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Disclaimer: Firefly and all related elements, characters and indicia © Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television, 2003. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations -- save those created by the author for use solely on this website -- are copyright Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television.

Notes: Thank you so much to everyone who discussed, poked and encouraged, taraljc for a wonderful preliminary beta, witchnyn for everything along the way, and most especially to the kind and extremely talented shanna_s and hawkmoth for truly excellent edits and polishing. Special thanks to skirpka (my sounding board) and sffan (for telling me to just post already). Thank you so much!

Spoilers for Objects in Space.

Light of Some Kind  

by liquideyes

For Simon, sleep was not forthcoming. He had actually passed out after Zoe had finished with his wound, but returning to consciousness left him even more exhausted. While he had long ago learned to take advantage of the power-nap, a power pass-out was not a sufficient substitute — even though he had been out cold for several hours, or so he figured. The absence of strong light filtering through the infirmary window signaled night on the ship. He longed for his own bed, which surprisingly meant the small, hard bunk in the passenger dorm, even though he doubted his ability to sleep in any case. It was odd being in the infirmary by necessity rather than choice, and without an injured patient to tend to — although he supposed he could count himself as said injured patient. Though he had already gone over the best follow-up procedure for his injury more than enough times to satisfy his need for perfection.

Without anything else to occupy him, except perhaps the discomfort of the hole the bullet left in his thigh that the meds didn't completely alleviate, his thoughts kept spinning in circles. And they spiraled inwards towards retrospection, self-criticism and doubt. He could recall glimpses of Kaylee's worried face as he was brought into the infirmary. And somehow he could also feel River's presence hovering, gently scolding him for getting injured and messing up her plan. He needed tangible evidence that they were both okay, now that he was more cognizant... because if they weren't...

It was all his fault.

The bounty hunter had tracked them since Ariel. His brilliant plan had gone even more horribly awry. The feds were bad enough... but now River had almost been taken, and Kaylee — he didn't want to think about that. Early's words kept coming back, making him as chilled and as ill at ease as he felt in the blackness of space. But his blurred recollections of the two girls were insufficient to assuage his fears.

He felt miserable knowing how much he sometimes wanted to wake up and find that the last few years had all been a dream. To wake up and be back at the hospital. To wake up and be back at the Tam Estate having dinner with supportive parents and his genius — but otherwise perfectly normal — sister, a dinner where he could recognize the original source of the food.

Usually, after some self-recrimination, he managed to suppress the bouts of nostalgia, the remembrance of things past. Because he knew most of what he remembered really was a dream... or a lie. And he couldn't even tell a lie with much success, let alone live one. So he was learning to live something else.

While he had lost many things, losing what he had gained wasn't something he was exactly comfortable with. He knew that now, since he had almost lost everything. Again. He knew how he would feel if he had lost River for a second time, or if he had been the cause of something that doused the light that always shone from Kaylee.

He really wished that he didn't.

He knew now how it would feel, but he didn't know what he would have done if it had actually happened. Didn't know if he would still have had a life. Definitely not the life he wanted.

Except that now, when he felt more inclined to stay, he knew he really shouldn't. It put them all in too much danger, which was no longer as hypothetical or easily dismissed. And while he had always been able to make the hard, split-second choices, he was wavering. Whatever he chose, the possibilities of hurt, both emotional and physical, were too large to be considered. But they had to be considered. He really didn't know what he wanted — or if his wants should even be allowed to be influential.

He did know — had always known — that he wanted to be able to fix things with the intelligence that he had been granted. It was part of the joys of being a doctor. Doctors are supposed to be able to make things better. He was supposed to be able to make things better, but instead he was just making them worse. But if he wasn't a good doctor, then who was he?

These kinds of thoughts weren't doing him any good. But he was tired, and had taken medication. Medication, he realized, that had depressant side effects. No wonder his thoughts were turning in such a dismal direction. Not for the first time, he wished he could dope himself senseless. But that was not something an on-call doctor did. Ever. And technically, he was always on-call.

So instead he couldn't get River's words to stop circling around his mind. He needed to know if she was really all right, that she was safe, that she was still here on the ship. Needed her to know how much he loved her. He also needed to know that Early had not touched Kaylee in the manner he had implied. Needed to see her still smiling. Possibly even smiling at him. But, for now, he was stuck in the infirmary.

