylee. Don’t worry.”
“Jayne’ll get some information from him,” Mal said. “He’s got a few ways of persuadin’ a man.”
Kaylee shuddered a little. “I’m gonna go down, get the engines prepped, in case we need to leave quick,” she said, and left the kitchen.
Mal sat down on the couch, in the same spot where Simon had been sitting just a second ago. He leaned back and exhaled, running one hand over his face. “Never thought this would be a place friendly to Alliance types.”
“Do you think it was a good idea to let the young doctor go with Jayne?” Inara said, dimly realizing that she was alone with Mal for the first time in weeks. She sat down next to him, so close that she could feel the heat of his body.
“Boy’s gonna have quite a grudge against a guy who tried to take his sister,” Mal told her. “’Sides, Jayne might teach him something.”
They heard a clatter of footsteps coming down the hall. Jayne ran down the stairs into the kitchen, and vomited messily into the sink. Inara and Mal looked at each other, then back at Jayne.
“Uh, Jayne, you find out anythin’?” Mal asked.
“We found out quite a bit,” said a voice from the stairwell. They turned to see Simon coming down the steps. His face was serious, but he had lost some of the tension he’d had just a few minutes ago. “They weren’t after River; I don’t think they even know who she was.” He looked at Jayne for a minute, and seemed almost amused at the big man’s obvious discomfort. “They were both taken by an old friend.”
“Niska,” Mal said.
Simon nodded. “I’ve got some coordinates. It looks like they’re taking them off planet.”
Wash and Book came in behind Simon. “Mal, I’m ready to leave when you are,” Wash said.
“Simon, go with him and give him the coordinates. We’ll figure out a plan while we’re running,” Mal said. Simon climbed the stairs, following Wash up the stairs toward the bridge. “Jayne, you wanna help me get our guest locked up in the passenger dorm?”
Jayne grunted, running water to rinse out the sink and wiping off his mouth. “I ain’t goin’ back in there, Mal.” He said it with the same tone he normally reserved for Reavers.
Mal shook his head. “Book, you come with me.” He headed toward the infirmary. Inara was about to follow, but the teakettle shrieked. She turned and took it off the stove, pouring some water into a cup and handing it to Jayne.
His hands were shaking, just a little. Few people would have noticed it. Inara felt an ache in her stomach. Jayne took the teacup. “Girl’s not the only one whose engine is vapor-locked. Crazy runs in the family,” he mumbled. His eyes were focused on the teacup. Inara patted his hand, absently, and then rushed to the infirmary.
Mal and Book were crouched over the man huddled in the corner. She couldn’t see any blood, but caught the faint coppery scent, and heard him sobbing, moaning inarticulately. His eyes were glassy.
Mal looked over his shoulder, out the door, toward the bridge. She imagined the bleak look on his face was the same one he’d worn during the war, when he knew he’d sent one of his shoulders out to die. His eyes lit on Inara. “Boy’s got effective methods,” he said shortly. “You wanna…”
“Yes,” she said. She went up the stairs to find Simon.
She heard Kaylee talking to him before she saw them. “Captain’s gonna find a way to get ‘em back. She’s gonna be OK.”
“I’m not worried.” Simon sounded a little distant, like he was thinking of something else. “I’m not…Kaylee, it’s going to be fine.”
She saw him in the corridor, standing near the engine room with Kaylee. She was holding his hands; he was looking down at her as if she was someone completely unfamiliar. For a moment, Inara was eerily reminded of his sister, in her more quiet moments.
“Kaylee,” Inara said, a little more harshly than she intended. Both Kaylee and Simon turned to look at her. “We’re taking off in a minute. Wash is going to need you in the engine room.”
Kaylee smiled at Simon apologetically. “Later,” she said, and squeezed his arm, slipping away into the engine room.
Simon turned to head down the steps toward the infirmary. Inara caught his arm. “Why don’t you come with me, instead?” she said.
“Keeping me out from underfoot?” he asked. Instead of his usual snarkiness, he sounded absentminded, as if the sarcastic comment was by reflex.
She began heading up the stairs; he followed. “Right now, I don’t think either of us should be alone with our worries,” Inara said. “The captain will com us when he’s got a plan. Until then, we just need to wait.”
Her shuttle was still decorated, still comfortable; until they reached a place where she could leave the ship she saw no need to strip it down to the utilitarian bulkheads. Her tea kettle, black and squat and stone, sat on the side table. She pressed a button on the heater beneath it to warm the water. When all else fails, serve tea was an old Companion maxim. It was a way to keep busy, to give the pretense that something was being done. Simon sat on the couch, staring at his hands folded in his lap.
