She had tried, really she had. In those first few days after the intrusion, Kaylee had tried to be normal, act normal, stay normal. She had played games with River, visited with Simon in the infirmary, even worked in the engine room, trying to keep her ship in top form.

But it didn't matter. Every night, as the ship cycled down and the lights dimmed, as it again got quiet and still, Kaylee could not sleep. She could not even lie down. All she could do was stay up, staring off into space, listening for the slightest noise, jumping at what had once been comforting creaks, starting at the sound of a routine tweak. And she hated it.

It made her stomach turn, violently. Every time she'd close her eyes and see his red-sheathed form, her mouth would tingle in that uncomfortable way that meant she was going to retch. And she would, emptying whatever small bits of food she had managed to choke down. So, she had stopped eating, it seemed the only logical solution to that problem, and it was working, except now she was weary all the time and dizzy.

But she still could not sleep. No one seemed to notice as she slowly deteriorated, everyone trapped in some selfish phase or another: the captain brooding over Inara's imminent departure; Simon passed out from the pain medication needed to treat his leg; the Shepherd spending more time praying than ever before; Wash and Zoe tangled up in "Wash-and-Zoe," and Jayne just acting like Jayne. Of course, River was about, she always was, but Kaylee had very little faith that she could see anything past her own insanity.

And truthfully, Kaylee liked flying under the radar. That way she didn't have to explain; she didn't have to recount the horrid details of that night. She already did whenever her eyes fluttered closed, if only for a second, she could hear his voice in her head, threatening her; could feel her shame as she gave up River's location without so much as a pause; could register her disgust as she felt her fear rotting in her stomach.

Another moan of settling metal snapped her eyes over to the side of her room and Kaylee felt her heartbeat quicken and then slow as she realized it was just Serenity, heaving a sigh. Kaylee let out one of her own as she sat on her bunk, her back to the wall, knees to her chest, waiting for the night to pass.

---- ----

River felt her pain, as always. River felt everyone's pain. It seemed that each member of the crew was suffering in some way and while River would have liked to better understand all of it on a deeper level, she could only focus on one person right now. Because Kaylee's pain was not a dull ache like the others – it was a high-pitched wail.

Despite the lateness of the hour, River could not sleep, so she was wandering. Running one hand along the wall of the ship, she felt Serenity give a heavy sigh. Serenity knew that her family was in pain, knew it because she herself had been in pain when that interloper had tried to hurt them, all of them.

River and Serenity had a deeper understanding of each other now, now that River had been Serenity. She knew that it had been a risky gamble, if only because there was no guarantee Serenity would play her game; but with ease and grace, the ship had granted River the necessary ruse to win her battle and now River felt she and her home were much more attuned.

That was probably why Kaylee's pain radiated through her so. There wasn't anyone on board closer to Serenity than Kaylee. A ship and its mechanic lived in a symbiotic relationship that no one, not even a captain worth his salt, could ever hope to touch. So Serenity knew: knew that Kaylee was not sleeping, not eating, not living. And so, River knew.

Reaching the young girl's bunk, River smiled absently at the twinkling lights adorning her hatch and without announcing her presence, kicked open the ladder and started to descend. Don't worry, Serenity, I'll get her back.

---- ----

Kaylee heard her hatch open and literally jumped up at the sound. Standing on her bed, a tiny screwdriver clutched in her now white knuckled hand, Kaylee watched with wide eyes and waited; waited for her intruder to show himself; waited to fight before she wouldn't have the chance.

But in seconds she knew she had nothing to fear. Seeing River's bare feet descend each rung, Kaylee lowered her arm brandishing the small tool and stood with her shoulders hunched. Her body, pulsing with adrenaline, shook slightly as all of her energy drained away and she sunk back onto her bunk.

"What'd ya want, River?" she asked tiredly, in no mood for any games at the moment.

When River didn't answer her, Kaylee lifted her eyes to meet the girl and found that she was staring. Those big, brown eyes, that everyone had seen pool with tears and burn with rage just gazed at her, now regarding her with a calmness Kaylee found at once eerie and soothing. When River made no move to answer her question, Kaylee stood, taking a few steps towards her and asked, "River? What's goin' on?"

Finally, cocking her head in her direction as if listening to a whispered voice, the girl's bright eyes locked onto Kaylee's. In a tone that left no room for argument, she said succinctly, "You were brave."

Inhaling sharply at her words, Kaylee squinted her eyes in confusion and asked softly, "What?"

"You were brave, not weak. The other night." River restated her assertion, still looking to Kaylee as though the other were a small child who needed an explanation.

Kaylee felt the color drain from her face as she realized what River meant. Shaking her head fiercely, Kaylee felt a few hot tears well in her eyes and she dropped her gaze to the floor. "No, River, I ain't brave. Never have been."

Taking a step towards her friend's now trembling form, River took her hand and said, "Yes, you are. Very brave, strong."