Then, as if his thoughts had summoned her — something he was beginning to believe was indeed possible — large brown eyes, eyes belonging to a face he knew as well as his own, drifted into his line of vision. The meds had been just enough to dull the edge, so he suspected that the blurring and difficulty focusing was from blood-loss and pain as well. But he would know River anywhere, he suspected. It made him very glad she had ventured into the infirmary; some days it would take all of his skills to get her in there. She rested her hand gently on his good thigh.

"Bullets. Guns. Piercing. I'm sorry that he shot you."

"It's, well... it's new and interesting. Maybe... maybe Early was right, it may help me understand the next time someone on the ship gets shot. I'll definitely be sure to give them plenty of pain medication."

"He wasn't right!" She shuddered, as if trying to push invisible things away. "There was nothing about him that was right." It was a reaction that he recognized, had seen too many times; Simon wished his hands, or his knowledge, could push the things that haunted River away for her. "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly...she swallowed a spider to catch a fly. But she won't die."

"Shhh, shhh. He's gone now, mei-mei. We're safe." He reached out to gently stroke her arm, to reassure her he was there for her, always and forever. To reassure himself that she was really there, corporeally. Not a drug or pain induced hallucination.

"Safety is relative. She's the brighter side... I beat Kaylee at jacks. Eightsies makes for problems. You shouldn't have believed her, should have known that she had a plan."

"I couldn't lose you, mei-mei. I couldn't risk it. I couldn't have gone on without you...and nothing would make me not worry." He swallowed, heavily, knowing that her speech would never leave him, whether she had really meant it or not. "And you know, sometimes, I'm the dummy."

"You need looking after. And I'm not enough, sometimes. It's hard for you. She makes it harder. Emotions are problematic. Too many problems." She gave her head a little shake in exasperation. "Except when it's real. But real is the problem. Remember, next time thinking comes before, actions after. And the quick are the dead. Except we're not."

"No, we're not." He could at least take some comfort in that. It had somehow turned out all right, even if it hadn't been, as the Captain would say, smooth. He supposed he was in large part responsible for the lack of smoothness in her plan.

"And it's not your fault. She's happy you tried... always knows you care. Sometimes it's my turn. To bed, to bed, to bed." River leaned over to place a kiss on his forehead. "You should sleep," she whispered and turned to go, drifting out in the same manner as she had come, singing to herself.

"And the little bird caught the spider, or he would have wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her..."

***

Simon awoke to sounds of gentle rustling, the sounds of someone trying to be quiet while finding something in the infirmary. At least that meant it probably wasn't Jayne, a small blessing for which he was much relieved. He wouldn't be mobile enough to fix the mess that the mercenary would make if he couldn't find what he was looking for — not for a few days, at least. He opened his eyes and saw Inara, in one of the loose robes that she often favoured, searching through a drawer.

"Need any help finding what ever it is you're looking for?"

Inara jumped. He realized that after yesterday he should probably have made some noise or cleared his throat before he spoke. She was, of course, quick to regain her composure.

"Simon, I'm sorry that I disturbed you. I was just looking for a weave; the quicker this heals the better." She turned around to face him, and an elegant finger gestured towards her lip. "Are you in any pain? Should I get you something?"

"Third drawer, on the left," he answered without thinking: he knew his infirmary. It was nice to be certain of something. "I would be lying if I said that there was no pain, but since bullet wounds are a new experience for me I would assume that everything is proceeding as it should. And everything I'd need is right here." Simon inclined his head towards the table beside him. "But thank you."

"It's always good to think ahead," Inara smiled, then winced and opened the weave to apply it.

"Wait — would you like me to take a look at that?" It was the least he could do, considering it was his fault. "I'm sorry," he added, quietly.

"It's not bad enough for that, Doctor. I've had worse. And since I don't have any clients lined up, I can afford to let it heal on its own." Before he had time to wonder if she was just being kind or had let that last bit slip by accident, she quickly continued, "Simon, It wasn't your fault that that yaoguai hit me."

"No, but it was my fault that he was on the ship. He got word of us on Ariel. My brilliant plan..." he trailed off bitterly.

"Well, despite complications, it went about as well as any of Mal's plans ever do. And without it, there wouldn't have been enough cash on hand for the rescue operation from Niska. It may not seem so now, but things have a funny way of working out on this ship." She smiled reassuringly at him, but he couldn't bring himself to smile back.

"Did anyone else get injured?" He had assumed that in his role as doctor, he would have been informed if that had indeed been the case, but now he wasn't so sure. "Is Book all right?"