“You were very quick about getting information from that man,” Inara said.
“One of the requirements at Medacad is an ethics class. We debate various problems in medical ethics, issues such as whether one should prolong a patient’s life if they are in pain and terminally ill, or the morality of terminating a pregnancy if the mother’s life is in danger.” He looked up at her for a moment, blue eyes flashing between his lashes. Inara stayed silent, letting him continue.
Simon picked up a small sculpture from her table, a round piece of red shoushan stone carved with indents and lines, selected by Inara as much for its texture as for its appearance. “I took the class just after some of the news about what was done to get information from the Independents at Kilimanjaro Prison came out.” He glanced up at her again.
She nodded. “I remember.” It had been a topic of debate for months, all over the Core. Was the knowledge gained worth the moral stigma of torture? The public seemed to have ended the debate in a draw; there was no consensus.
“There was a rumor at Medacad that some of the medical corps were involved in the torture at Kilimanjaro.” In the background, she could hear the roar of Serenity’s engines. Even in this time of stress, Wash’s hand was sure; there wasn’t even a jolt as they left the ground.
Simon’s voice changed a little, became more pompous. “Proposed: in times of war, it is ethical for a doctor to perform ‘moderate physical pressure’ to obtain crucial information.” He turned the sculpture over in his hands, running his fingers along the grooves as if there was a message hidden in the carvings. “I took the ‘moral’ side of the debate. I argued against the statement.” He turned the sculpture around and around in his hands as he talked, looking at it. “I said it wasn’t just a matter of ethics. Medical research suggests that torture is ineffective after the first ten minutes,” he said. His voice still had that oddly distant tone, as if most of his mind was elsewhere. “After that, any information that’s extracted is likely to be wrong; the person will say anything, make up anything, just to make the torment stop. I argued that under those circumstances, torture wasn’t just immoral. It was counterproductive.”
Inara put a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “Oh. Simon.”
“My opponent argued that doctors, more than anyone else, know how to inflict the most pain with the least damage. He said we are uniquely qualified to apply that sort of pressure. The better the doctor, the more quickly information could be extracted.” Simon shrugged. “He won the debate.”
Simon held the stone in his right hand for a moment, weighing it, and then looked around the room. She saw his shoulders tense for a moment, and thought he was going to throw the stone against the wall. Then they relaxed, and he began turning it in his hands again. He looked up at her, the ghost of a smile just touching his lips. “I knew I had to make those first ten minutes count. And I am a very good doctor.”
Inara put one hand gently on his wrist, letting her fingers glide down to his hand in a soothing gesture. “Please – we all needed that information. You did a great deal to rescue your sister, and Zoe, with that act. I’m sorry that it was so terrible for you.”
Simon whispered. She didn’t quite hear. “What did you say?”
“It wasn’t terrible,” he said, louder now. “It didn’t bother me. Not even a little.” He laughed, a short, desolate laugh. “In fact, I kind of –” He looked up at her. Suddenly, the walls of her shuttle felt uncomfortably thin, the cold of space filling her. He shook his head, and placed the sculpture back on the table. “Yet another thing to add to my criminal resume. Dr. Simon Tam, ship’s doctor, master thief and torturer for hire.” He didn’t sound bitter, just resigned. He began to stand up.
Inara stood up, reached out and took his hand. “Simon, please. I think you need to talk about this.”
“A pleasant little torturer-to-torturer conversation?” Simon asked.
“What?” Inara asked, pulling back.
“You aren’t trying to get important information from Mal, so I assume you must do it for your own enjoyment.” Every word cut, surgical and neat. “Do they have debates about torture in the Companion houses, too? Resolved: A Companion should control the captain who loves her with repeated empty threats to leave.”
“Loves – oh, Simon. You know better…”
“I’ve watched both of you. I heard what you said to him at Nandi’s. I see the way you come close to him and then push him away.” He took a step toward her; she backed away, unconsciously pulling her robe more tightly around her body. “You told him you were leaving, but you haven’t gone. You keep taking away his hope, but you never quite make it final. What are you getting out of it, Inara?”
She couldn’t respond to him. She just stared, her mouth slightly open. He gave her a little smile, the sort she’d never thought to see him wear.
“Thank you for the tea,” he said, walking out her door.
Inara turned to pour herself a cup of tea, stilling the shaking in her hand with conscious effort.
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