"It's late. Let's get some rest," Mal said, and Serenity's crew and her passengers rose from the scarred and battered wood table bolted to the floor of the galley.
"Simon?" Kaylee called after him.
"I have to go check on my assassin," he said, his back still to her, voice tinged with bitterness.
Her heart sank. "Oh, please don't be mad," she begged. "I had to say something."
"I'm not mad at you," he said as he turned to face her. "I just..." He looked up at Serenity's bulkheads that rose around them. "She loves this ship. I think it's more home to her than any place she's been."
"W—What about you?" Kaylee asked, feeling all fidgety all of a sudden. Like she'd swallowed a flock of butterflies.
"I thought the hospital was home," he said, and she smiled, trying to get all them butterflies to settle down some. "I was really making a difference there... and embarrassingly large stacks of money," he added wryly, "and I could've... I would be there right now if she hadn't..." he trailed off.
"If—if they had just left her alone," he finished, flushing guiltily and staring at his shoes.
"Is it so bad here?" she asked as she took a step towards him, her throat starting to ache as if she'd swallowed something hard and rough and prickly. He glanced up again, and she could just fall into those blue eyes. Let them close over her like water. She couldn't stop her fingers from moving, as they played with a loose thread from her shirt. Nervous habit, her daddy had always said. Better she put those fingers to work than leave 'em idle.
"I don't even know if the captain will let us—" he began, and she cut him off.
"No, I mean... isn't there anything about this place you're glad of?" She gave him a little smile.
His eyes searched hers, and he reached up to stroke her cheek. His thumb brushed across the corner of her lips, and she held her breath as he leaned in and echoed that soft touch with his lips. Hand still in her hair, they backed up until her shoulder blades were pressed up against the bulkhead. She sighed into his mouth as his hand stroked her neck.
He wrapped his fingers around her throat, and suddenly she couldn't breathe—couldn't move.
"I'm going to give you a present," he whispered, mouth next to her ear.
Kaylee woke screaming.
She had always thought people never really did that. It only happened in novels, or vids you downloaded off the cortex. Most times, no matter what nasties might be chasing her through her dreams, maybe she woke up with a start, her heart pounding in her chest. But her voice stayed buried in her throat. Locked in her chest.
She couldn't suss out where the screaming was coming from, at first. Thought maybe it was River, but passenger dorm was down by the infirmary, and this was so close. She could hear it up inside her own head, it was so close. She took a breath and it stopped, and that was when she realised her throat was raw from screaming.
The door came open, and Mal slid down the ladder, not even bothering with the rungs. The echoes of her cries were still in her ears as he knelt next to her berth, eyes wide with fear and concern.
"Shhhhh, mèimei. S'okay," he said, arms wrapped around her. Her shirt was soaked with sweat, and clung to her back. She wanted to push his hands away, but it felt so good just to have someone hold her and stroke her hair for a second. She leaned her cheek against his chest, breath still coming in gasps. "Weren't nothing but a dream. Just a nightmare."
"He said—he said he would—" she stuttered, and she couldn't see for the tears that had come out of nowhere and showed no signs of stopping. "I'm so sorry, Cap'n."
"Ain't nothing to be sorry for, you hear me? Hell, I've seen men twice your size blubbering like a baby over half so much."
She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. "Liar."
"Serenity may be a smuggling ship, but that don't mean being trussed up like a Christmas goose in your own engine room by some psychotic qingwa cào de liúmáng was part of the job description." He gave her a one-armed hug. "That's enough to give anybody some lousy dreams for a spell. I ain't exactly been sleeping sound, neither."
"Yeah, but you didn't yell half the ship down," she said as she tugged on her jacket over the tank top she'd worn to bed.
"You wanna talk about it?" Mal asked, all concerned, and she shook her head vehemently. "You gonna be all right? You need anything?"
"I'm just tired, Cap'n."
Simon was awake when the captain tapped at the shoji screen that served as the door to his quarters.
"Kaylee—" Mal began, and Simon was on his feet, reaching for his bag and the sweater draped over it.
"Is she all right?" he asked, keeping his voice low, careful not to wake River.
"Had a bad dream," Mal assured him. "She just needs something to help her sleep."
"Nightmares..." Simon murmured.
She will die weeping if you cross me.
"Ribbons and bows," River said from the doorway of her room, rubbing at one eye with her fist like the sleepy child she only appeared to be. "He promised her."
"River, go back to sleep."