"The preacher is fine: his head is rather hard. No, it seems you were the one to sustain the worst injury, Doctor." Her laughter was gentle, tinkling like bells.

"And Kaylee? He didn't... hurt her? Did he?" He hoped that Inara would have volunteered the information, if there was any, and since she hadn't that meant Kaylee actually was all right. But he had to ask to be sure. Had something happened, Inara would logically be the person to whom Kaylee would turn. Or with her skills at reading people, Inara may have noticed if something was really wrong.

"She seemed fine. A little shaken from being tied up, of course. But she appeared to be back to her cheerful self when she was playing jacks with River yesterday." Inara opened her mouth as if to say something more, but then shut it again without continuing.

"River mentioned something about that last night. Eightsies being somewhat problematic. If you're sure..."

"Eightsies always tend to be problematical. Mornin' Doctor. Or afternoon, rather," Mal said dryly, poking his head into the infirmary. "I see that you're doing somewhat better. Lunch is like to be starting soon," he added, looking towards Inara, then back to Simon, "Do you need me to be bringing you something?"

"That's all right, Captain. The pain medication suppresses..." He realized that the medical explanation that was a reflex would be lost on them, "I mean, I don't think I'll be up to eating anything until later tonight. Thank you."

Mal nodded. "I'll make sure to send some supper along, then." He turned to go, and Inara trailed out after him, but not before giving Simon a parting smile.

***

Kaylee hovered in the hallway between the galley and the engine room, hesitant about following her usual after-lunch routine of checking up on her girl. But she couldn't think of what else to do. Zoe and Wash were on clean-up duty in the kitchen, and they didn't need anymore help — really, she'd just get in the way. If it wasn't broke, it didn't need fixing. And Zoe and Wash together could clean the kitchen faster than anyone, even faster than Jayne when he wanted to get back to his bunk. Besides, her offers had been shrugged off anyways. The rest of the crew — those that were there for lunch — had already left. Except Inara, who was just finishing a cup of tea. Pausing on her way out, Inara caught her eye. Seeing the invitation plain in her questioning gaze, Kaylee hurried over. They fell into step.

"Simon asked after you." Inara's casual tone of voice was belied by her smile.

"He did? What did he say? How did he look? He is all right, right?" Kaylee pounced on any news about the doctor, and this was no exception.

"Why don't you go see for yourself? The poor doctor's all alone in the infirmary, nothing to distract him from that bullet wound..." Inara teased gently.

"Nah, I'd better let him rest. I'm sure he doesn't wanna be bothered..."

"Mei-mei?" Inara didn't hide her surprise. "Why wouldn't Simon want to see you?"

"No reason." Kaylee looked down, avoiding a gaze that was radiating disbelief so strong she could feel it. Reluctantly, she relented. "'Cause — 'cause I told the bounty hunter where River's room was. And I don't wanna — I know he won't..." Kaylee sighed. "And before things were goin' so well."

Inara looked at her expectantly.

"Or better, at least. 'Nara, after the meetin' 'bout River, in the hallway when I was apologizing — I think Simon was gonna kiss me. 'Cept then Book interrupted..." Kaylee's shoulders slumped, "But now I don't even know if I can look him in the eye after..." her voice started to tremble and she stopped in her tracks. Inara placed her hand on Kaylee's back and she gently, but firmly, guided her out of the main hallway and into the stairwell entry.

Inara leaned in to peer at her face. "Kaylee? Simon asked if you'd been hurt and was rather concerned. And I am too. Are you alright, mei-mei?"

Kaylee had thought she was acting just like normal. Sure, she wasn't trained in it like Inara... but she thought she was being convincing. Of course, companions knew how to see that sort of thing. The cracks in her composure were probably as plain as day to those that knew how to look. She sighed inwardly. Part of her wished everyone would let her put on a brave face. It wouldn't do to dwell on it, and she was trying her very hardest to forget, to concentrate on anything else. There was nothing like Serenity for keeping her mind off her troubles, but that didn't work so well this time.

When she stepped into the engine room, memory would threaten to overtake her. And she would be good to no one if she couldn't do her job in keeping Serenity flying. She figured in a few days she'd be right as rain: it would all be over and everything would go back to normal. But now she suspected that she would have to talk about it — to tell someone — before things were right again.

Who better than her jei-jei to confide in? Though this wasn't quite like their usual girly gossip, Inara knew people... and other things. The look of compassion in Inara's eyes made up Kaylee's mind for her as the companion's obvious distress and sympathy brought everything bubbling up to the surface; memories assaulting her senses.