Pulling out of her grasp with a ferocity that startled them both, Kaylee turned burning eyes on River, her tears of anger and frustration falling in spurts down her cheeks. Through clenched teeth, she bit out, "No, I ain't. I was a coward. An' you know it. Why're you lyin'?"

River's expression turned from reassuring to puzzled. She wasn't lying; why would Kaylee say that? "I'm not. I'm telling the truth, Kaylee. You were brave and smart and strong."

Kaylee felt more tears come and she buried her face in her hands. How could River say that? She was mocking her, mocking the fear she'd felt and the terror she'd fought. Kaylee knew she hadn't been brave or strong; she had caved, easily, like an ice planet left in the sun too long; she had simply nodded and spilled her friend's location without a second thought. Nothing about that was brave.

River could feel the girl's turmoil and it brought sad tears to her eyes. Kaylee truly felt like she had failed, like she had done something wrong. But River knew, she knew that Kaylee had done what was necessary, had given that man what he needed to leave her be, so she could survive. That's what was important – self-preservation, River could understand that, why couldn't Kaylee?

Taking her by the shoulders, River waited until Kaylee had again raised her head to look at her. Her eyes, already full of tears, were red-rimmed from fatigue and her cheeks were hollowing from just the few days she'd gone without food. She was losing her shine and River didn't like that. Kaylee needed her shine, she needed to burn, bright and true – otherwise, they would all lose their guiding star.

"Don't be upset. You did the right thing. You did the smart thing, the brave thing."

As River again repeated these words, Kaylee felt something tear lose inside of her, something that was animalistic and hateful. Ripping her arms from River's grasp, Kaylee backed up a few steps. Even as she felt her head swim and knew that she probably wouldn't be on her feet much longer, Kaylee balled her fists at her sides, threw her head back and screamed at the top of her lungs, "STOP SAYIN' THAT!"

And then, she fell to the ground, unconscious.

"River?"

Turning, River saw Simon's concerned face and knew that the captain would be close behind. Shrugging slightly, even as her brother awkwardly made his way down into the bunk to check on Kaylee, River murmured, "Strength has its limits."

---- ----

Simon had awoken, no big surprise, as his latest dosage of pain medication started to wane. He liked to think that he was getting better and wouldn't need the stuff soon, but as he awakened to the throbbing in his thigh, he knew that was a pipe dream.

Rising on shaky feet, he hobbled to his sink and took out a few of the pills. With a swig of water he downed them and was about to head back to bed, when he considered that, since he was up, he might as well check on River. He didn't like the fact that over the past few days, since the bounty hunter's visit, he had been sleeping more than he'd been awake, unable to help her if she should need him.

Pushing down his guilt, Simon slid open his door and glanced across the hall. At the sight of River's equally open door and her empty bunk, his stomach plummeted to his feet. Walking as fast as his bum leg would carry him, Simon circled through the cargo bay first and then past the infirmary. When there was no sign of her, he, begrudgingly, started a slow and painful climb up the stairs.

Just as he reached the top he heard the faintest sound, and paused, trying to quiet his own panting. Recognizing the sound as voices and that it was coming from the direction of the crew bunks, Simon headed that way, his leg continuing to throb. Looking down to his pajama pants, he was relieved to see he hadn't pulled any stitches, but still, after having only been on the mend for five days, regardless of the miracle drugs he'd stashed for an occasion just like this, he shouldn't be climbing stairs. Oh well, kidnapping my sister from a government facility still tops the list of the stupidest things I've ever done.

Just a few steps into the hallway, Simon heard a pained sound and knew it was Kaylee. Her voice, which had started to act as a balm to his bruised spirit, was hurting and sharp, not at all like the Kaylee he had come to know and … like a lot. Hurrying as much as he could, he had taken a few steps down the ladder into her bunk when he watched in horror as she fainted at his sister's feet.

"River?"

As his sister turned to face him, Simon inhaled sharply at the vacant look in her eyes. Rushing to Kaylee's side, Simon barely heard her mutter, "Strength has its limits."

Mal was to the open hatch seconds later, calling down, "Kaylee? What's goin' on?"

As River's face appeared at the bottom of the ladder, Mal's stomach clenched involuntarily. "Kaylee's hurt," she said simply and then moved out of the way as Mal all but hurled himself down the ladder. Not at all happy to see Simon already in his mechanic's bunk, Mal filed that lecture away for later and moved to Kaylee's other side.

"What's wrong with her?" he asked hurriedly, not at all liking the ashen look on Kaylee's normally glowing skin.

Simon was studying her hands of all things and frowning. Resisting the urge to hit the boy upside the head, Mal was about to ask for a prognosis again when Simon turned to him and said, "We need to get her to the infirmary. Can you help me?"

Mal nodded once and all but hoisted Kaylee's limp form up and out of the bunk on his own. As Simon painfully made his way back up the ladder and then back down the stairs to the infirmary, he noticed that River had again disappeared. Deciding now was not the time for a lecture anyway Simon turned all his attention to Kaylee's unconscious form.