"Had a big day," she grinned at him. "Fix the broken girl."
"I will," Simon said softly, not having time to puzzle out who was broken. Or what he was meant to do to fix her. That was the way most of his discussions with River went these days. It was like the code from her letters—sometimes it took him days to figure out what she meant.
He tried not to limp down the corridor, but the gunshot wound to his thigh was still too fresh. It wasn't the agony it had been, but it was no picnic to climb backwards down the ladder to Kaylee's quarters. He looked up to see Mal wave at him and then continue down the hall to his own door.
Simon was on his own.
Kaylee was sitting on her bunk, shivering despite the embroidered blue silk jacket she wore over her shirt. She flinched when Simon reached out to touch her shoulder.
"Duìbùqî, Simon. Captain didn't have to go and fetch you out of a sound sleep—"
"I wasn't sleeping," he said with a shrug. Despite being doped up against the pain, he'd just lain awake in his bed, reliving the last two days in his mind. Revisiting all he'd done, looking for any little thing that he could have done differently. Fixed before it became broken.
The easy closeness he'd shared with Kaylee the last couple of days was gone. He didn't know who was more to blame for it—himself or Jubel Early. It would have been simple to blame the bounty hunter, but his life of late was rarely simple. And nothing had been the same since River had been found with Jayne's gun.
"How's your leg?" she asked as she scooted over, making room for him to sit down beside her on the narrow bunk.
"Still attached." He stretched it out in front of him, and grimaced.
"Gunshot wounds tend to, I'm learning from experience."
She chuckled. "It all you expected it to be?"
"And more. How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay. Really."
"The captain said you were having trouble sleeping?"
"Just a nightmare." She ducked her head, a blush creeping up her neck. "I feel like such a big baby."
"I imagine none of us are sleeping easy. Except for possibly Jayne—who, it has been proven, can sleep through an invasion."
She smiled, but it was a pale echo of her habitual grin.
She will die weeping if you cross me.
"Kaylee, did Early—did he... touch you?" Simon asked carefully, and the smile vanished.
"No." She shook her head. "Said things that shook me, is all. I didn't pay it no mind, but then it snuck up on me." She tucked her feet up under her, wrapping her arms around her knees and staring at the floor. "He said things—he said he would do things to me, and I just got so scared—"
He reached up to brush her cheek with his hand, the same way he would to try and calm River when she was in one of her rages. It was second nature. He did it without thinking, and when she blinked, tears slid down her cheeks.
"Simon, I—I told him where River slept." Her voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not okay!" She shook her head, and a single tear landed on Simon's hand. "I didn't try to fight or—or even lie. I coulda sent him to Jayne, or Zoe. They might've had a chance. I coulda done anything 'cept what I did."
She leaned away from him, pulling the blue coat closer around her as if she could disappear inside it. "You must hate me."
"I don't hate you," he said, lifting her chin so she would meet his gaze. "If anybody's to blame, it's me. That... that chùsheng tza-jiao duh tzang-huo would never have come here if I hadn't—if I hadn't dragged you all into the job on Ariel."
"Doctor! Such language," she said, trying to chide him playfully, but even that was brittle. Everything felt as if it would shatter at the slightest misuse.
"Learned it from Shepherd Book. He's been a terrible influence on me." Simon offered her a weak smile, which she echoed. But the smile faded as he busied himself with getting the smoother and a hypo out of his bag. "I'm the one who led him right to us. You would never have gotten caught in the crossfire if it weren't for me."
"Simon, you were just trying to help your sister. Ain't nothing wrong with that—we all want her to get better."
Simon paused, just... looking at her. Drinking in the sight of her. In most ways Simon could think of, Kaylee was amazing. She baffled and confused and delighted him constantly with her resilience. Her unflagging cheerfulness and stubborn belief that everything would always work out in the end was a wonder to him. From the second he had set foot aboard Serenity, she had been there with a ready smile and kind word for a perfect stranger. She'd taken time to welcome him into her life—treated him like a member of Serenity's crew instead of just freight. She'd worked hard over the last few months to coax him out of the protective shell shaped and hardened by all he'd been through in the last three years. Just because she'd been convinced that underneath the starched shirt and formal language, there was someone worth getting to know better. Not because he was a Tam. Not because he was a surgeon at the most prestigious hospital in the Core. Just a man. And that had meant more to him than he'd realised.
She will die weeping if you cross me.
