Bedside Manner

By Juli

December 2002

Mal had the feeling that he'd never again tease his lover about the paleness of his skin.

The captain figured that Simon hadn't seen much sun even before becoming an Alliance fugitive. No doubt there was some rule that the rich had to have milky white skin to set them off from the more weathered appearance of folk that put in an honest day's work. Knowing Simon, though, he probably hadn't paid much attention to that. No, Simon's passion for his work as a healer no doubt had led to long hours ensconced in that hospital of his. Then, of course, once he'd sprung his sister from that Alliance lab, life as a fugitive hadn't given him much chance to sun himself.

Truth be told, even as he'd given the younger man a hard time about the whiteness of his skin, Mal had reveled in it. He'd never tire of running his work-roughened hands along the velvety smoothness of Simon's hip, chuckling when the caress made his lover gasp and shiver. The contrast between Simon's dark hair and fair complexion had been another wonder... and not just on his face either.

Seeing that same skin flushed with fever for the last week had been a slice of hell that Mal Reynolds did not want to revisit. Ever. The captain descended the ladder that led down to the darkened quarters he now shared with Simon, a tray carefully balanced on one hip. He set his burden down and moved to the bed, cautiously reaching over to brush the hair on Simon's forehead aside. In a gesture that had become as automatic as breathing, he carefully stroked the now thankfully pale skin of the younger man's cheek in an assessment of his temperature. It was cool. Relieved, Mal pressed a gentle kiss onto his lover's lips, causing the other man to stir.

Mal sat on the edge of the mattress and watched as bleary eyes opened, grateful to see that Simon was not only awake, but that there was awareness in his expression. "Mal?"

"Welcome back," Mal said with a encouraging smile, "How you feelin'?"

Simon answered slowly, his brain still not working at its normal pace. "Tired." Then, with a slight frown, "Thirsty."

The captain grabbed a glass from the tray and steadied it while Simon greedily gulped the water it contained. Since his fever broke, they'd been waking him up regularly to make sure he got liquids and to take care of other necessary functions, but this was the first that the doctor had been at all aware of what they'd been doing.

"Easy there," Mal said, taking the glass away when Simon continued to drink at a fast pace. The younger man immediately grabbed for it and shot the captain a hurt look when Mal held the glass out of reach. "Don't look at me like that. You're the doc, you know what happens when a body that hadn't had enough for a while suddenly gets too much."

Simon sighed in resignation and nestled back against the pillows. "How long?"

Mal set the glass back on the tray and turned back to his lover. "Since you first got sick, couple weeks. Since you've been really sick, 'bout a week. Fever finally broke day or two back."

His lover sighed and nodded. "I guess you were right, Rim Rot's nothing to mess around with. The Alliance makes sure its doctors get every conceivable inoculation - I wonder why I missed this one."

"Rim Rot's not 'xactly the scourge of the Alliance," Mal answered bitterly. "It's a frontier disease, which means it don't get quite the attention that more civilized sicknesses do. They probably just didn't bother."

"I guess that makes sense," Simon said reluctantly, eyes closed as he leaned his head back against the pillows. "I was on a Core planet, if it's a malady from the outer worlds, there would have been no call to immunize for it. River and I...." The doctor's voice broke off as he remembered his responsibility to his sister. "River!"

Simon attempted to launch himself out of the bed, but was unsuccessful. The combination of his body's weakness and the layers of blankets that Mal had piled on top of him conspired against the currently frail man. Instead of bounding to his feet, Simon became entangled in the bed covers and ended up in an abrupt, unhappy pile on the floor.

"Whoa there," Mal chided him even as he bent to assist. "Where do you think you're goin'?"

"River," Simon gasped. "If I got sick, maybe she did too."

The captain pulled Simon to his feet and pushed him back down on the bed. "Your sister is fine. Didn't get as much as a sniffle. Those bastards might have cut her brain open, but her immune system is just fine." Simon went limp with relief, making it easier for Mal to tug the covers back over him. "Inara and Kaylee are lookin' out for her. She stuck pretty close while you were so sick but they're coddlin' the heck out of her now." Mal's scowl was an indication that he thought that River wasn't the only Tam that needed coddling, but already Simon wasn't exactly cooperating.

Having his lover in his arms - even for that brief moment - would have been a wonderful feeling, if it hadn't been for the fact that Simon's body felt much thinner than it should. The illness had melted pounds off the younger man's slim frame, flesh that Simon couldn't afford to lose. Flesh that was, in Mal's point of view, much too precious to take chances with.

"Now listen up," he said, worry making his voice harsh. "You are going to be the model patient while you recover. That means stayin' in bed and lettin' other folks take care of your sister for a while." When Simon opened his mouth to protest, Mal grabbed his chin with a gentle yet firm grip. "No. You are going to let us take care of you and that's a fact." The captain let go of his lover and sat back, his glare continuing to emphasis his point.

Subdued, Simon looked back at him. "You were really worried, weren't you?" Mal gave an awkward nod of his head, not trusting himself to talk. "You were really worried," Simon repeated, his voice full of the wonder of a child on Christmas morning.

Discomfited by the emotion, Mal reached for the tray again, unceremoniously placing it in his patient's lap. "And you're gonna start by eatin'. Need to keep you're strength up."

Simon looked at the tray askance. Specifically, he eyed the bowl on it warily before picking up the spoon and swirling its questionable contents. "Are you sure you want me to get better? 'Cause this looks like it might poison me."

"Very funny. Eat."

The doctor sighed and scooped up some of the reconstituted protein mush and lifted it towards his face. Simon was dismayed to see his hand trembling so hard that feeding himself would be difficult and he immediately gave up. "I don't think so," he said firmly, looking at his lover with brittle rebelliousness.

