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. Note: this is in response to a challenge at ff_friday: something stolen, something freely given. Fafeng = crazy

*** Thinking back on it, Mal wasn't sure he could pinpoint when Kaylee became, well - not just a mechanic to him. He'd overheard Inara one time telling someone that Kaylee was dear to them all. (The doctor? Yeah, it was the doctor, after he threatened to let Kaylee die. There's a small thrump in his stomach just remembering that moment.) Dear to them all, she said. Dear. He'd never say the word aloud, but it had a rightness to it nonetheless. She was dear to him.

It had happened so slowly that it took him off guard when he finally noticed it. She had crept up on him, if he could even think of someone as open as Kaylee in those words. He'd figured he'd just hired himself a mechanic - a fafeng girl, maybe had a few marbles rolling around up there. Point of fact, it didn't matter if she was addled, because she could work miracles with Serenity's engines, and that's all she had to do to keep her berth. To his surprise, though, he found that when he'd signed on Kaylee, he'd gotten a . . . Mal couldn't settle on a word. A colt. A dreamer. An innocent. A conscience.

Mal wasn't used to having his take on things challenged. Not in a long while. Not since the war. He'd seen the worst that the 'verse could shell out, and it changed a man. It had to. Everything was gone, stolen in a moment of betrayal. You didn't forgive that. Not if you were a man. You didn't forget. But Kaylee challenged him to do both. She challenged him all the time to have hope, to have faith, trust. She never backed down, neither. A fact which set him off buzzing like a hornet when she was doing it, but later, alone, made him smile with the remembering of it.

He'd been hard back then. Hell, he was still hard. But she put a soft spot in him, against his will and against all the odds. In her own way she was just as hard as he was - everything bounced off her, everything that wasn't good and light and honest and hopeful. It just crumbled against the sheer force of her trust in a 'verse where faith never bowed to doubt.

No, he can't pinpoint the moment when it changed. But he remembers a night when he thought it might have. Everything had gone to hell, as usual. Money was low, a contact had been picked up by the Feds and there was a bad moment when he thought that the man would turn on them - turn them in - but he'd kept his mouth shut. Honor among thieves. Still, it were best if they hightailed it to the outer Rim and stayed under the radar for a while. Not much hope of picking up a good money job out there, but it was all he could do for the now.

He looked around the table at the four faces looking back at him. They were depending on him, and all he could offer them now was a chance to run to the edges of the system and scramble for make-work. Not what a one of them had signed on for. He felt shame and anger and the familiar bite of bitterness. He dismissed them curtly, masking his feelings with the cold despair that threatened to suffocate him.

He hadn't waited for them to leave before he got up from the table and went for the coffee pot, turning his back on them all. He'd heard them go, and in the silence he'd leaned on the counter with both hands and let his head fall, his shoulders slump. Defeat. He was so tired of the taste of it.

"Cap'n?"

He'd jumped. He couldn't help it. And it wasn't improving his mood any. He'd swung around to face Kaylee.

"I told you to get back to work," he'd growled.

"Yes, sir. I'm going. It's just, well . . ." she'd hesitated.

"I ain't fond of being disobeyed," he'd snarled, and he'd turned away from her again.

She'd reached out and took his arm to stop him. He'd glared at her, but she held him still. He remembers now wondering how her grip could be so firm and so soft at the same time.

"Cap, don't worry about us so. It'll all work out. You done fine by us. Just fine."

"Is that a fact, Miss Kaylee?" He'd been near speechless that she'd read him so well and her still so new to him.

She'd ignored the sarcasm in his voice and the smirk on his face.

"It'll all work out," she'd repeated. "You'll see. We'll be back in the thick of crime in no time." She'd smiled, and for the hundredth time he'd wondered how she did that. How she kept her balance when the 'verse kept the shock waves rolling toward them. Against his will, he'd found himself smiling back at her.

"Will we now? You got a crystal ball down there in the engine room? You hearing voices in the night? 'Cause I'm asking myself true now: did I hire me a mechanic or a witch?"

"Oh, you're just teasing me," she'd laughed. "But you'll see. I'm always right about these things. We'll be shiny, just you wait. All you need is a little faith."

A wall had slammed down between them.

"Had it. Turned out to be worth no more'n spit." The smile was gone from his face; he could feel the steel come into his eyes.

"It was the war, huh?" He'd stared at her, refusing to answer. "I'd heard . . . Wash said . . ."

He'd shaken her hand off his arm, started to leave her.

She'd hurried to place herself in front of him and stared up at him. The difference in their heights had forced her to tip her head back, and she'd seemed to him to be all eyes.

"It don't matter that your faith is left. It don't matter at all." She'd looked down to find his hand and took it in her own. She'd looked up at him again. "I got enough for the both of us, dong ma? I'll always have enough for you. You don't even have to ask, OK? It'll always be here."

She'd squeezed his hand gently and then had hurried out of the dining area in the direction of engine room. Mal had remained frozen in place, looking at his hand, so empty now.

Yeah, he was pretty sure that was when he noticed that she'd stopped being just the mechanic and had become Kaylee. Laughing, hopeful, infuriating Kaylee. Kaylee, who gave so freely without being asked. Kaylee, who was so dear.

End