"I ain't never been so scared. Close, with some of the scrapes we've had... but not never... he — an' I was so..." Kaylee babbled, unable to get the words out in any kind of coherency.

Tears ran down cheeks that were far more used to being stained by engine grease than salt water. But this time, instead of cold, hard eyes and impersonal hands roughly securing her limbs and brutal words making her equally as frozen with fear, loving arms opened and gently guided her into a warm embrace. Kaylee buried her face in the silken softness of Inara's robe as she was gently rocked back and forth.

"It's okay, baby... shhh, shhh... It's okay..." Inara crooned over and over again until Kaylee was seemingly all cried out. Then the words came.

"I was fiddling with the engine. Serenity was running real smooth, but I wanna keep her that way... so I was making a few things a little bit tighter. And I don't know where he came from — he just came out of nowhere. Knew my name, and everything. I almost thought I was dreamin', but I pinched myself and I didn't wake up. More like a nightmare..." Kaylee hiccupped, and drew in a shallow, shaky breath. "Then, he made me know that I was all alone. And how easy it would be for him to hurt Serenity. 'Cause it's true, there's lots of parts that if they get unattached... engine stops turning. Then he made clear how easy it'd be to hurt me too... how easy it would be to do things that..." Kaylee shook with sobs and Inara hugged her tighter, rubbing her back soothingly in small circles until the mechanic's breathing quieted.

Kaylee pulled back, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her fingers, under fragile control again. "I'm sorry 'Nara, here I am, getting you all wet..."

"It's okay, mei-mei. And it's better to get it all out. Talking about such a traumatic experience makes it loosen its hold. It's not something that does any good clutched so tightly about you that you can barely breathe." Inara reached into the pocket of her robe, pulled out a pink silk handkerchief and pressed it into Kaylee's hand.

"'Nara, I'll get it dirty. Engine grease's hard to get out." Kaylee wiped her nose on her coverall sleeve.

Despite her protests, Inara took the silk square and moved to start drying Kaylee's tears. "I can think of no better use for it, mei-mei. And that goushi buru has long since suffocated in the blackness of space. He can't hurt you or anyone else ever again. The captain and River made sure of that."

"But I still — I told him where River slept. She said it was ok, after... but... but I wish I had said something else. Anything else. I coulda — But all I could think of was what he'd... he was going to — if I didn't — he was going to rape me." She hiccupped again, and despite her efforts the tears began to flow once more.

There. She'd finally gotten the word out. It was small word, only four letters long. It was such a funny little word to have such power over her. She'd like to be able to pretend that it didn't.

Inara's hand tightened almost painfully on hers, and her dark eyes seemed filled with the sorrow of a thousand lifetimes. She looked like she wanted to say something, but the words that came out of her mouth weren't quite what Kaylee had expected. "As companions, we're taught... ways of repelling a man's unwanted advances. Would you like me to teach you?"

Kaylee nodded gratefully. "That would be shiny," she said, with a ghost of a smile. Inara was right, she couldn't keep it all bottled up inside.

"And you know it's not — it shouldn't be like that," Inara said, keeping a comforting grip on her hand. "Not about power. Some men, and some women for that matter... like power. And use anything they can — more often than not fear — to exert that control."

"But some people're just the opposite. They've got power, but they don't even wanna use it. Or they use it to help folks — to protect us. Like the cap'n." Kaylee offered tentatively.

Inara nodded, looking down at their interlocked fingers.

"And 'sides, 'Nara. Couldna grown up where I did without knowin'..." Kaylee had the grace to blush. "I know it ain't always 'bout power. You should know by now that I ain't innocent as all that."

"You, not innocent? Whatever do you suppose would have given me that idea?" Inara said with a smile.

The corners of Kaylee's mouth twitched upwards, and she could feel the smile trying to form. "'Nara! I know I told you how I got hired to be mechanic."

"Oh, now that you mention it I do seem to recall..."

Inara's high handed manner elicited a nervous giggle from Kaylee. But melancholy was still threatening at the edges to overtake her. "Though if it was Bester who'd been here, I betcha he wouldna told." She said somberly.

"If it was Bester, Serenity would probably not even be spaceworthy. You're wonderfully talented, mei-mei, and your gift has kept us alive more than once."

Kaylee shrugged, still not convinced of her own worthiness after what she had done.