Mal hovered as Simon worked placing an IV in Kaylee's arm to get some fluids in her system, and checking her vitals. She had luckily not fallen very hard, so there was no concussion or fear of bone breaks, but still … Finally, Simon sighed heavily and looked to Mal with weary eyes.

"What?" Mal asked, his voice cracking from fear.

Ushering him outside, Simon crossed his arms over his chest and looked to the captain. "She's going to be fine."

Frowning at him, Mal mocked his posture and asked harshly, "Then why you lookin' like that?"

Glancing back into the room, he took in Kaylee's beleaguered form and felt another surge of guilt pass through him. He should have seen this coming, he should have known.

Sighing again, Simon looked back to the other man and said, "Because, this could have been prevented."

Mal did not like where this conversation was heading. "What, exactly, could have been prevented?"

Simon did not like the captain's tone, but he forged ahead. "She's suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and I would guess some malnutrition. From what I can tell she hasn't been eating or sleeping." Casting another sad gaze at the girl's small form he murmured, "We should have seen it."

"What is this 'we', doc?" Mal's tone was harsh and biting, but he didn't care. His Kaylee was hurting and it angered him to no end that the doctor, the one person on the ship with the most training, had been unable to foresee this little scenario. "Last time I done checked, you were the one with the medical degree. Ain't your job to prevent things like this?"

Simon would not be dressed down by Mal, not about this, not over his concern for Kaylee. He did care for her, more than he'd thought possible, and it pained him now, in a way the other man could not see, to have to witness this. Simon had never wanted to see Kaylee like this.

Affecting his own sharp tone, Simon turned cold eyes back to the man's heaving form and said, "Forgive me captain for being a bit inattentive, but I am the one recovering from a gun shot wound. Perhaps if you weren't so confounded over Inara's leaving you could have helped your precious mei mei!"

Mal would have taken a swing at the doc if only to wipe that smug smirk off his face, but River's reappearance took them both by surprise. Standing between them, she stared at Kaylee with another far-off look in her eyes. Simon watched her as she watched the mechanic, noticing how her eyes never left the young woman's face.

Finally, when River made no move to do anything else, Simon turned back to Mal and said in a much calmer tone, "At this point, it doesn't matter that we missed the signs. What matters is why?" Looking back to Kaylee, Simon's heart swelled with concern for her. He wanted her to open those big green eyes and laugh at another one of his MedAcad stories – he loved her laugh. "Why did this happen?"

"It was a threat, sounded like a promise." River's quiet voice disrupted the stillness and Simon took a step towards her even as she walked away from him and towards Kaylee. Entering the infirmary, she stood to Kaylee's side and placed a gentle hand against her forehead. Still staring into her closed eyes, River said quietly, "Thought it was truth, thought it was coming. Thought the danger had just begun."

Simon had followed River and now stood on the other side of Kaylee, looking into her gray face. Bringing his eyes up to regard his sister, he saw the beginnings of tears in her eyes and reached for her hand across Kaylee's form. River stayed still, not returning his touch and whispered, "Scared, alone, cold."

"River?" He hated the tremor in his tone, knew that it was seated in a growing discomfort in his gut that whatever was wrong with Kaylee was much worse than he had feared. At the sound of his voice, River finally brought her eyes to his. "Do you know what's wrong with Kaylee?"

River nodded once, and then, before Simon or Mal could press further, leaned down to place a gentle kiss against Kaylee's cold brow. "Not my secret to tell," she whispered, and then floated from the room as quietly as she'd come.

Mal watched her go, ready to follow, ready to make the girl tell him what the hell she was talking about, when some of Simon's machines started beeping with annoyance.

Whirling back into the room, Mal watched as the boy moved with hurried precision, checking Kaylee's heartbeat, watching her breathing. Mal stood just inside the doorway, still uncertain as to what exactly was happening and who exactly he could blame for it. He'd already tried to blame the doc, but apparently the boy had grown a backbone over the past eight months and refused to lie down and take his abuse anymore. Gorramit, Mal hated it when he lost that kind of authority.

Simon wished that Kaylee would come to. Her increased brain function and heart rate indicated her body was trying to rouse itself, but for some reason she refused to awaken. Considering the risks to her health if he gave her something to come back to consciousness, Simon started as her eyes snapped open abruptly, a fearful and haunted look consuming those green depths. Surprised at her sudden awakening, Simon watched in horror as she grabbed at the needles digging into her arms, trying futilely to pull the IVs away, to sit up and leave.

"No, no, no," she murmured, her voice shaky and broken. She continued to claw at her skin, leaving red, angry nail marks to tell of her efforts. "Let me go, let me go," she kept repeating, even as her weak limbs refused to cooperate.

Quickly regaining his senses, Simon took both her hands in his, surprised at the amount of resistance she gave him. "Kaylee, shhh, please." He tried to calm her, but she was agitated beyond reason; he could see it in the way her eyes clouded over and refused to focus. Whatever she was trying to get away from, whatever she was fighting, she was not in the here and now. She was somewhere else and desperately trying to leave.

