Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon, and Tim Minear. No disrespect is meant by my borrowing them; no financial gain is mine by employing them.
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"How do I look?"

The men turned away from their card game to see Kaylee standing just inside the entryway to the common room, looking like nothing so much as a pastel confection in her flouncey ball gown. She turned prettily, setting the lacy layers fluttering.

Jayne went back to studying the cards in his hand. "We seen it already, Kaylee."

Book shot him one of his more searing glares then smiled to Kaylee, "You look like a picture."

"He don't say a picture of what," muttered Jayne. "Ow!"

Simon had kicked him none too subtly under the table.

"You look very pretty, Kaylee. You'll be the belle of the ball," Simon politely assured her.

She smiled at him, her face shining from the compliment. "You think so?"

"There's no doubt in my mind." He was momentarily surprised to feel a flash of jealousy.

"Are we playin' or what?" Jayne triumphantly slammed his cards down on the table. "I believe these are mine." He pulled a stack of chips toward him and added them to the heap already in front of him.

River approached Kaylee and adjusted the pink bow that was holding back her long brown hair. "You're going to dance. I used to dance. Remember, Simon?"

"Yes, River. I remember."

She continued, toying with the ruffles on Kaylee's sleeve, "Before our parents would leave for the ball, I would ask my father to please let me dance with him. Just one dance." River suddenly gathered Kaylee to her and began to waltz her around the small room, nimbly avoiding chairs and tables. Kaylee laughed with delight. "We would fly to the music." River hummed a tune as they danced; her voice was vibrant, every note pitch perfect. She came to a sudden halt in front of Simon and backed away from Kaylee.

"Dance with her."

"River!" Simon was flustered, but ever the gentleman he started to rise from his chair.

"Dance with her, Simon."

"River, I . . . This isn't the place." He was clearly embarrassed.

Kaylee's smile faltered just for a second, but then she recovered, hurrying to the doorway. "No, it's OK. Really. I have to be getting' downstairs. I don't want to keep him waitin'." And bumped smack into Malcolm Reynolds.

"Whoa! Where are you rushing off to?" Mal held her firmly by the shoulders.

"Cap'n, you know I got invited to a dance tonight."

"Uh-huh. And you know the rule: no one comes on my boat unless I meet him."

"But he ain't really comin' on board. He's just meetin' me here, and then we're goin' to the hotel to the dance."

"Well, that sounds mighty unmannered of him. Doctor, don't that sound unmannered to you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "In my day a young gentlemen would come to the young lady's house and meet her father, chat a while, maybe sit and have some cider. That way her Pa could size him up, see if he was marriage material - or see whether maybe he should be gettin' out a shotgun to run him off the place."

"Oh, Cap'n, please! You're not gonna . . ." Kaylee pleaded, suddenly horrified at the possibilities.

"Now this ain't a house, and I'm not your daddy, but I am the captain of this ship where you make your home." He turned her around and set her walking through the doorway. "Let's go meet that young man."

Kaylee threw a quick glance back into the room, silently begging for someone to come to her aid. All she saw were Book and Jayne with suspiciously straight faces, and Simon looking . . . wistful. River stood leaning against her brother's side, her arm crooked through his, as if she were comforting him. As Mal propelled her toward the stairs she heard the laughter roll out from the room: Book and Jayne, their composure broken.

Inara stood waiting by the open cargo bay, looking poised and elegant in a slender sari of deep red silk At the sound of footsteps she turned back toward the ship's interior and saw a glum Kaylee rustle down the stairs in a froth of lace and bows; she was followed by a grinning Mal. Inara held out her hand to the girl and said admiringly, "You look beautiful this evening."

Kaylee ran to take her hand and enlist her aid. "Oh, Nara, please don't let him do it!"

"Do what, mei-mei?" She arched a perfect eyebrow in Mal's direction. "I assume this has something to do with you?"

Before Mal could reply Kaylee hurried on, "The Captain's gonna interrogate Lloyd when gets here, just to embarrass him. And me!"

Behind her back Mal grimaced and mouthed in silent amusement, "Lloyd?"

"He has no plans to do any such thing, do you Captain Reynolds?" Inara stared at Mal with a mixture of humor and determination.

Mal raised his hands. "I'm an innocent man. I'm only here to do my duty, part of which is meetin' anyone who comes aboard my ship. I'm only doin' my job."

"Yes, I'm sure that's all it will be." She turned to Kaylee. "The Magistrate has sent his driver for me; I asked him to wait until I had a chance to wish you a lovely evening. I'm sure he won't mind waiting a few minutes more. I'd very much like to meet this Lloyd." Kaylee shot her a look of pure thanks. "Tell me again - how did you meet him?"

"I was at the shop, checkin' to see if they carry that machine oil that I'm just about out of, and Lloyd was there buying some stuff for his daddy's place, and we just started talkin' and I mentioned that we were here for the night and then he said there was a big dance at the local hotel and did I want to go with him . . . "

"And you said yes without checking with your captain." Mal broke in to stop the happy monologue.