Inara quickly elaborated. "Every action creates consequences; some large and easily visible and some so tiny you barely notice them in the larger pattern. If Bester was still here I would never have met you, which would have been a great shame. And in all likelihood, Serenity wouldn't have been at Persephone that day and Dobson would have captured Simon and River. Or even if it somehow was, Simon may have chosen another ship if a certain bright-eyed, pretty mechanic hadn't alerted him to the charms of a Firefly." Inara smiled softly, letting her words sink in. "You should really go talk to him." She urged, nudging her friend gently.

"Maybe... maybe later. There's a couple of things for Serenity I need to do first. Thank you 'Nara," Kaylee whispered. "See you at supper." She gave her a tight hug before taking her leave, feeling confident enough to return to her engine, and to claim the space, once again, as hers.

***

"I brought you some supper, Simon." Kaylee stood with the tray that she had prepared, framed by the doorway of the infirmary.

"Thank you. You can come in, you know." He was surprised that she hadn't bounded right on in, that she was being cautious. Something was obviously bothering her, and his heart constricted in his chest. He hoped that he was jumping to conclusions, given what he knew about the worst case scenario.

"It's mainly protein, but I guess you're used to that now."

"I'm sure it's good — as long as Jayne didn't have dinner duty tonight?"

"No, he traded with Shepherd Book. Can't you smell the rosemary?" she asked, coming closer and setting the tray down on his bedside table.

"Yes, now I can. Thank you. And honestly, considering the difficulty of obtaining fresh food that would provide all the appropriate nutritional elements and vitamins, it's just as well that we have the protein meals." Perhaps Kaylee's positive thinking had rubbed off on him, a bit. Or perhaps he was getting better at finding the aspects of the truth that would be most appealing.

"I don't know, it sure would be nice if someone figured out a way so that we could live off strawberries. Think anyone's working on it?" she asked wistfully.

"Well, the technology is certainly advanced enough to produce strawberries that would provide all the nutritional requirements. I'm sure it's just a question of money and the market for them."

"Well, if we ever get rich enough..."

"Then I know what you'd do with your cut. You wouldn't get tired of them?" He wasn't sure if he was keeping the talk light as a means of avoidance — or if she was. And he didn't know which worried him more.

"Strawberries? Never!" she said with the firm determination of someone who has never had the opportunity to eat so much of a favoured food as to become sick. Of course, if it was Kaylee and strawberries, Simon had second thoughts on that assumed certainty. Personally he had never wanted to see another power bar after his time in his internship. But then again, power bars had never been his preferred form of sustenance. He could still taste them on his tongue, and grimaced at the flavour. Which surprised him, as he didn't think he had ever really tasted them going down the first time.

"Is something wrong? You ain't even tasted it yet," Kaylee asked, hesitantly.

"No, it's not that. I was just remembering eating something I had too often — I didn't have much time for real meals during my internship," Simon tried to explain. "I guess considering how closely taste and smell are linked, it's not surprising that I can still recall it," he clarified, taking the fork that had been provided instead of his customary chopsticks. He spooned some of the red-coloured protein into his mouth, chewed and swallowed, then waited to see if his system would accept it or reject it. His stomach, realizing he had been deprived of food for long enough, rumbled, making Kaylee smile. Simon realized it was the first time she had really smiled since she had entered the infirmary. But it still lacked the genuine warmth he had become accustomed to basking in.

"I thought it was pretty tasty too... The Shepard knows his spices."

Simon smiled at her and continued eating. And continued worrying, despite the fact that Kaylee's chatter was as engaging as ever and that anyone who overheard them wouldn't have given it a second thought. Which was precisely part of the problem. There was a different sort of tension.

Kaylee was playing with a loose thread on her jumpsuit. Rolling it around her index finger, unrolling it. Twisting it between finger and thumb. Over, and over again. And Simon took a bite, chewed, and swallowed and repeated. Little things that took up so much space, and yet at the same time, none at all.

"Simon, I —" Kaylee started reluctantly, but whatever else she said was drowned out by the air leaving Simon's lungs and the clang of his fork on the floor as sharp jabs of pain radiating from his thigh suddenly made concentrating on anything else an impossibility.

As Simon well knew, the human body's metabolism unfortunately still prevented scientists from creating medications that lasted indefinitely. The sudden intense throbbing, very different from the constant dull ache he had managed to block out, signaled that the pain meds had run their course.