"Kaylee, you're all right," Simon whispered, grasping both her hands in one of his, so he could run a soothing touch over her forehead. "Shh, Kaylee, you're okay. It's me, it's Simon. You're safe."

Her body relaxed slightly at the sound of his voice, at his words, and Simon felt the fight leave her. Gently laying her arms back at her sides, Simon pulled up a stool to sit beside her. Taking one of her hands in both of his, Simon sat next to her for a few minutes, waiting for her to focus on him. When she finally did, Simon thought for sure his heart would stop in his chest; her green eyes were dead, lifeless, so un-Kaylee-like and Simon hated it.

"Simon?" If her eyes held none of her old sparkle, her voice was worse, dry and distant.

"Yes, Kaylee, it's me." He again stroked her hair back from her forehead, trying to keep her calm. "Do you know where you are?"

She nodded once, and then let her eyes search the room. "The infirmary."

"Yes, that's right," Simon said. Glancing over his shoulder to Mal's petrified form, he motioned the other man forward. Once he was in Kaylee's field of vision, he asked, "And do you know who this is?"

Kaylee tried to smile for her captain but it wasn't working. Reaching out a searching hand, the captain clasped it in his own as she said, "Hey, cap'n."

"Hey there, lil' Kaylee." Mal's voice was rough with emotion and it sounded foolish to his own ears, but it didn't matter, not now. Nothing mattered until Kaylee was back on the mend.

Kaylee looked back to Simon and was unable to hold in the tears she felt as she saw the concern etched into his features. "S'okay, Simon," she tried to reassure him, her voice still hollow. "Everythin's right an' shiny."

"Now, Kaylee don't you be-" Mal's admonishment was cut off as Simon shot him a harsh glare.

Leaning down to kiss Kaylee on the forehead, Simon whispered, "I'm going to speak with the captain for a minute. I'll be right back." When the girl did not put up a fight, Simon turned and left the room, taking Mal roughly by the elbow.

"Get yer hands off me, doc!" Mal was not at all liking this new and forthright Simon who thought he could manhandle him on his own boat.

"I think it's best if you turned in for the night, captain." Simon's voice held no room for argument, no room for debate and Mal liked that even less.

"And I think it's time for you to remember who's ruttin' in charge," he retorted, fixing Simon with the doc's own cold glare. "What the hell is wrong with her?"

Simon sighed again and rubbed a hand over his very tired eyes. This night was just getting worse and his leg was starting to hurt again. "I can't be certain, but I think Kaylee is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And yelling at her right now is not going to make it any better."

Mal took offense. The doc might be looking out for Kaylee's best interests, but she was his mechanic, and if yellin' at her would get her to come around, then he'd yell until his voice was raw. Of course, he knew that a majority of his rage was directed at the person, place or thing that had caused Kaylee such distress. And the fact that the doctor was right.

Sighing, he looked back in to Kaylee noticing how tense she seemed, how her eyes refused to focus on one spot, but instead darted around the small room, searching, looking, watching … it just wasn't right.

Looking back to Simon, Mal asked quietly, "What can I do?"

Placing a hand on the man's shoulder and then removing it once the captain shot him a look that could have killed a small animal, Simon said slowly, "Just go and get some rest. Once I've spoken with her, I should have a much better idea of how we can treat this."

Sighing again with even more sadness, Mal nodded sullenly and started to shuffle back to his bunk. Looking over his shoulder one last time before leaving, he said to Simon, "You get me if'n she needs anythin', you understand?"

Simon nodded once and then watched as the captain left, his heart obviously full of grief for his hurting Kaylee.

Sighing himself, Simon turned to regard her tense and agitated form as she lay in the infirmary. Hoping he had the skills to help her, and hoping that she would let him, Simon reentered the room.

---- ----

Kaylee did not want to be here. She didn't like this room, never had, unless of course she was in here with Simon making him blush. But she wasn't, not now. Now, she was a patient, lying helpless and prone on the medical table and she didn't like it. Didn't like how vulnerable she felt, how exposed … she just wanted to retreat back to the confines of her bunk, where she could watch the only entrance and the only exit. Where she knew every hidden nook and cranny – where she could be safe.

Her eyes roved the room, looking for an intruder, looking for danger. She didn't see any, but it did not calm her. She knew as soon as she let her guard down, as soon as she stopped to take one deep breath, that's when they would come, that's when he would attack and that's when she would fall.

She watched as Simon came back in, sadness and a bit of pain marring his pretty face. Glancing to him, Kaylee remembered vaguely his wound, his leg and thought of the pain he must be in. She knew he had come to her bunk, looking for River, which meant he had climbed the stairs at least twice tonight and that was not good for the healing bullet hole.

Trying to dampen the fear she felt and praying that it wasn't reading across her features, Kaylee turned to him as he took a seat on the stool by her side. He didn't take her hand. She didn't want him to, truth be told and she knew that wasn't natural. All she had wanted for the past eight months was for Simon to touch her, but now that he had a perfectly legitimate excuse, she didn't want it. She didn't want to be touched right now – by anyone.