"I know I shouldn't have. I'm sorry that I didn't ask you first, Cap'n, honest. But I knew we weren't leavin' til tomorrow, and it's a fancy dress dance and I ain't had a chance to wear this since Persephone.." She lovingly smoothed one of the many layers of cloth as she turned to Inara. "You understand, don't you, Nara?"

"Yes, I understand. And I'm sure the Captain understands as well."

"I'm fairly sure I don't, but be that as it may, I think Lloyd is here." He pointed to a figure hurrying towards the ramp.

The area near the dock was dimly lit, but they could see a tall, well-built figure nearing them. He finally stepped into the light streaming out from the cargo bay, and they saw a young man a few years older than Kaylee. He was wearing what was probably his only good suit, a little shiny in spots from wear, a little ragged around the cuffs. His hair was thick and dark and fell to his collar, his broad shoulders threatened to break through the fabric of his jacket, his chin was strong, his eyes a clear blue, his skin tanned from a lifetime of working outdoors. Mal unconsciously drew himself to his full height and changed his stance so his legs were a little further apart. Kaylee hurried forward to meet her date.

"Hi, Lloyd."

"Kaylee." He had a beautiful smile. "You look real nice. I brought you some flowers." He handed her a little bouquet, which she took from him, all smiles and blushes.

"Kaylee, you want to introduce me?" Mal strode up to the couple.

Kaylee turned to face her captain, her eyes carrying both a plea and a warning. "Captain Reynolds, this is Lloyd. Lloyd, this is my captain."

Lloyd held out a big, callused hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

"Good to meet you, son!" Mal took his hand and returned a strong handshake, maybe a little stronger than was necessary. He didn't let go. He addressed Kaylee but he faced Lloyd. "Kaylee, we're leavin' first thing in the morning. I need you back here rested and ready to go, dong ma? I'll be up late doing some captainy stuff, so don't you fret about making any noise and waking me when you get back." He released the boy's hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "You two have fun tonight, y'hear?"

Kaylee fairly dragged her escort away from Mal and crossed to Inara. The two women exchanged a quick kiss and Inara whispered in Kaylee's ear, "He's so handsome, mei-mei. I know you'll have a wonderful evening." Kaylee turned to go and then quickly turned back again.

"Good Lord, where are my manners! Inara, this is Lloyd. Lloyd, this is my friend, Inara."

Inara held out a graceful hand; Lloyd seemed suddenly to have lost all his co-ordination. And his ability to speak. He started to bow, but then he took the offered hand and began to bring it to his lips when he stopped and frantically began pumping Inara's arm. "Ma'am. Miss! Uh, thank you!" Kaylee rolled her eyes, Mal snorted, Inara acknowledged his greeting sweetly. Kaylee tugged him gently towards the ramp down to the street. As they made their way into the night Mal and Inara could hear Lloyd ask in an awed tone, "Was that . . .? Was she, you know . . . a Companion?"

"Little Kaylee's got some competition she didn't even know about. You break hearts without even tryin', don't you?" Mal looked at her over crossed arms.

"Don't be ridiculous. He's young. He's never seen a Companion before. By the time they reach the dance he will have forgotten all about it. Now I really have to be going. I've kept the Magistrate waiting far too long." She gathered the end of the sari and wrapped it like a shawl around her.

"I meant what I said to Kaylee. We're leavin' early. Be back or be left behind."

"Not that it's any of your concern, but I'm not spending the night." Now it was Mal's turn to raise an eyebrow. "This evening is purely a social occasion. The Magistrate and I have know each other for several years. I consider him a friend. Tonight is simply good food and good conversation. I'd say I'm overdue for both of those, wouldn't you?" She lowered her voice and pointed her chin toward the upper deck behind Mal. "By the way, we weren't the only ones interested in seeing Kaylee's young man." Mal turned his head slightly and caught a glimpse of Simon moving silently away from the catwalk and back towards the common room. "I'd venture that I'm not the only heartbreaker on Serenity." She smiled demurely and swept down the ramp and into the waiting transport.

Mal closed the hatch behind her and started back to his quarters, his mind filled with images of pink lace and red satin, a voice bubbling with laughter and another purring with soft humor. He wondered to himself how two women could be so different and still so alike, and how in the hell they both ended up making his life so damn complicated at times. Still grumbling to himself, he kicked open the hatch to his quarters and climbed down the ladder to peace and order and simplicity.

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The ballroom was small, as befitted a small hotel in a small town. Nevertheless it was decorated lovingly with flowers and lights and colorful cloths on the tables. Nothing could lay claim to being sophisticated or fashionable. It was a farming community out on the Rim, after all. The men were dressed in their Sunday suits and the woman wore their best gowns, mostly handmade, mostly in colors of the sky or the grass or the golden fields. Kaylee stood out like a fancy cake atop a tray of cornbread. Still, the people were mostly friendly, especially the men.