Simon reached towards the table beside him for the appropriate vial and syringe. He injected himself quickly. The pain, while considerable, was not enough to impair that reflexive action. Cool relief, accompanied by faint lightheadedness, spread throughout his body and he unclenched his jaw. The relief waned slightly as his focus grew beyond the bullet wound and back to the infirmary. Kaylee stood frozen, her face tinged with fear.

"Kaylee?" he said softly, and she started. "I didn't want — I didn't mean to scare you, or cut you off. I should have been keeping better track of when I would need more pain meds. I'm sorry." Even when it wasn't his fault, it was. He wondered what she had been so reluctant to say, and what damage he had, yet again, unwittingly done.

"No — Simon, I'm — I'm real sorry..." she said shakily, eyes focused on his bandage as if she could see what was underneath.

"Shenme? None of this is your fault." He was blaming someone, but it was certainly not Kaylee.

"But it is. Simon — if I hadn'a told him where River's room was he wouldn'a found you and held you hostage. And I sent him... I sent him straight onto River... when I coulda..." Kaylee had slowly backed up against the cabinets, putting herself out of Simon's reach.

Simon shook his head. "None of this was your fault. You didn't cause him to find us in the first place. If I hadn't hired you all for the job on Ariel, that shiong-mung duh kwong-run would have never tracked us down."

"But that was a good plan. You got a lot of stuff to help River and..."

"And it brought that bounty hunter down on all of our heads. If there's any blame cast you should be blaming me, not feeling guilty yourself. That you're not — when I think..." The pain medication let him say the things he thought he could not. "Then he didn't — did he hurt you?" Simon braced himself for the answer. That Early had threatened her was bad enough, but the other option made his now-full stomach churn. As did the decisions he made in response, and what they could mean to them all.

"How did you...?" Kaylee blinked and held his gaze.

"That was one of the things —"

"Oh," she said in a small voice, "No, he just said some stuff... to frighten me, so I wouldn't mess up his plans, is all." She shrugged.

"Well, you did. Mess up his plans, I mean," he offered.

"So did you."

"And River's too, unfortunately. But still, I was the one who... I'm sorry — for a lot of things." His throat tightened at how close it had all been. But he didn't know if he was sorry enough, considering that they were all still alive. Still breathing.

"It's not like you made him say those things."

"No, but... Kaylee, if I hadn't picked this ship — that psychotic madman would never have threatened to rape you. You would never have been shot. You wouldn't have had to go through any of it." Simon swallowed heavily. "And I wish I could take it all back, go back to that day on Persephone. Almost. But the truth of the matter is that if I hadn't chosen this ship, River and I would most likely have been captured and the Alliance would have taken her back to that place. And I wouldn't be able to help her. In fact, I'd probably be dead."

The ache in his throat grew worse, but the words kept pouring out. "And River would be worse than dead. It's always going to be River first, I have to save her, protect her. I still don't know if what I have here is helping her enough... Since Early tracked us from Ariel, it's probably no longer safe for us here. But I can't bring myself — force myself — to leave. And River doesn't want to — I have to do what's best for her. And it's getting harder. If it came down to Serenity or River, since River didn't actually become the ship, the choice wouldn't be easy anymore. Not that it was particularly easy the first time. River really does love this ship. I gave up my whole world for River — she is my whole world. But I couldn't...."

His words had drawn Kaylee closer again. She was staring at him wide-eyed, and he could see so many things in her gaze. While calling them the windows to the soul was unbelievably cliched, her eyes hid nothing. Standing, right in front of him, it was all there — incredulity, shock and pain. And caring — beneath it all was caring. He felt like a cad, letting all of his fears and half-realized, half-whispered truths pour out. Out onto the one person to whom he could never say the right thing. And he knew this wasn't the right thing. Knew that this wasn't what she wanted to hear. How could she want to hear that he would always put River first? But there was more. He didn't want to say it. He hadn't wanted to say any of it. But there it was. The meds had loosened his tongue, he couldn't take any of it back, and there was more.

"I didn't... I made a choice — and it wasn't —" he paused. "I'm used to making choices, as a surgeon... Split second, life and death choices. I was good at them. And finding River — it was a choice, but really, at the same time it wasn't. It was something I had to do. But this was a life and death choice. And I learned that while I'd die in an instant for River — I'd kill for River — I wouldn't let you die for her. I don't want you in the middle of this." He reached out, unerringly, to finger the tiny darned patch on her coveralls that was nearly invisible to the naked eye. "Not again."