Instead, he studied her hands intently and her wrists. Kaylee blushed instantly realizing there were still marks on them from where Early's bindings had bit into her skin. Simon could see them – he would know … With renewed energy, Kaylee tried to pull her sleeves down to cover the redness, but the IV in one arm and her tiredness prevented the motion from succeeding and it was then that Simon finally did lay a hand on her shoulder.

"Kaylee."

The calmness in his tone, the assuredness and affection with which he said her name, made her heart stop. Visibly freezing at the sound, she turned her eyes over to regard him and felt more tears welling in her eyes. He looked so lost, so small to her, like he was fighting a battle and was afraid he would not win. He was afraid, for her.

When he saw that she had again focused on him, Simon lifted up her closest hand and pointed at the red marks that circled her wrists. "Where did you get these?" He asked the question gently, with no malice, no accusation coloring his tone, but it still angered Kaylee, for an unknown reason and she yanked her hand back violently.

"Nowhere," she muttered, her voice hoarse.

Simon sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes, fearing the worst. And considering that he had worked in an ER in one of the largest cities of the Alliance, he knew what the worst could be. He had no real proof, no real evidence that Kaylee had been attacked, but the fear in her face and the scars on her wrists told him differently, even as the pain in his gut and the ache in his heart continued to grow.

"Kaylee." He said her name again having noted how well it worked the first time, however, now, she was on to him. She continued to avoid his gaze and Simon thought of how else he could reach her. He didn't want to hurt her, not more than she already had been. He wanted to love her, but he knew now wasn't the time. Right now, she needed a friend, a strong, good friend and he knew he could be that for her – she just had to let him. "Kaylee, please talk to me. It'll make it better."

With a ferocity he hadn't expected, Kaylee whipped her head around to catch his gaze and burn his eyes with her own. "Don't talk 'bout what you don't understand," she bit out, her chest starting to heave as it became harder for her to breathe. "You don't know nothin'," she shouted, her voice high-pitched and angry. Simon winced at her words and the emotion behind him, but quickly his doctor reflexes kicked in as the machines he had monitoring her started to act erratically. Her heart was racing, her breathing coming in short pants and her face and limbs were covered in a light sheen of sweat.

Rising, Simon ran a comforting hand over her forehead and hair, trying to soothe her. "Kaylee, calm down, please. You're having a panic attack." She continued to pant, close to hyperventilation. She didn't like this feeling of being so out of control, unable to maintain her body's own equilibrium, but at the same time she seemed loathe to stop it. Her eyes darted around wildly, looking for solace that wasn't to be found. She couldn't breathe.

It was then that River appeared at her side and with a gentle, cool hand, reached out and touched Kaylee's forehead. "Nothing to fear," she murmured, watching as Kaylee's chest returned to its normal up and down motion.

Simon stood in awe, staring at the two women. Kaylee was better, she was getting calmer. A glance to the monitors only confirmed what he could see with his own eyes; for some reason his sister had a power over Kaylee. Maybe it had something do with her growing psychic abilities or maybe it was truly a female thing, but it baffled Simon to no end. But that didn't mean he wasn't grateful.

River continued to stare as Kaylee's eyes grew heavy with sleep. In moments the mechanic's body and mind, exhausted beyond belief, finally succumbed to rest and only after Kaylee was sleeping peacefully for a few moments, did River again turn to regard her brother.

"River?" he asked her quietly, not wanting to threaten, but needing to know exactly what had happened to their friend.

She rounded the bed and placed a light hand to his shoulder, followed by a light kiss to his cheek. "She'll be okay. Stay close, when she wakes in a few hours, she's going to need you."

With that River left in a whisper and Simon could only stare at the now empty space she had just occupied, trying in vain to understand what she was telling him.

---- ----

Kaylee was cold and uncomfortable. The metal she felt, digging into her hips and shoulder as she lay awkwardly on her side caused sharp pains to shoot up her limbs. And it was cold. It shouldn't be cold – it was never cold, not in the engine room, but now it was. Chilly, frigid and it only added to Kaylee's discomfort.

She was scared. Her heart was pounding and she was surprised it hadn't yet found a way to beat through her rib cage and out of her chest. She was trying to stay still and quiet, hoping, praying that if she didn't make a sound, he would forget all about her and not come back. Tears – cold, salty drops – fell, one by one out of the corner of her eyes dripping off her face and into her hair. Just let 'im forget, please let 'im forget …

"No, no, no, no, no …"

Simon was awakened by Kaylee's insistent whimper. He had started to doze on the couch across from the infirmary as his own exhaustion had made its presence known. Blinking quickly to clear any residual sleep, Simon was up and over to her side as fast as his injured leg could carry him.

As he reached her, he saw that she had been crying in her sleep, and it hurt him deeply to know the pain she must be suffering. Just as he was about to awaken her, she cried out, "Simon, I'm sorry. River!"