Kaylee danced every dance. Lloyd was attentive but didn't monopolize her time; there were plenty of men - young and old - eager to share a dance with the pretty new girl in their midst. The usual small-talk: where are you from, where are you going, where have you been. Is it true that you travel with a Companion? Kaylee had wished that everyone would stop making a fuss about that, but she couldn't really blame them. She was the first to admit that she thought Inara was glamorous and exotic - how could she hold those same thoughts against a group who had never seen a Companion, let alone been befriended by one? Still, it would be nice if it wasn't the main topic.

Kaylee noticed early on that she was the object of interest for a small group of young women about her age. She'd smile when she caught the eye of any of them, but nary a smile was returned, especially when she was dancing with Lloyd. At one point, as she was partnered with a chatty middle-aged businessman, she looked across his shoulder to see Lloyd and one of the girls in conversation. She looked angry; he looked pleased with himself. She glared at Kaylee across the crowd as Lloyd whispered in her ear and laughed. Lloyd reclaimed his date for the next dance, and swept her away into the crush of couples on the ballroom floor. Finally she just came out and asked him as they danced by the corner where the group had taken up position. "Lloyd, who are those girls over there? They don't seem to like me very much. Did I do somethin' to them? Should I go over there and apologize for somethin'?"

He barely glanced in their direction. "Pay 'em no mind, Kaylee," he replied dismissively. "It ain't you they hate, it's me. I used to court one of 'em. I ended it."

"Oh. Recently?"

"Yesterday."

"Yesterday? Like the day before today?"

"Yeah. Why? What's wrong?" He was earnest in his ignorance.

"Oh, I really wished you had told me. This don't seem right." She stopped dancing and moved to the side. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."

"Why? Look, we were together and now we ain't. And now I'm here with you. I don't see the problem." He was starting to get annoyed.

"The problem is that she obviously wants you back. Or at least she sure as hell don't want you with me. And what were you thinkin' just asking out the next girl that you met? I bet you didn't even care that it was me, did you? It coulda been anyone. I bet I coulda been some mean, old, dog-faced hag and you would've asked me to this dance just to make her mad!" She was getting good and angry now.

"You ain't old. And you sure ain't a hag. You're soft and pretty." He lifted one of the layers of cloth on her right shoulder and stroked it slowly, all the while looking intently into her eyes.. "I'da asked you anyway, Kaylee. We don't get girls like you around here."

"Girls like me. What's that supposed to mean?" She moved so that his hand fell away from her.

"You know . . . transport girls. Like you. Travel around from port to port. Seen a lotta things." He slowly drew a finger down her bare arm. "Done a lotta things."

She slapped his arm away. "I want to leave. Take me back to the ship."

"Oh, don't tell me I insulted you!" He laughed in disbelief. "You travel around with a whore. What's that make you?"

"Better 'n you."

Without another word, she left him. She spied a side door near her, and slipped out into the darkness. She walked a short distance and was suddenly overcome with sadness. She was holding back tears and hating herself for even thinking about crying over any of this. He had seemed so nice, and she had enjoyed the attention and the flirting. She smoothed her hands down her dress; she'd been pleased to have another chance to dress up and be like a lady. Instead she had ended up in the middle of a stupid, backwoods game of lover's tag. She groaned to herself in embarrassment. The captain and Jayne would tease her for days! And Simon - she couldn't let Simon know that she had been so stupid and unsophisticated. Caught up in her own thoughts she didn't hear the soft sound of someone approaching. Several someones. Suddenly a cloth case was shoved over her head and her arms were being held. She started to scream, but someone punched her in the stomach and all the air left her lungs. Oh God, what was happening?

"Laurie, I don't like this!" A girl's voice.

"Shut up, Hilary! We do this together."

Kaylee knew who had her; the faces of the girls in the corner flashed across her mind. "You don't have to do this! I was going back to the ship. I'm leavin'!"

"That's right, you're leavin'. Just not before we say good-bye."

Kaylee started to struggle and someone hit her again, in the face this time. She felt something sharp pressed against her ribs and she stopped struggling.

"Quiet, whore, or this could get a whole lot worse for you. I should thank you, though. You know that? We were wondering how we were going to get you alone, but you solved that problem for us right nicely. What happened? He couldn't come up with your price?" She jerked Kaylee's arm brutally until she heard her cry out in pain. "Stella, we all clear?"

"I don't see anyone. We're clear."

"Come with us, space tramp," the one called Laurie hissed in her ear. "We got a lesson to teach."

They half pulled, half dragged Kaylee some distance from the town. She could hear the sound of her dress being ripped as she stumbled on the hem, felt it being torn off her in strips by the bushes she was being forced to walk through. Finally they stopped. One of them removed the case from her head and she looked at her captors. Girls. They were just girls like her. But not like her. Not like her at all.

"Why are you doing this?" She wasn't crying. She would not cry in front of them. "I didn't do anything. Just let me go. No one has to know."

"I said to shut up, whore. You come in here all dressed up in your city clothes, and you talk so sweet and inside we know you're just a tramp. Spreadin' your legs from one end of the 'verse to the other. Seduce our men away from us."

Kaylee couldn't stop the laugh of astonishment that slipped from her lips. "That ain't me! I don't do that. And he came up to me! He talked to me!"