But while it was a choice, it wasn't the choice. It wasn't that simple. There was nothing simple about any of it. Because, mixed in with his decision was the fact that he could still possibly help River, though there had been no real certainty in that. So he chose them both — couldn't definitively have chosen between them. The knowledge that one day he'd most likely have to scared him more than almost anything.

"Oh, Simon." she breathed, smiling at him despite the hint of tears forming in the corner of her eyes. She covered the hand resting on her abdomen with her own.

"Family is important, Simon. River is important. She's my friend too. But you aren't putting me in the middle of a place I don't want to be. I love Serenity; ain't nowhere else I'd rather call home, no matter what happens," she insisted, squeezing his hand for emphasis. "We've been in scrapes before, and will be again, with you here or without you. And you're probably still safer here than anywhere else."

Simon marveled at, and to some extent envied, her ability to whole-heartedly take joy in the simple things, in everything. "Kaylee, I can't expect all of you to sacrifice everything for us — for River. Not when our own parents..." He swallowed painfully.

"You aren't expecting, or asking. Didn't people do nice things just 'cause they like each other — respect each other — on Osiris?" It was as if she couldn't conceive of living any other way. Her generosity and goodness were refreshing, were part of what drew him to her.

"Not... not often. Sometimes. More for the owing of favours that anything else, I suppose," he observed wryly.

"Well, then, you're good to have on the ship for doctoring. And planning crime."

"And for endangering the lives of all the crew and passengers. Who knows what other bounty hunter, or government agents will manage to track us down." He couldn't afford to forget that. None of them could.

"Some of us don't seem to need any help on that score. Simon, you can't always be looking towards the future or the past. If you're always running, you're never going to be able to take a moment to appreciate what you got. Find things you're glad of."

"I don't —"

"There's nothing you're glad of?" she asked, voice catching in her throat.

Up until the search for River, Simon could not remember a time when he took a moment to pause and reflect and be glad of anything. Life — at the hospital, at home — just went on as it should. Even the euphoria of saving a patient — that was the triumph at a job well done and another successful procedure, not simple kind of gladness that radiated from Kaylee on a daily basis, that was rooted in the joy of life.

Words filled his mind. "I'm glad that River's safe, that they didn't catch her — take her from me. I'm glad that Early didn't sexually assault you. I'm glad that you can still smile. I'm glad that he can't hurt either of you again... I'm glad that we're all alive. For now." He thought, to himself.

At Kaylee's startled gasp and rounded eyes, he realized he'd said the words aloud.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't... These drugs seem to be remarkably good at loosening my tongue."

"I'll be sure to remember that." Simon raised his eyebrows. "You can't keep it all bottled up in here," Kaylee explained, tapping her finger to her temple.

"I'm not good at — it's been a long while since I didn't have to guard all my thoughts, completely. And even before that — I guess I've always kept things internalized." As a young boy he had never been encouraged to broadcast his feelings, not unless they were socially correct, well thought out opinions. No Tam was. And then River and the government further intensified that tendency.

"But you were starting — I mean I thought you were beginning to — you were smilin' more. You've just got to over-think less."

"I don't think I'm programmed that way. It's part of being a surgeon, and well as everything else. Or at least it is until I'm drugged."

Kaylee flushed. "You're not a robot. Or just a doctor."

"No, I suppose I'm just a man. With all the capacities for failure..." He lifted his free hand in a gesture of futility. "I'm not used to that. I liked being a doctor, being able to fix everything. Now I can't even... I can't fix any of it. I can doctor serious flesh wounds so you'd never even know that they'd been there — fix severed limbs so that they appear that they were never detached. But that's not possible here. The scars will always be there, and even with another dermal mender I couldn't erase them all."

"Simon, it's no good wishing what had happened hadn't, cause you can't change it. But not everything needs to be fixed all perfectly to function. You should see all the odds-an-ends I use to keep Serenity running. It may not look all neat — but it keeps us goin'. And Jayne's proud of each and every one of his scars. You just have to find the good in it. There's always some good. If taking back being shot, being threatened meant that I never met you and River or that we were never friends... I wouldn't have wished it never happened," she said firmly.

"What about next time?" he asked, hoarsely. "What if it's worse?"

"If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn't waste my whole day being scared stiff. I'd want to make it a good one. Spend it with family, the people I care about. Do things I always wanted to do. Love every minute of it."