Startled, Simon stepped back, trying to understand her words, trying to place them in a context that would make sense. But as Kaylee began to thrash about more violently, Simon's sleuthing was put on hold. Reaching out, he placed his hands on her shoulders and gently shook her. "Kaylee, wake up. You're dreaming."

With a start she came to, more tears falling as she grew aware of her surroundings. Seeing his concerned face over her, Kaylee immediately relaxed in his grip, sinking back into the bed. "Simon," she breathed, even as her eyes continued to water, running trails down her cheeks.

"Yes, Kaylee, it's me. You were just dreaming, you're safe now."

He resumed his seat at her side and again took her hand in his. He was about to question her again about those marks when he heard her snort derisively, a noise he would never have thought her capable of. Looking back to her with a questioning gaze, she answered his unspoken thought. "I'm not safe, nobody is."

Simon's eyes widened at her statement. She'd said it with such frankness, such certainty that at first, he couldn't believe he'd actually heard the words come from her mouth. Not knowing how to respond, he instead checked her monitors and vital signs, reading the machines in an off-hand manner he'd perfected during his residency. She watched him in silence, an occasional tear breaking lose and falling down one smooth cheek. But she made no effort to engage him and so he let her be.

Finally, sighing heavily, Simon looked to her and said, "Would you be more comfortable in your bunk?"

Eyes widening with just the slightest glimmer of hope, she asked him, "I can get outta here?"

"I'll try not to be offended," he stated dryly, happy for just a second when he noticed her lips curl at his joke. Nodding, he began to remove the IV, being careful to bandage over the small pinprick it left behind. "I think for now you'll be all right. I'd like to keep you here, to monitor you a bit more, but if I do, I doubt you'll get any rest." Glancing around the room, Simon shrugged slightly, before turning back to her with a slight smile. "This place is kind of like a fish bowl."

She knew he was trying to be nice, really nice so that she wouldn't yell at him again, wouldn't say something so unlike her that it made his heart thud to his feet. She wished it were that simple, but it wasn't, nothing was – not anymore.

Swinging her legs out over the side of the table, Kaylee gingerly placed her feet to the floor and stood slowly, testing her strength. A little wobbly, Simon reached out a hand to steady her, but she waved him off; she still didn't want to be close, not right now. As she headed for exit with a halting step, she called to him, "See ya 'round, Simon."

Just as he'd convinced himself that his heart would fall to the hard floor and shatter, his sister again reappeared, standing in Kaylee's way. Moving quickly, he went to the door, ready to get River out of Kaylee's path should she anger the mechanic.

Kaylee stopped mid-stride to gaze at River's knowing face. Taking one more step forward, River leaned down and whispered quietly, "You need to be brave. One more time." Glancing back over Kaylee's shoulder to meet Simon's confused gaze, she added, "Have to tell the truth."

Kaylee inhaled sharply at her words, not for the first time hating the fact that River could so easily read minds. It was disconcerting to say the least and also maddening as hell, because now, nothing Kaylee thought or felt was truly hers. Although, secretly she doubted her thoughts or feelings had ever been private – it wasn't as if she didn't wear her heart on her sleeve.

Sighing heavily, Kaylee let her head drop and looked at her feet. She didn't want to have this discussion with Simon, didn't want to admit that she'd been weak and selfish, but she knew with an unexplainable certainty that she had no choice. As she continued to stare at the floor, she brought her hands up into her field of vision and studied the now healing cuts on her wrists. With fresh tears in her eyes, she looked back to River and simply nodded.

Smiling at her, the girl stepped around Kaylee to her brother's side. Pulling him forward, she placed his hand in one of Kaylee's and then pushed them both gently in the direction of the couch across the room. "Good night," she murmured as she again floated away.

Staring down at their intertwined hands, Simon felt the butterflies in his stomach flit about in an unruly manner and he swallowed hard to clear the lump in his throat. Looking up to Kaylee's beautiful face, he smiled sheepishly and felt his heart soar as she returned the shy grin.

Motioning with a nod towards the couch, where they had already spent many a night laughing and talking, Simon led Kaylee there and waited until they were both settled before again turning to regard her. Her eyes weren't so empty now, her face not so gray. She looked a bit more like her old self and as she again gave him a smile, he felt those same butterflies in his stomach start to fly in formation. His nerves settled, Simon leaned a bit more against the back of the couch and waited for her to start.

Swallowing quickly a few times to move past her own growing fears, Kaylee finally murmured, "I'm sorry, Simon, real sorry."

"For what?" he asked her, truly puzzled as to what Kaylee could possibly be apologizing for. He was certain that should an 'I'm sorry' be warranted it should be coming from his mouth – that was their tradition, after all.

"For what I did, when –" Her voice halted unable to say his name and Simon's heart again ached. Please don't let my fears be right.

"Early?" Simon questioned, feeling instant shame as more tears fell down Kaylee's face at the mention of the man.