"Liar!" Laurie slapped her open-handed. "Look at you. Eyes don't lie. Think you're so fine, don't you?" She took a handful of the cloth at Kaylee's neck and pulled hard. The dress tore like tissue, leaving her half-naked to the waist. "Now we can see what you really are. Now everyone can see." She pulled at more of the fabric. After only a slight hesitation the other girls joined in, pulling, ripping, hitting, scratching her skin, knocking her to the ground in their fury. She tried to fight back, but they were too many and too frenzied. In a moment the dress was in shreds, and Kaylee lay before them, naked and hurting. They stood in tableau, the only sound the harsh breathing of the girls and the soft moan of a battered Kaylee.

"Pick up the pieces," Laurie ordered the other two. "We'll burn 'em later." She leaned over Kaylee. "Lucky we don't burn you. Don't follow us. If I see you again, this'll seem like your momma's kiss."

They left her in the dark unkown.

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River woke with a shriek, bringing Simon to his feet in a heartbeat.

"River? Shhh, I'm right here. It's OK. It's OK."

River grabbed him in terror. "They're hurting her! Help her! Please help her! She's all alone!"

"Who, mei-mei? Who's being hurt?"

"Kaylee! They're hurting Kaylee."

Simon's heart stilled for a beat, then began again, racing like an engine.

He grasped River by the shoulders, to calm her, calm himself. "Who has her, River? Where are they?" But all she could do was repeat over and over, "Help her. Help her. Help her."

"River, stay here. Do you hear me? Stay here. I'm going to get the captain."

Book was standing at the door, awakened by the screams, sensing that this was more than the usual night terrors. Simon shoved him into the room with his sister. "Stay with her. I have to get the captain."

He raced down the corridor to the crew area, shouting as he ran. "Captain! Captain, get up here! It's Kaylee!" Before he made it to the hatch of Mal's quarters, Mal was on deck, strapping on a gun, his face white and cold. In short order Zoe and Wash, then Jayne appeared beside him. Simon looked around at the stern faces, "Something's happened to Kaylee."

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The crew was gathered in the cargo bay, looking grim and armed to the teeth. Mal was giving out orders. "Zoe, you and Wash check on the outskirts of town. Jayne and Book, you check the alleys and the back roads. Keep your ears open, not just your eyes." He took the safety off his pulse pistol. "I'm headin' to the hotel. Comm if you find anything." They started to move out. He stopped them with one last command. "If she's dead . . . kill the bastards that did it." Zoe and Jayne turned as one and looked at him, nodding in acknowledgment. Book and Wash remained silent, though their faces were drawn.

Silently they started down the ramp into the town. Simon ran to Mal and spun him around, then backed off quickly after one look into Mal's eyes. "Captain, let me come, too. I want to help."

"Stay here with your sister." He started to walk away. Simon ran to place himself in front of him.

"I can help. Please, I need to help. I can't just wait here."

Mal placed an iron hand on Simon's arm and roughly moved the doctor to one side.

"I ain't got time for this!" He took a step and then turned back to Simon, his voice softer. "If she's hurt, she's gonna need you here. If she's dead, then it don't matter that you stayed. Either way, Doc, we're bringin' her back to Serenity."

Simon stood rooted to the spot and watched Mal disappear into the night. Noise and movement from above him brought him around to see River holding a piece of paper in one hand, wafting it slowly. "I know where she is. I wrote it down." Simon raced up the stairs and took the map from his sister. He hugged her tightly and kissed her cheek. "River, I have to go. Stay here. Can you do that for me, mei-mei? Please? I can't go if I have to worry that you're not safe."

River ran her fingers softly across his forehand and down his cheek. Her eyes were clear and lucid as she stared into his. "Go. I'll stay here. Don't worry about me, big brother. I'll be here when you bring her home."

Simon kissed her again in gratitude and sped off.

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Kaylee was disoriented. Her brain didn't seem to be working right. She knew that she had to keep moving, though. The hotel. That sounded familiar. Yes, she had to get back to the hotel. Was this the way? Yes, look there. A piece of bedraggled lace. She picked it up and ran the cloth lovingly through her fingers. I know this, she thought. She dropped the strip of cloth and continued slowly on her journey. I just have to get to the hotel, she kept repeating to herself. Suddenly a body appeared in front of her. Not a body. A person. Simon. She knew Simon. "Hello, Simon," she said politely.

"Lao tian, bu," the words were torn from his throat as a prayer. This couldn't be real. He walked up to her slowly and carefully. "Kaylee? Kaylee, what happened?" He was taking off his vest as he gently talked to her.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure. Isn't that funny? I seem to be lost." She smiled sweetly at him.

Simon wanted to cry, he wanted to kill, he wanted to turn back time and wipe this sight from his mind. Instead he dropped his vest to the ground and started now to unbutton his shirt. Kaylee tried to walk around him and continue down the path back to town. "Kaylee! Kaylee, stay and talk with me for a while. Please."

"I'm sorry, I have to get back to the hotel. Do you know how to get back to the hotel?"

He removed his shirt and walked ever so slowly to her side. "Kaylee, put this on. You have no clothes, bao be."

