Not again, he thought somberly as he sat beside her in the infirmary. He took her hand gently as if it was made of glass. How can she be so gorram strong and so gorram fragile at the same damn time?

She was sleeping, but not by choice. By drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. She was so peaceful when she slept. It was all just a big contradiction his mind. She was the toughest woman he knew, but the most delicate. She was sometimes so distraught when she was awake, but as she slept she was calm. She was his calm, and when she was like this it broke his heart again and again.

He lovingly stroked her cheek like it would make the dried trail of tears disappear and heal her inside and out. On the outside he seemed withdrawn. A little sad. A little upset. But on the inside…on the inside, he was dying. His heart was ripped from his chest and with every fiber of being he cursed the bastards that made her like this.

"Cap'in…" Kaylee said timidly. Mal didn't even look in her direction. He continued to start at his darlin', his sweetheart, his everything.

"What is it?" his voice was quiet like he'd wake her although they both knew that she'd be out for hours.

"We've got some dinner ready and-"

"No thanks, mei mei."

"But you gotta keep your strength up after everythin'!" she argued.

"I don't think I got much of that left anyhow…" he choked. Kaylee's heart broke for him.

She placed a hand on his shoulder. She was about to spew her usual optimism, but stopped short when she saw something in her captain's eyes. Unshed tears. The captain never cried. Not at the funeral for their fallen friends, not when Inara broke his heart for the second time, not when they got word that a few of his old war buddies died, never. He was always the strong one. He'd get angry and break things or drink, but crying was one thing he did not do.

Kaylee patted him reassuringly on the shoulder and left without another word. He didn't let the tears fall. He knew better than that. However, the stinging his eyes remained.

"Why River? Why?" he asked as he stroked her long hair. He tried to forget about what she had done this time, but it couldn't be forgotten.

****

It had been two years since Miranda. Inara left two days after they left Mr. Universe's moon. He had tried to convince her to stay, but he saw the ghosts of Reavers in her eyes along with Book and Wash. She needed to get away. To heal. That meant getting as far away from the reminder of them as possible. She told him flat out that she couldn't guarantee anything. He told her that he didn't want to wait again. She said that was fine and they parted ways both a little broken. But then there was River.

He was surprised at how quickly he fell in love with her. It wasn't that quiet simmering love that was always just below the surface. It wasn't that hot boiling love like hot water in a tea kettle. It was some crazy mix of the two. It was always there and always burning with intensity that he couldn't rightly comprehend and neither could she, even with all of her science and math.

It just happened one day. It all started with a kiss. That was it. One little accidental kiss. They had been planet-side and he let her wear his coat. The weather was chilly and drizzly. The girl was in one of her sleeveless dresses as usual. One of her thinner ones too. He didn't want her to get sick, so he wrapped it around her tiny form. They had been friends since they started spending time together flying and had grown quite comfortable with each other.

"Thank you, Captain" she had said in a very sweet but matter of fact way.

"Don't mention it, sweetheart."

She leaned on her tip toes to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned towards her and her lips landed on his. At first they were paralyzed. They just stood there with their mouths pressed together not really sure what to do. He felt just the slightest movement from her that felt like a kiss and he barely kissed back.

After that they were done for. That kiss stayed in their minds for a week. They weren't sure how to go on. Talk about it, not talk about it, forget it, acknowledge it…it was all too confusing. They had their differences, but oh well. So he talked to her about it. That didn't work. Their "talking" became a full out make out session with her straddling him on the pilot's seat. From there things escalated and it was love. Real love. Love like he had never felt before. She was his other half…better half. She kept him in check, he kept her in check.

They went public with it after a week of sneaking around. Kaylee cheered, Zoe looked at them with a typical "I don't think this is a good idea, Sir…but okay…" look, Simon was angry at first, but he saw the way they looked at each other and relented with a, "At least he isn't Jayne" comment. Jayne looked at the two of them, laughed, became silent, and then, "Damn…well…I bet the sex is good…but…ain't you two like thirty years apart?"

Mal and Simon were ready to punch him. River calmed them both down and then looked Jayne square in the fact verbalizing Mal's thought. "Airlock, Jayne." After that they had no problems.

They made each other happy. Each other better. Her bad days all but disappeared and her nightmares were a lot better because when she woke up, Mal was there to hold her and remind her that it was all okay. And it was. It was better than okay.

He's just lie there some nights and look at her. She was so beautiful and that wasn't just her outside. In and out. She was amazing. He was honestly surprised that he hadn't seen it sooner, but a certain Companion took up most of his time. Not to mention that she was only seventeen. Not that one year makes that big of difference, it just makes legal.

