Thanks to lvs2read for the great beta and thundernari for the great beta and spurring me on.

Warnings: Altered timeline from 'Ariel'

Time period: Just before, 'The Message'

It's hot, too hot, and Simon can barely keep himself upright. He's starting to suspect the operative's sympathetic smile is genuine rather than an attempt to worry him further. The blue-handed men are psychotic, sadistic even. They haven't hurt him as such yet, but making him as physically uncomfortable and embarrassed as possible is obviously high on their agenda.

He's not been bound, gagged, or had any of his extremities removed, thankfully. In fact, they've done the absolute minimum. But somehow it is just as bad.

Simon closes his eyes for a moment as a sweat droplet beads from his brow, runs down his forehead and clings to his eyelashes. More wasted water. More water Simon needs. It doesn't take long before the droplet falls to his cheek, and Simon opens his eyes, once more trying to keep his balance. He isn't sure why his captors have such a fondness for tanks or dark ones at that, but he finds this kind far worse than the water ones.

It's smaller for one thing. If he stretches out fully on his back or front it would be just a foot or so longer, and squat, enough so he can't stand but has to sit. Not that Simon wants to stand, he's not sure he has the balance for it. His head is pounding now, mouth dry and still tasting of bile, and his chest hurts as he breathes. It's hot and dark and he's confined to kneeling in the center in the only small square that seems unaffected by heat transfer. His fingers smart from where he's tentatively reached out to find the sides, the other areas around him hot to the touch giving him no choice but to kneel in one position. To try not to let the waves of fatigue and ache within his body win out, not to let them win, but to ride out the heat.

But it's hard, so hard. He just wants to collapse to the floor, to plead for water. His hunger cramps haven't come too frequently since he's been inside the hot tank, tempered by his desire for nothing but water and lacking the actual energy to even muster up the symptoms.

He coughs and his chest rattles making him curl over, grip his own knees to avoid falling flat on his face and burning his upper body. It's a test of endurance and one he's sure he's losing, until he feels cool hands on his shoulder. They don't steady him, just touch, just reassure him. They aren't smooth and small like his sister's, larger and Simon can feel slight ridges on the palms as he tries to peer though the haze of darkness.

"S'alright doc, I got you."

The voice is soothing and familiar and for a moment Simon freezes, tensing as the wild thought comes to his mind that perhaps Mal is in here, too. Perhaps they'd got a hold of him, too. And River and the crew…his stomach lurches, pounding from his own heart echoing in his ears as he straightens up and gropes blindly at the hands.

"Don't be freakin' now, Simon. They ain't got River, not laid eyes on none of us." The captain's voice is firm, convincing to Simon's ears, and unable to find the hands, he grips his own knees hard enough to bruise.

"River, she-" His words are a plea.

"Hush, now." Mal's voice cuts him off mid-speech, not overly gentle but carrying a concern to them, at least that's what Simon hopes it is. It's hard to read Mal at anytime, let alone when he can't see him. The man keeps things close to his chest, tight-lipped, and face set so neutral sometimes it's hard to even tell when he's being genuine or playing you.

"I…" Simon bites his lip for a moment, "I'm sorry, I should've-"

"Shouldn't've nothing', Simon. Not a thing in the 'verse you did wrong an' you know it. Was just you or all of you that woulda got caught, an' you're farin' a lot better than lil sis woulda done. Lot better 'un Jayne possibly too."

Simon laughs lightly at that thought, the action makes his chest constrict and he has to stop. "Jayne?"

"Jayne." Mal's nodding now though Simon can't see it, can only sense him doing it. "Man would've shot his mouth off first time he got here, likely be in bits now."

Simon's not sure he believe Mal's words, can't imagine Jayne getting tired as quickly or giving anything away. For all his annoyances, the man's got the strength and constitution of an ox.

All of a sudden the realization hits him that he's naked, the thought passing through, gathering meaning and making him start slightly, though he knows logically there's no way Mal could see him through the darkness. But still he blushes, even though he keeps his gaze towards where Mal is, trying to peer at the captain. It's probably the most awkward position for the captain to see him in. Simon wouldn't want any of the crew seeing him like this, even if he's sure they wouldn't be so tense if the roles were reversed. But it's different for him, not only thinking on poise or proper decorum, he's just not comfortable--at least not being the only one naked--and it's different because it's Mal.

He's not about to muse more, not about to start rehashing old thoughts about any of the crew that he quickly buried the moment Mal told him they could stay aboard Serenity. He can't deny, won't hide, that he has had moments of interest lie in directions he wouldn't have acted upon, purely because of the situation with River. He won't deny that the first hour he was aboard Serenity he entertained the notion of a fling, both where it was and wasn't offered; it would have been part relief after getting River away, part his own attraction and desire.

"I'm-" Simon tightens his lips unsure what to say, uncomfortable with Mal so close yet at the same time wanting him closer, wanting that reassuring touch once more.

"You ain't weak, Simon."

Suddenly that's enough. Enough to forget the situation he's stuck in, enough to forget his nakedness and the absurdity of Mal actually being there. Something catches in his chest and Simon feels his eyes ache, he isn't crying, wouldn't cry even if he could --can't lose the moisture-- but his eyes ache needing the relief of it, needing the release.

"It's stupid; gorramn go-se even. I just…I knew you'd keep her safe-" Simon's chest's really hurting now, not only from the exertion of speaking, but an ache which has nothing to do with the heat. "-And it should be enough, it really should, but it's not." There's a hitching waver to Simon's voice as he speaks and he clenches his eyes closed, knowing it's not weakness but hating to show that what they are doing is getting to him.

He swallows back the sob as Mal's hands touch his shoulder, as they nudge him straight again, and then Mal's speaking words that Simon's needing to hear, desperate to hear, and even if it's a hallucination, Simon doesn't care. He just listens.

"You tell 'em, Simon, an' you tell 'em? true. Your captain's comin' for you, gonna come take you home."