Simon had never noticed the scar before. He traced the long curved mark darker than the smooth white skin of her lower back. They were curled side by side in her bunk. It was a tight fit, but Kaylee certainly didn't seem to mind.
"What happened?" he asked, lips against her spine.
"Hmmm?" Her cheek rested on the pillow, light brown hair fanning out over her shoulderblades.
"Here." He traced it lightly with a fingertip.
"Oh." She giggled. "There was this boy."
"Hmmm.... Maybe I don't want to know."
"We got caught in the cloakroom at church—"
"Well, there was a social goin' on," she offered by way of explanation. "He was a bit younger than I thought. You'd never've known it, looking at him. I mean, he was..." she waggled her eyebrows, then laughed. "My daddy whupped me so hard."
His hand on her back stilled. "He beat you?"
"It was just a welt that didn't heal, is all," she said with a shrug, and Simon was horrified at Kaylee casually describing a beating.
"If my father ever laid a finger on River—"
"River most like ain't never got herself into half the trouble I did. I was a wild thing. Wild things need taming."
Simon could only stare at her, unable to wrap his mind around the concept. "By beating it out of you?"
She sat up in bed, clearly irked now at his outrage. "Simon—he was protectin' me in his own way. The whole 'verse ain't some shiny Core planet."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she went on.
"I got my first boyfriend when I was 15—he was ten years older'n me. I thought he hung the moon, but when my daddy found out...." She sighed. "I look back now, I seen it was better that way. I got all ahead of myself—It was family that got me turned right ways again. That's what family does. "
"Not my family." He shook his head.
"Course not your family." Her cheeks were flushed with anger. "No gal in the Tam family would be so gorram yúchûn as to get seduced by some shizi who'd've knocked her up and left her high and dry."
She was practically shaking with fury he'd only seen aimed at people who slighted Serenity.
"Daddy saw I was better'n that, and he was damned if I was gonna end up some gutter trash, gift he saw I was wasting. Sure, he whupped me more'n once—but at least my daddy didn't sell me to the Alliance."
Her hand flew to her mouth. He could tell she regretted the words, but it was too late. "I didn't mean—"
"Yes, you did." He got out of bed and pulled on his clothes, every movement stiff with anger.
The door clanged shut behind him, and she was alone.
She found him in the Infirmary, tidying up a place that already looked neat as a pin to her.
All night long, she'd alternated between remorseful and furious. Angry with herself, for saying what she had—and angry with him for looking down on her family when, from her vantage point, his childhood hadn't hardly been no picnic.
The one thing in this 'verse she'd never doubted was that her folks loved her. She was rock solid in that belief. Nothing could shake it. It hurt so damn bad to see him assume—without even meeting Ephram Frye—that he was some kind of monster.
She knew the world Simon came from and the world she came from were as different as two could be, and still exist in the same 'verse. She knew, and it didn't matter one bit to her. But it mattered a whole lot, the idea that it meant something to him. She didn't like the way that made her feel.
"You talking to me?" she asked from the doorway. "Or are we gonna pretend like—"
"You were right," he said as he continued organising suppiles, not even meeting her eyes.
All the wind went out of her sails at once. "Shénme?"
"You were right," he repeated with a casual shrug. "I didn't—don't—want to believe it. But my parents had to have known. If not at the beginning, then by the time my father bailed me out of an Alliance jail for being caught in a blackout zone."
She blinked. "If they knew, how...?"
"Maybe the Academy promised them they'd get their daughter back better than new. Maybe they threatened to destroy their lives, my career. But don't you see? It doesn't matter." His words were twisted with bitterness, his shoulders slumped in defeat. "They chose not to believe it, because to do otherwise would have meant they had a hand in destroying their daughter. And that must have been too hard a truth to face."
She reached out and laid her hand on his, her anger having fled in the face of his pain. His belief must've been rock solid too, once. Now he had no foundation, and was just drifting.
"No child wants to believe their parents don't love them unconditionally, and wouldn't die to protect them. But I've been lying to myself, because I didn't want to face the truth. And the truth was... they sold their daughter to the Alliance. Tried to sell their son too, in their own way. I was just too blind to see it."
She wrapped her arms around him, gently but firmly pulling him into an embrace. "They was weak—but Simon, you're strong. You ain't like them. You got River out. You're better than them."
He sighed into her hair, resting his cheek against hers.
"Just... promise me something?" He pulled back, stroking her cheek. "Never ever let a man lift a hand to you. Ever."
She nodded, eyes blurring with sudden tears. She hugged him tightly, as if the hug could somehow mend something that was far outside her ability to fix.