****

He stayed beside her in the infirmary watching over her. He had done that before they were even together. She told him that once. "You protected me." Then she had paused and kissed him ever so gently before saying, "You still do." And his heart melted like it did every time she spoke to him, touched him, looked at him…

She stirred in her sleep just a little bit. She was so full of drugs there was no way that she could wake just yet. It was a good thing too. As soon as she did the pain would be back. He cringed at the thought, just like he cringed every time he looked at her arms and chest. It was miracle she lived to be truthful.

She had taken a fork, something they rarely had because chopsticks were easier to carry and cheaper, and stabbed herself over and over again. This wasn't the first time that she had done something like this, only this time it was much worse.

He wanted to hold her and take away her pain. He had for sometime now, but then that one day…that one day changed it all. He looked at the wounds and tears formed his eyes again. It was his fault that she had relapsed.

I never shoulda gotten involved, he thought sadly. That no shipboard romance rule was there for a reason, but I broke it and she's the one that's payin' for my mistake.

"Captain," Simon said cordially as he entered his infirmary. Mal shut his eyes quickly to keep the tears hidden.

"Hey Doc."

"How is she?"

"Sleepin'."

"Does she seem to be in any pain?"

"Not any visible pain."

Simon nodded. He was aware of that. This was breaking him just as much as it was breaking Mal. She had been so much better. What he saw had been promising. She didn't need medication. She had something far better, love. She had Mal. That's all that she needed. By the looks of it, she was all that he needed as well.

"It's not your fault," Simon said, seeing the guilt written all over Mal's face.

"Like hell it ain't."

"You were helping and-"

"The key word there is 'were'. Now I'm only hurtin' her."

He flashed back to that day two months ago.

****

Two months earlier…

It had been a nice day. The air was just right. Not too humid, not too dry, not too cold, not too thick. The sky was the perfect shade of blue and the grass looked especially green. There was a breeze that caught her hair just right from their hiding place behind a fence.

"You ready?" he whispered. She smiled at him. "Gorramit, don't smile when we're workin'!"

"Why not?" she asked.

"It distracts me and makes me all stupid!"

"Well you were already stupid before, so…" she smirked mischievously.

"Ha-ha."

"You know that you love me."

"That I do."

"Mal, we're set…" Jayne's voice crackled in his earpiece.

"Okay. Go on in. We'll slip in through the back."

Two loud gunshots echoed. That was their cue. They leapt over the fence and ran to the back of the building.

They slipped in through the back door without a problem. Their target was the money hidden under the wood planks in the back room. Things went according to the plan until they got to the room. They assumed that the gunfire in the front would lure the guard on the door away, but it didn't. He drew his gun, but Mal killed him before he could get his finger anywhere near the trigger.

They got into the room and got the money. However, the death of the guard didn't go unnoticed and a bunch of other men were on them. Mal gave the bag of money to River and shoved her towards the door with a single word, "Run."

She started out with him following closely behind until he took a bullet meant for her. He collapsed in a puddle of blood. She dropped the money and grabbed his gun. The men were dead within seconds before they could even realize she had it. She dropped beside him, pushing on his bleeding chest with her small hand. She called for back up. Jayne had to carry him back to the mule where they rushed home.

He almost died and she almost died with him. Ever since it had been a downward spiral. First the nightmares returned every night. She'd wake up desperately reaching for Mal. He'd hold her close and try to quiet her fears, but after that it just got worse.

Whenever he returned home with a scratch or two she'd freak out. While he was gone she would freak out. It wasn't until he came back unscathed that she'd calm down. She'd be okay for a few days, but then she'd have an episode out of nowhere usually triggered by a nightmare. She also started to slip back into her broken metaphors.

No amount of assurance or medication could ease her and it was getting to the point that he couldn't help. Something had to be done, Simon and Mal both knew that, but they weren't sure as to what.

This time he had come home with a stab wound. A bad one. The blade hit an artery and Simon had to perform surgery. Luckily he had been just outside of the ship when it happened and Simon had been in the cargo bay, otherwise it could have been bad. While he was in surgery, she had taken the fork…he didn't want to finish that thought. He may be on the mend physically, but otherwise…

He found himself looking up at God, praying for the first time in years hoping that He could at least point him in the right direction. I need to know where to go from here. Please just give me a sign. I know I ain't one to be in your good graces, but she has to be…I know it.

He fell asleep beside her waiting for some kind of sign.