She looked at him with affectionate exasperation. "I know I'm naked, could you just tell me how to get back to the hotel?"

"Yes. Yes, of course I will. But just put this on for me, and then we'll go. You're shivering. You don't want to be cold when we get there, do you?"

"No. No, you're right." She stood still as stone.

Simon began to slip the shirt over her unresisting frame. He carefully buttoned it up so that now she was covered from neck to thigh. Gently he cupped her chin and tilted her face so that he could get a closer look at the cuts on her face. He touched the skin softly and suddenly Kaylee exploded in terror. She screamed and fought as she wasn't able to do before. Simon tried to ward off the blows without hurting her any more than she already had been. He kept saying her name over and over, trying to penetrate through the shock and the fear and the anger. It stopped nearly as suddenly as it had started. One moment she was trying to connect with her fists and her teeth, and the next she was still, trying to understand where she was and what had happened.

"Simon?"

"Shhh, Kaylee. You're all right now. Everything is going to be all right."

"Simon?" She really saw him at last. She began to sob and collapsed against him. "Look what they did to me. Look what they did to me."

He held her close and soothed her as best as he could. He slipped to the ground, still holding her, and cradled her as she wept herself weak. Slowly he pieced together the story. Not raped, thank God. But beaten, humiliated. Not broken, though. Thank God for that, too. She was in shock. He needed to get her back to Serenity. He needed to let the others know that she was safe now. He'd run off without taking a communicator. Or a gun, he suddenly realized. Some hero. But for the hiccupping brought on by the storm of tears, she'd been silent for a few minutes now. He rubbed her back as he would a child's. "Kaylee, are you OK to walk now? I need to get you back to the ship. I need to take care of your injuries."

"Yeah. I'm OK. But I don't want to go back to Serenity. I want to go to the hotel."

"You're in shock, Kaylee. You don't know what you're saying."

"I know. I know exactly. They're at the hotel still. Dancing and laughing and thinking that they beat me and I'll go away. Simon, I'm not gonna let 'em win. I can't. We have to go back to the hotel."

Maybe this was for the best. The spirit needed healing as well as the body. Besides, Simon wanted to see the creatures who could do something like this to Kaylee. He helped her to her feet. She was a bit wobbly, but she could walk. She looked at him and gave a ghost of a laugh.

"What? What's so funny?"

"You're not wearin' a shirt." She looked down at herself. "Oh. I'm wearin' your shirt. I'm sorry." She started to unbutton it.

Shock. It's the shock, he told himself. "Kaylee, no." He put his hands on hers to stop them. "No. You wear it. It looks better on you anyway." He noticed his discarded vest on the ground and put it on. "There. See? Now we both have a shirt. Sort of."

She started to giggle. "You look like a pirate."

He really needed to get them both moving. He put his arm around her and started them both on the path back to the hotel.

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Mal contemplated the best way to take down the armed constables on either side of him and still make it across the room to kill the bastard. Lloyd had guards around him, too, but their guns were holstered. Mostly they were there to protect him from the insane man in the brown duster. Lloyd had glanced over at him earlier and blanched at what he had seen in Mal's eyes.
There's no protection in God's unholy universe strong enough to save you from me, Mal had promised Lloyd with that look.

The crowds had long gone back to their dancing. It had been just Mal and Lloyd and the constables in the lobby of the hotel. Until Inara and her Magistrate had joined the party. It was a small town and this was big news. Inara had overheard the call and insisted that her friend deal with this personally. Now she talked quietly to the men in charge, her training enabling her to cover over her great anxiety for Kaylee and her fear for Mal as well. The officers were concerned about the missing girl, of course, but there was still the matter of this man, this captain, attacking one of their finest young citizens. This would not do.

Mal kept his eyes trained on Lloyd, noting with grim pleasure the bruises on his face already starting to purple up. You'll tell me where she is, he promised silently. You'll tell me where she is and what you did to her, and then I'm going to send you to hell. "We're wastin' time!" He hadn't even realized that he had leapt up until he found himself standing. Two guns in two nervous hands were pointed squarely at his midsection. "He knows where she is. She could be dyin'. She could be dead." His words were flat but his eyes and his stance carried the very real threat of imminent mayhem.

"I ain't dead, Cap'n."

Every eye in the room was suddenly fixed on the speaker standing in the doorway. A young woman, bruised and bloody, dressed only in a man's shirt.

"Kaylee." Mal felt as if there wasn't a breath left in his body.

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Simon and Kaylee had reached the hotel at last. The music still played. Through the windows they could see the couples dance and laugh and flirt. Kaylee was limping more now. She never had found her shoes. Simon held her more firmly.

"Are you certain that you want to do this. I think we should go to the ship first. Contact the captain and the crew, let them know they can stop searching."

"We will, Simon. I just need to do this first. It won't be long, I promise."

He helped her toward the front door and they both stopped cold in their tracks. In the lobby they could see the constables with guns drawn, Mal in between them. To one side a worried Inara was talking quickly and urgently with someone who looked very official. Kaylee quickly backed up, pulling Simon with her.