She nodded once unable to form words, and Simon, gingerly, reached up a hand and wiped at a few of her tears. She let him, because despite her earlier confusion, she did want to be close, to Simon. She wanted him to hold her and tell her it was all right and promise to keep her safe. But he wasn't hers, and so she couldn't make those kinds of requests, those kinds of demands. In the interim, she would take his gentle touches, his hand in hers, his arm around her shoulders, when she could get them – like now.

Simon watched her struggle to go on and he knew this was not going to be easy. Inching a bit closer, Simon took both her hands in his and flipped them over to expose the underside of her wrists. With the lightest of caresses, he ghosted his fingers over those red marks and again asked, "Kaylee, where did you get these?"

Biting her lip in a futile effort to keep her tears in, Kaylee took a deep breath and then whispered, "From him."

Simon inhaled sharply at this admission. He'd known it of course, but that didn't make his anger any less hot, his rage any less real. He was glad they had spaced that hun dan, glad they had effectively killed him, otherwise, Simon felt he could have added murdered to his burgeoning rap sheet. Again meeting her gaze, Simon saw more tears there and this time, he reached up and cupped her cheek in his hand. "Kaylee, what did he do to you?"

Simon could of course remember with mind-numbing recall what the bounty hunter had threatened; he'd threatened to injure Kaylee, to make sure she died screaming … Swallowing thickly, Simon returned his attention to her contorted face and waited.

Kaylee had thought when River had basically ordered her to come clean that it was a good idea, a relief of sorts to finally just get everything out in the open, but now, she wasn't so sure. She wanted to run, hide, crawl into a hole and pull it in on herself, but if she did, then she wouldn't ever be able to see the beauty around her again. She wouldn't ever again be able to see Simon's beautiful blue eyes or his swai smile and she didn't want to forgo those joys because of one night of misery. She was better than that … stronger.

"Jus' talked is all," she finally said, her tears continuing to fall. She refused to meet his gaze, instead picking at the couch's cushion with her fingers, intently studying the loose thread she'd found. "Said he'd hurt me, said he'd …" She trailed off and Simon wasn't so sure she'd finish, but he knew she needed to. Reaching out and running a light hand down her arm, he pulled her hand away from the thread she was about to unravel, and brought her gaze back to focus on him.

"Tell me." His voice was soft and quiet, but insistent and Kaylee gulped despite herself.

"Said he'd violate me," she finished quietly, still not able to say the word, but knowing Simon would understand.

And she was right. She could tell by the distant look that haunted his eyes and the subsequent fire that lit them that Simon understood exactly what she'd feared, what she still feared every night when she tried to sleep.

Bringing his gaze back to her face, he asked her intently, "But he didn't?"

Shaking her head, Kaylee felt her shame again consume her. A blush creeping up her neck and along her cheeks, more hot tears fell and Kaylee averted her gaze. Of course, he hadn't made good on his threat, because she'd caved, like a coward. Like a fool, giving up her friends in a moment of weakness.

Simon didn't know how to help her, he wanted to, desperately, but he wasn't at all sure how. Reaching out to her, he tried to cup her face in his hands, but she pulled away, a bitter tone in her voice as she said, "Don't comfort me, Simon. I don't deserve it."

Angry at her self-hatred, Simon allowed his tone to grow a tad harsh as he told her, "Kaylee, don't say that. It's not true. You didn't deserve to be threatened, to be tied up like some animal, all because that –"

"Don't." It was the simplest of words and she said it soft, low, but with an intensity that stopped Simon cold. Again, her green eyes were like ice and he hated it. "I ain't no better than 'im."

Truly at a loss, Simon slumped back in the cushions, pulling back from her. Things were making less and less sense. How could Kaylee even think something like that, let alone say it?

Turning his dumbfounded expression to her, Simon simply said, "Kaylee, I don't understand. You are the brightest, kindest –"

"I told 'im, all right?!" It was a strangled cry, but a cry all the same and Simon watched as she again dissolved into tears before him, even as her eyes burned with rage. Her chest heaving with the ferocity of her emotions, she met his stunned expression with a cold eye. "I told 'im. He wanted to know where River slept. Said if I din't say, he'd attack me, so I told 'im." She was breathing heavily now and her eyes had again dried, a blazing self-disgust replacing the sadness. "So ya see? I ain't no better than any o' the other hun dans we've been tryin' to protect ya from."

Simon wasn't sure how to process that statement. He didn't blame Kaylee, not one bit, for giving up River's location. She had never signed on to protect his sister with her life – that was his duty and his alone. It still amazed him that the crew had, at one time or another, willingly sacrificed their own lives for River's. He had never dreamed to find people in the 'verse willing to do that, for either of them. And he knew that Kaylee had, later that night. She had executed her part in River's plan flawlessly, freeing the captain and the others from their bunks so they could finally rid the ship of Early. So why did she hate herself so?