"I don't think — I don't know if I can do that." Simon protested.

"It's not hard," she said, with a little shake of her head.

"Not for you. I..."

"Start simple. What's one thing — that you know you can do, mind you — that you'd be real sad if you never got a chance to do?"

Kaylee was really hitting home with this one. After Early, after being shot he... It was as if she was taking his thoughts, and filtering them through her bright way of thinking, making them more palatable, and giving them back to him. She made it easier, and yet so much harder. Because Simon didn't do things that he didn't mean.

The realization was barely a conscious one before it condensed to the feel of her breath, warm on his face. Without realizing what he was doing, his hand came up to brush a wisp of hair from her forehead, trace her cheek, and rest in the hair at the nape of her neck. Off balance, Kaylee's hand clutched his shoulder to steady herself.

And then his mouth was on hers. And everything faded away, became secondary to the soft lips pressing sweetly against his own.

It should scare him, that she could do that. But while he was kissing her, the though never even crossed his mind.

***

At an hour when the rest of Serenity's inhabitants were usually tucked away in their bunks, sleeping, Inara silently closed the door to her shuttle. As she glided through the dark halls of the ship, she confirmed that not everyone was sleeping all that comfortably. The doctor occupied the infirmary bed, dozing while his body, and perhaps something else, concentrated on healing.

He was not alone. Half nestled against him and half on a stool, minding his wounded leg, the young mechanic also slept, their contact staving off unpleasant dreams. Inara was pleased that Kaylee had taken her advice to go talk to Simon. She was even more pleased as she took note of Kaylee's half-unzipped coveralls and the faint circle of darkened skin above Simon's collar bone. She wished everything could be as easily brought to the proper conclusion.

Inara moved quietly on, and was not surprised as she approached the galley to see that the captain was awake. As was his custom when either deeply troubled or at peace for the moment, he sat at the dining room table, a mug of rapidly cooling coffee cradled between his hands. Left alone with his thoughts, deep lines creased his brow and formed at the corners of his mouth. The companion's entrance, and accompanying polite, little cough, changed not one line of his body.

"I'm staying on until my rent is due," she said, with no preamble. "I need a bit of time to give Kaylee some lessons in self-defense before I go. I made a promise." To Kaylee, certainly, but there were other promises, to herself, to him, that were harder to break.

His eyebrows raised a fraction of a hair. "I'm sure Zoe could take care of it, since you have an elsewhere to be."

"Zoe's an excellent fighter, but Kaylee and I are much less strong, physically. And less likely to have a gun on hand. There are many ways of defending oneself. And I've learned many different techniques that—"

"Techniques?" Mal guffawed harshly.

"Self-defense, Mal," she said with asperity.

"I know you're a real expert with swords, but I can't see Kaylee ever needing the use of one. What else they teach you at the fancy whore academy? You learn fighting as foreplay?"

"Violence is never..." Her mouth flattened into a line as she pressed her lips together, and her eyes became glassy as she stared at him, unable to continue sparring.

However, he seemed to understand, reading something in her silence. "Hwoon dahn." It was impossible for the room to become any more still, but it did. "What did the bounty hunter do to Kaylee?" His voice was flat — tensely controlled.

"Not — not quite what you're thinking. He threatened her. She needs defenses, to know she could deal with such threats so she doesn't remain paralyzed with fear."

His nostrils flared. "It will never happen again."

"I hope you're right. However, I still made a promise that I intend to keep. She needs this." She needed it herself.

"You know, you'll never leave when you keep finding reasons to stay."

She smiled, but no joy reached her eyes. "I could find hundreds of reasons — they're the same reasons for me to leave. But I have to do this, for Kaylee."

He brought the mug to his mouth, swallowed, and set it back down.

"I still don't appreciate having to hide this from the crew."

"I don't either. But — thank you for keeping silent on the matter. I will tell them."

"So I guess it is harder to leave than you thought."

"No, Mal, it really isn't."

She sighed, thinking enviously of the infirmary occupants; again wishing everything could be untangled as easily. And then, with a slight static crackle she turned swiftly and walked away, leaving him sitting there, staring into his coffee cup.

***


Translations (thanks to
Tara's useful mandarin redux redux and the Firefly Chinese Pinyinary)
mei-mei = little sister
yaoguai = monster
jei-jei = older sister
goushi buru = lowest of the low
shenme? = what?
shiong-mung duh kwong-run = violent lunatic
hwoon dahn = bastard

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