"You can't go in there. There are too many constables. There'll be too many questions. Go back to the ship. I'll meet you there."

Simon started to resist. "I'm not leaving you. I'm not letting you walk in there alone."

She pushed him lightly. "I'm not alone, Simon. The Cap'n is there. And Inara. They won't let nothin' else happen to me. You know that." She put a hand to his face. "You know that."

He knew she was right. He took one of her hands in his and kissed it, letting the gesture say what his words would not. He walked quickly away from the hotel and back to Serenity.

Kaylee moved closer to the lobby. She heard the captain's words. She stepped through the doorway. "I ain't dead, Cap'n."

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Mal's breath came back to him in a rush. He took in the sight of her and a murderous rage filled him. He launched himself at Lloyd, spitting a string of obscenities that he didn't even know he had learned. He moved through the guards as if they were water, not stopping until he had Lloyd pinned against a far wall, the man's throat in his hands. He squeezed. Hard. There were hands pulling at him and voices calling to him, but nothing would stop him. Kaylee was suddenly there, her hands on his face forcing him to look at her, forcing him to hear her. Stop, she was saying. It wasn't him, she was saying. He forced himself to concentrate on her words.

"Cap'n, no! Stop! It wasn't him! Please, Cap'n! They'll kill you if you don't stop!"

He allowed her to pull his hands off of Lloyd. She placed one hand on her face, the other she took and placed over her heart. He could feel the beating of it reach through his palm and join his own pulse. He crushed her to him, never seeing her wince in pain. "Kaylee." It was all he could manage. "Kaylee."

A crowd had gathered at the door between the lobby and the ballroom, staring, whispering - Kaylee and Mal the center of attention. Kaylee stared boldly back and then jerked away from Mal, pointing at the trio of shocked faces just now starting to move away quickly to the edges of the crowd. "Them! It was them!" The group in the lobby whipped around to follow where she was pointing, confused and unsure of what to do.

"Who? Who did it?" The Magistrate was beside them now.

"Laurie. Her name is Laurie. And them other two." The girls were trying to push their way out and back to a far exit, but they were suddenly brought up short by a solid block of angry citizens. The constables corralled the trio and marched them back into the lobby, into the presence of a shaking Kaylee.
She stood facing her attackers, Mal and Inara, solicitous and coldly furious, flanking either side of her. Mal was suddenly very conscious of the fact that Kaylee stood there only half-clothed, the object of curiosity and pity and - he angered more to see it on some faces - scorn. He quickly took off his duster and started to drape it around Kaylee's shoulders. She shrugged it off.

"It's all right, Cap'n" She never looked back at him, keeping her attention on the girls and on Lloyd, who had been moved up to stand next them. "I ain't ashamed. I done nothin' to be ashamed of." Of the four young people facing her, only the one called Hilary had the decency to drop her eyes. The other two girls stared back at her, unmoved. Lloyd wouldn't take his eyes off Laurie, although what he was thinking was unknowable.

"Are these the people who attacked you, Miss?" the chief constable asked.

"The girls there. Yes. It was them."

"I need you to tell me what happened. Briefly for now."

"I was standin' outside; I was gonna go back to the ship."

"Alone? What about this one?" He took Lloyd by the arm.

"Him?" Kaylee's voice was cuttingly dismissive. " He ain't nothin'." She turned to the constable to clarify. "He wasn't there."

"OK. Continue, please."

"Someone put a cloth bag or somethin' over my head. I couldn't see who it was at first, but they called each other by name: Laurie, Hilary. Stella, I think. Laurie, she was in charge." Hearing her name, the girl glared defiantly at Kaylee. "They hit me and I tried to fight back, but one of 'em had a knife. They dragged me some ways away and then took off the bag so I could see 'em clear. Laurie said I was stealin' her boyfriend. Which she knew was a lie. And then . . . then." She paused to gather herself. She could feel Mal standing right behind her, and it gave her strength. "They started beating me. They pulled my dress off me, tore it off me." She could sense Mal's body getting tight with anger. "They left me with no clothes and told me not follow' em or they'd do me even worse. Then they came back here, I guess."

"Where did you get the shirt you're wearing?"

She looked down in surprise. "This? Some man. He found me and helped me. But he had to go."

"We'll need a full statement from you, Miss."

"No, what we need is to get her taken care of." Mal was impatient to get her out of there. He took Kaylee gently by the elbow and started walking with her out of the room.

The Magistrate called out to him, "Please come with me back to my home. I'll have my personal physician see to her."

Mal continued walking, Kaylee now leaning more heavily on him. "We see to our own." He put his arm around her back, supporting her, and whispered, "Just hold on for a little bit more, mei-mei."

"At least let me offer you my transport."

Mal looked at Kaylee and she shook her head slightly. "I said we do for our own." They were almost to the door. Inara was now with them, holding Kaylee from her side.

"I don't see all this fuss!" Laurie's voice cut across the room. "She's just a whore."