Watching as she again fought past tears, Simon felt immense guilt at knowing all of this, all that she was feeling, all she'd been through was his fault. His fault for bringing his sister into Kaylee's life. It seemed so unbelievably unfair that in order to save his baby sister, a girl whom he'd loved from the minute she was born, he might have to irreparably damage the woman he'd started to love the minute they'd met.

But Kaylee wasn't going to do this to herself, Simon refused to let her. He would not sit idly by and watch her condemn her actions. She had done the only thing she could in that situation and Simon would never, could never, harbor any ill will towards her. He was growing to love her and that hadn't changed in the last five minutes, except perhaps to deepen.

Taking her by the shoulders, Simon forced her to look at him. With vacant eyes, she held his gaze. "Kaylee, listen to me," he said, not at all sure she was even hearing him. "None of this, none of it, is your fault. That man was a monster and you did the only thing you could have done. It's not your fault."

Nothing, no reaction, not even a flinch. Swallowing past his own tears of sadness, Simon pulled her to him hating the fact that her body stayed stiff in his embrace. Encircling his arms around her back, he whispered in her ear, "It's not your fault."

Kaylee tried not to hear him, not to feel him, not to take comfort in his warm arms. She wanted to, so badly, but it wasn't right, it wasn't fair. She had betrayed them, why couldn't he see that? Why couldn't he be mad at her, so she could go back to wasting away? Why did he have to try and make her whole again, put her back together when she didn't deserve it?

Squirming against his tight hold, she tried to push away, but he held her firm. "Let me go, Simon," she protested weakly. "I ain't worth it."

His breath again hitching in his throat at her words, Simon squeezed his eyes shut against the tears he felt there and he whispered to her again, "It's not your fault."

Kaylee tried harder this time to break his grasp. She could feel her resolve weakening, could feel his words starting to get through and she couldn't have that. She couldn't forgive herself because then she'd just be scared. At least now she was scared and angry and that made it easier to deal. "Simon, please," she breathed, her voice broken as she tried to hold back her sobs.

Still holding her tight, he whispered again, "It's not your fault." He would say it until she believed it. He wouldn't let her go until she understood.

"Yes, it is," she told him, her voice breaking as her tears came. "I tol' him where River was and you got shot and he was gonna …" She trailed off as her sobs made it impossible for her to form words. Sinking into him finally, Kaylee brought her own arms around his back and held him tight, even as her body shook. He continued to hold her back, his face buried in her hair as she cried. "I didn't wanna tell him," she finally continued, her words coming between hiccups. "I din't wanna, I wanted to be brave like you and protect River, but I couldn't do it, Simon. I'm so sorry. Please don't hate me."

A few of the tears he'd been trying to keep at bay fell now and Simon blinked quickly to rid his eyes of the rest. Pulling back from her slightly, Simon reached up and cupped her face in his hands, "I don't hate you, Kaylee. I could never hate you. You are the only thing on this ship that I can count on, the only person I know who wants the best for me and for River. I can't hate you, because …" Simon stopped himself just seconds from admitting his true feelings.

Swallowing the words down and again locking them away, he looked back into her wet eyes and placed the lightest of kisses to her lips, just a brush really, but one that told him he would want to do it again. "I can't hate you," he whispered again, his mouth back by her ear. Pressing another light kiss to her temple, he again wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

Kaylee cried more, her body weak and exhausted from all the self-imposed damage she'd caused. With her confession voiced, she felt lighter than she had in days, and she felt her eyes growing heavy, even as she continued to revel in Simon's embrace. He was so strong, his muscular arms wrapped around her, her cheek resting against the firmness of his shoulder. She could smell his clean and Simon-y scent and she loved it. She found herself taking big deep breaths just so she couldn't forget it. But even he could not keep her awake.

Simon looked down into her face and saw her heavy eyelids drooping closed. Wrapping his arms around her tighter, he was about to carry her back to her bunk, when she murmured in protest. "I don't wanna be alone."

Smiling at her, Simon thought he'd never heard a better statement come out of her mouth. Shifting his position on the couch, he laid down, Kaylee falling in easily at his side. He winced a bit as his wounded leg fell in an uncomfortable spot, but quickly Simon swallowed past the pain, glad that Kaylee was already too sleepy to notice; he knew she'd feel bad if she caught on.

Once she had snuggled close, one arm draped over his chest, Simon brought his arm down around her shoulders and drew her just a bit nearer. She moaned with content and then nuzzled her cheek against his chest. Reaching up to place a light kiss to his neck, she whispered one more time, "I'm sorry, Simon."

Knowing that he had never felt better than he did right now, with Kaylee's warm body beside him, Simon breathed his own breath of relief that they might finally be able to mend, putting this whole horrendous incident behind them. And he was even more relieved that Kaylee had let him help, had let him be the man for her he knew he could be.

Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he murmured, "There's nothing to be sorry for, just get some sleep."

"You're gonna stay with me, right?" Her voice was fading fast, even as she waited for his reassurance.

Whispering against her hair, he told her, "All night."

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