"If you'd been—if he'd hurt you, I'd never be able to forgive myself," he told her, eyes burning slightly. He looked away quickly, blinking rapidly before tears could gather in his eyes.
Tentatively, she reached out and gave his fingers a squeeze. That simple touch seemed to mend something that Simon had feared was mangled beyond all repair, and he welcomed it. Clung to it, fragile as it was, because he hadn't realised how much he needed her until he'd almost lost her.
"He didn't do nothing more than scare me, is all," she insisted. "And if he'd taken River back to those yaoguài, I don't think I'd be much able to forgive myself either."
"So I'd say we're at an impasse."
"Looks like," she nodded.
"How should we proceed?"
"Well... If you can forgive me for being a nuòfu, then I can forgive you for putting your sister first."
He looked down at their hands, her fingers still twined in his. This time, the silence that stretched between them was companionable, even comforting, and he stroked her hand with his thumb absently as the seconds ticked by and he was able to pull himself a bit together.
"You're exhausted. Do you still want something to help you sleep?" He held up the hypo, and she nodded, scooting back against her pillow and rolling up the sleeve of the jacket.
"It's just a smoother—just to help you relax," he told her as he took her proffered arm.
"Xièxie," she said as he wiped the inside of her elbow with a cotton swab soaked in alcohol before injecting the contents of the syringe.
He put a bandage on the pinprick and folded the voluminous sleeve of the coat back down. "Just lie back—that should kick in pretty quick."
She reached out and caught his wrist as he started to rise.
"Will you—could you stay?" she asked, green eyes enormous. "Just until I fall asleep?"
He nodded, and she curled up beside him, head resting on his shoulder.
His leg still ached, but somehow the hurt seemed smaller. Less noticeable. He concentrated instead on Kaylee's breathing, the steady rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. He knew that adrenaline would have been coursing through her, her seratonin levels triggering the fight-or-flight response. He knew all manner of things about how the smoother would affect her physically. But all he really cared about was that she was okay. That everything was going to be okay.
"River beat me at jacks," she said around a yawn. Her hair smelled like shampoo. He hadn't noticed it before. Nothing fancy—just clean, and it was soft against his cheek.
River had come back to the Infirmary glowing and smiling, and told Simon—who had still been groggy from the painkillers—everything that had happened to her, in great detail. She had fretted and clucked over him like a mother hen, as if he was the one who needed looking after. She basked in the knowledge that she was being allowed to remain on Serenity, and for her sake, he had been happy.
He still couldn't quite look at the ship as a home—not yet. But Kaylee was a little bit of home in this strange and occasionally terrifying place. She could be so much more, if he could bring himself to let her. He knew that. What frightened him was letting go of who he had been, and learning how to live simply as who he was. He wanted to; he just wasn't sure how.
Simon had never actually been in Kaylee's room before. Most times, she'd come to his. The passenger quarters below were larger and more spacious, and crew quarters consisted of little more than a berth and a head. Kaylee's definitely bore the stamp of her personality—from the twinkling lights to the assorted souvenirs that lined the narrow shelves beside her bunk. He glanced up at the dress which hung at one end of her berth, flounces and layers of frippery a stark contrast to the canvas coveralls she usually wore.
She followed his gaze, and grinned.
"That's some dress," he finally said.
"Ain't it something? Sometimes, I just like to lie back and look at it, ya know?"
"It's very... " he trailed off, "feminine. Definitely. With all the, ah... It's a pretty dress."
He flushed, feeling guilty as he remembered his first impression of it, when Mal had bought it for her. Then, he'd thought it was gaudy and crass. He'd grown up with the austere yet tasteful fashions of the Core worlds—rich fabrics in delicate brocades and conservative cuts that had dictated his tastes for as far back as he could remember. But the pure joy the gift had brought Kaylee had outshone the flounces and layers of net and satin. That was what made her so special.
"I ain't got what you might call refined tastes," she said with a giggle.
The sedative was starting to take effect—her eyes drifted close, the tension draining out of her like the tide. He leaned over to brush the hair from her face and she muttered, snuggling closer into the curve of his shoulder.
"I think you're beautiful," he said softly.
She was breathing evenly now, eyes closed and he pressed a kiss to her forehead, and then lightly brushed her lips with his.
"Don't let the space bugs bite," he murmured into her hair before allowing his own eyes to close.
mèimei little sister
qingwa cào de liúmáng frog-humping bastard
méi guānxi. it's all right/it's okay
chùsheng tza-jiao duh tzang-huo animal-fucking bastard