Mal took the word like a blow to the body; Inara gasped, and looked stricken at Kaylee. Only the girl between them seemed unphased. She stopped and calmly disengaged herself from the embrace of Mal and Inara. She turned back toward the sea of faces. "You have no idea who I am. What I am. And you ain't worth it for me to tell you." She reached blindly back and touched Mal and Inara. "The one's who I want to know, do. And that's all I need in this 'verse." In the silence that followed, she left the hotel, once more in the embrace of the captain and the Companion.

It wasn't until they were in the street that Inara found her voice. "Mei-mei, I'm so sorry." Uncharacteristically, she was having trouble finding the proper words.

"It' s all right, Nara. Really. It's just words. Don't mean anything." She started to sway, and Mal caught her. "I'm sorry, Cap'n. I don't seem to be walkin' too good."

He caught her up in his arms, inwardly glad to have an excuse to hold her safe. "Hush you're worrying. I've got you just fine. You rest a while." When she didn't answer he looked down at her in concern. He saw her eyes closed, heard her steady breath, and realized that she had fallen into an exhausted sleep in his arms. Inara stroked Kaylee's hair, and looked solemnly at Mal. He returned her gaze, but both were beyond words now. They moved on until, finally, the lights of Serenity welcomed them, the rest of the crew assembled anxiously at the foot of the ramp. A shirtless Simon hurried to Mal, and with a worried look briefly examined the sleeping girl. Relieved for the moment, he turned to Jayne. "Would you get the stretcher, please? We need to get her to the infirmary."

Mal looked at him across the sleeping Kaylee. "Nice shirt, don't you think?"

Simon returned the look, unflinching. "Could we talk about this later, Captain?"

"Count on it."
--------------------------------------------------------------------------

In the two days since Simon had released her from the infirmary with the strict orders for more bed rest, Kaylee had had a steady stream of visitors to her little quarters. Wash had sat and entertained her with jokes and stories; Zoe was more brief, more concerned, saying much with few words and small gestures. Book had distracted her with gossip of his life among the brethren and offered a welcome chance for healing counsel. Jayne was alternately gruff and silly, unsure of what to say or how to behave but desperately wanting Kaylee to know that if it were up to him, the ones that hurt her would be dead, cuz that's how much he cared. River and Inara brought chatter and games and comfortable silence. Mal had been by her side nearly constantly while Simon checked her over and treated her cuts and contusions. Once she was released he mostly kept track of her through the others, but Kaylee wasn't fooled by his seeming disinterest. Last night he near scared her to death when she awoke in the darkness and found him sitting on the floor next to her bunk, dozing. She managed to cut off the scream in her throat, and fell back asleep with a smile on her face. When she awoke again, he was gone.

Simon was most conspicuously absent. He'd been all professional concern while she was under his charge, but once he knew that the damage, although extensive, was neither great nor close to life-threatening, he retreated again behind his cultured veneer. When he had released her from the infirmary and Jayne had insisted on carrying her the distance to her quarters, Simon had stood at the entryway and watched her go, no expression on his handsome young face.

Kaylee pondered this thing she had, didn't have, with Simon. She was not good with leaving mysteries unsolved, and this one was vexing her most keenly. Bored with staying in her bunk, and feeling better than she had in days, she decided to take matters into hand. She got up off her bunk with much stiffness but reasoned that the best cure for that was moving around. She searched for her brush amidst the toys and drawings that now cluttered the top of the small bureau. Wash's dinos, River's drawings. It was good to have friends. She found the brush and ran it through the tangles in her hair as she inspected her face in the mirror. A black eye, swollen cheek, swollen nose, cuts on her lip and cheek and temple. Yeah, she was a beauty all right. Then she remembered the feel of the knife point against her and smiled ruefully at her reflection. It could have been worse. It could have been much worse. Cheered by that thought, she set out to find the reclusive Dr. Tam.

It turned out he wasn't so reclusive after all. He was at the first place she looked for him, in the infirmary, studying his notes, still trying to piece together a serum that would make his sister whole again. She knocked on the side of the hatch and entered without waiting for an invitation.

"Hey, Simon."

"Kaylee!" He was startled and then stern. "You shouldn't be out of bed. I told you."

"If I stay in that bunk any longer I'm gonna take root. Besides, I'm all better. See?" She stretched her arms over head and then doubled over from the sudden screaming retribution of too many resisting muscles. Simon hurried over to her, and she smiled up at him, slowly unbending. "Well, I'm not so good as all that. But better'n I was, honest." He helped her over to a chair, and sat her down in it, while he crouched down in front of her.

"Do you feel as if you've torn anything? Are you still experiencing sharp pains?" He was in full medical mode.

"Simon," she laughed. "Don't worry so. I was just being stupid. But if you are so worried, how come you didn't come see me once I was out of the infirmary?" She'd always treasured being direct.

He flustered an answer. "You were out of danger. I had things to do here, and besides, you weren't lacking for company."

She let the non-answer slide. "Simon, we never talked about that night. I think we need to. Sit, please?"

Realizing that there was no way around it, he pulled up another chair so that he was facing her. Kaylee reached over and took his hand. He breathed in sharply, then relaxed into her touch.