Sometimes Simon Tam all but exuded arrogance and Mal had been put off by that at first. Irritated by the doctor's sharp and often sarcastic comments, it took the captain a while to realize that it was a finely tuned defense mechanism. Once he'd learned to look past it, he saw the intelligent young man that was struggling to find his way in a situation totally outside his control or experience. Mal did the same now, realizing that Simon's stubbornness had more to do with embarrassment over his weakness than it did any disinclination to cooperate.

Taking the spoon, the captain took over. "Okay, open wide."

Simon's expression turned incredulous. "You have got to be kidd-....umph...."

Mal had taken advantage of his lover's protest, filling the open mouth with mush. Simon was tempted to spit it out at him but one look in Mal's eyes told him that was a really bad idea. That particular expression made it clear why even a hardass like Jayne Cobb was careful not to cross Mal Reynolds. He swallowed the unappealing mouthful and grimaced. "Jayne's right, that stuff does taste like crotch."

"Could be worse," Mal said mildly as he offered the younger man another spoonful. "It could taste like Jayne's crotch."

Simon snorted and started coughing. When he was in control of himself again, he glared at the captain. "Please, not while I'm eating."

Mal plopped another spoonful into Simon's mouth, grinning at his patient while he chewed and scowled. "Oh, Jayne's not so bad. When he found out you weren't contagious anymore, he even offered to give you a sponge bath."

This time, Simon almost gagged. "Tell me you said no." His eyes pleaded with Mal as the older man fed him another dollop.

"Of course I did," Mal reassured him. Then, waiting until just the right moment added, "I let Kaylee do it."

He'd timed it just right. Simon spit out his mush, ignoring the mess to grab Mal by the shirt. "No you didn't."

Mal chuckled and placed his hand on top of Simon's wrist. "No, I didn't."

The captain figured he'd let Simon find out later that the whole crew had pulled together to help take care of him, no sense in embarrassing him when he was still so vulnerable. Some of them had done it out of genuine fondness for the boy; others, like Zoe, had pitched in mostly because Simon meant so much to Mal. It helped that the Tams were the only ones who hadn't been exposed to Rim Rot before; no one else was at risk for getting sick. In fact, when Simon's fever had spiked so high that it had sent him into convulsions but Serenity didn't have enough water to spare to prepare a cold bath for him, it had been Jayne who'd come up with a solution. They'd pumped the atmosphere out of an outer cargo hold, opened it to the cold of space, then pumped oxygen back in without fully warming it up. Mal had carried Simon into the cooled room with Jayne's help, fever and delirium giving the ill man strength to struggle in their arms. He'd quickly quieted and they'd taken him back in, momentarily cool. The fever had returned but not nearly as voraciously and it had finally broken the next day. Mal hadn't like seeing Jayne's hands on his lover but had to admit that the mercenary had, for once, offered a good idea.

"Now we have to clean you up," Mal said as he came back to the present. Mush was all over Simon's bedclothes. He pointed to the blue knit shirt that, along with the plaid flannel bottoms, was the doctor's normal bed attire. "Take that off and I'll get you something clean."

Simon sighed but complied. He tossed the soiled shirt aside, shivering as Mal dug through his things for an alternative. Unfortunately, Simon's flight from the Alliance had meant that he'd only brought a limited wardrobe with him and most of his clothes weren't suitable. Mal gave up finding anything in Simon's things and instead brought out his own favorite shirt, a heavy knit that he thought would do nicely.

Turning around, he saw his lover sitting almost forlornly on the bed, arms wrapped around himself in an attempt to keep warm. The sickness had left Simon thin and more susceptible to the cold. The captain quickly moved to drape the new garment over Simon's head and its worn and soft fabric muffled any protest the other man might have made.

When Simon's head finally poked out of the appropriate hole and he managed to get his arms in the right places, it took everything Mal had not to laugh. He'd forgotten that this shirt was the one he wore when he himself wasn't feeling well. It was soft and sloppy and much too big on him... which meant that Simon was all but swimming in it.

With exaggerated dignity, the younger man pushed the sleeves up and regarding Mal archly. "Well?"

"Fetching," the captain reassured him. Simon attempted a pithy reply but yawned instead, his hand coming up to cover his mouth in a belated show of manners. Mal felt himself flooded with an uncharacteristic wave of tenderness. "Maybe you should take a nap."

"Does that mean I don't have to eat any more mush?" Simon said hopefully.

Mal solemnly considered. "I guess sleep is more important. We can try eating again later." The captain manfully ignored his patient's mutterings about how the protein mush could be used to patch holes in Serenity's hull and instead concentrated on tucking his lover in.

When he stood to leave, however, Simon's hand shot out from the covers and clutched on to Mal's belt loop. Given how weak the doctor still was, Mal could have shaken off his hold in an instant but nothing short of Armageddon would have caused him to break that fragile grip.

"Stay," Simon said softly.

"I dunno," Mal hesitated. "You have to rest."

Simon made a show of shivering. "I'm still cold. I'll rest better if I have someone to warm me up."

The captain tried to keep from smiling at the obvious ploy but failed. Acknowledging silently that he was well and truly hooked, he simply sat and pulled off his boots. Eyes already half-lidded, Simon made a satisfied sound as he scooted over on the mattress, making room for the bigger man. That sound became a contented sigh as Mal crept between the covers and spooned up behind him.

"That's nice," the doctor.

"That it is," Mal agreed... but Simon was already asleep. Burying his nose in the dark curls at the base of his lover's neck, Mal let himself relax for the first time in weeks and joined him.

~the end~

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