"I never thanked you for finding me. And thank you don't seem like enough."

"It was River who drew the map."

"Yes, that's true. And I gave her my thanks, for sure. But you were the one who came and found me. Who brought me back to myself when I was near out of my mind. Who gave me the shirt off his back." She smiled up at him. "I owe you a shirt, I guess. I kind of got yours all bloody. I'm sorry."

"Kaylee," exasperation in his voice, "how can you be like this? So accepting? I was there. I saw what they did to you. How they left you."

"I know. And I'm so sorry that you had to find me like that." She placed her other hand on top of the one of his she was already holding. She watched her thumb move across the back of his hand, not looking at him while she continued. "I've dreamed about you seeing me naked, but it was never like that. And now I'm afraid that's the only way you'll ever see me."

Simon was speechless. Kaylee looked up at him and shrugged slightly. "My folks always said I was too bold, but there are things that need to be said. I don't want this growing between us. If there is an us. Is there?"

"Kaylee, you know how I feel about you," he started.

"Actually, I don't."

"Excuse me?"

"I don't know how you feel about me. Sometimes I think you like me fine, but sometimes you act like I'm just another piece of the bulkhead or somethin'. I don't need much, Simon, but I do need to know. So just tell me, please."

Deep breath. "I like you fine, Kaylee. I like you more than fine. When River said you were being hurt, I was frantic. When I found you . . . like that . . . I wanted to kill whoever did it to you. I hated that I couldn't save you from what happened. I couldn't save you; I couldn't save River. That's why there can't be anything more between us. Not now."

"What? I don't understand."

"I'm a wanted fugitive! River is a wanted fugitive. We may be on the run for the rest of our lives. I don't know how long I can keep her safe. I don't even know if I can cure her. She's got to be my top priority, Kaylee. You understand that right?" He saw her nod her head. "I can't drag you into this, too. And I won't ask you to wait."

Kaylee laughed and leaned in closer to him. "You ain't draggin' me into anyplace I'm not already at. We're all here together. And as for waitin' - just where do you suppose I'd be fixin' to go? This is my home, Simon Tam. This is my family. I'm stayin' right here. With you." She kissed him then, the way she'd been longing to. For just the flash of a thought, Simon stayed still, and then his heart overcame his caution and he kissed her back slowly at first and then with an increasing passion. All the growing desire that he had been keeping so carefully locked away came pouring out. He pulled her out of her chair and onto his lap, all the time kissing her deeply, almost frantically. Moving out of sheer lust now, he bit down on her lip and was shocked back to himself by Kaylee's loud "Ow!" He pulled back from her, stricken by his thoughtless act, but she was holding a hand to her lip and laughing.

"I think we might have to postpone this for a couple days."

"Kaylee, I'm sorry! Oh, God, did I hurt you? I'm an idiot! Let me look at it." He brushed her hand aside and anxiously inspected her lip; it was bleeding just a bit, and he cursed himself for an insensitive brute.

She took his hand in hers and kissed the back of his fingers. "You're a worrier, did anyone ever tell you that?"

"Yes, I believe it's been mentioned." He smiled at her, the passion having receded. Common sense was regaining its foothold with him. "Kaylee," he began, but he was cut off.

"It's all right, Simon." She was still on his lap, and she placed her head under the curve of his chin. It fit perfectly. Just like she knew it would. He hesitated only slightly before he put his arms around her and held her lightly. "I know this ain't gonna be easy, and I won't push for more than you're able to give. It's enough to hold me. It'll do." She kissed his throat, and he sighed.

"I think this is enough excitement for one day," he said regretfully, urging her with his hands to rise off him. "For the both of us." They were standing now and he smiled down into her eyes. "Just promise me one thing," he said more seriously. "No more dates with local boys, all right? Not without an armed escort."

She laughed at that and responded in kind. "Now if you'd just dance with me, there'd be no need for local boys, would there?" The way she said "dance" raised his temperature at least two degrees.

He laughed in turn. "I guess we're going to have to get you another frilly dress."

"No." She was thoughtful now. "No, I worn it twice and things went wrong each time. I think I'll stick with plain Kaylee from now on."

"Not plain, bao be. Never plain."

She flushed with the compliment. "I, uh, I guess I should be getting' back to my room."

"Yes, you still need to rest." Neither one of them moved.

Mal appeared suddenly in the hatchway. "Doctor, your sister has taken a sudden and mystifyin' fascination with the waste recycling unit. Do you think you could look into that? Kaylee, what are you doing out of bed? Are you ready to go back to work? Cuz things are piling up."

"Yes, Cap'n"

"No, she isn't."

Mal just gave them his patented bored look. "Work it out between you." He started back down the corridor. "Doctor, your sister!"

Simon gestured toward the door, allowing Kaylee to walk before him. "Duty calls." As she started down to the crew area, he called softly after her. "About that . . . dancing. Someday. Someday soon."

"I'll be here. When you're ready." She watched him turn and hurry away to calm his sister. Humming to herself, she slowly limped her way back to her quarters. And in her mind, the 'verse was filled with music.

Finis
Jan 03