This is worse than watching my parents fight, Kaylee thought with a sigh. The whole ship felt the conflict when Zoe and Wash had trouble, but somehow Kaylee thought she had it worse than the rest.

Her parents had always fought. With so many kids and not enough money, food, or clothes to go around, there'd been plenty to fight about. Especially when her Da got to drinking. Zoe and Wash had shown her that married people didn't fight, more than they did. That it was possible to really be in love with someone and committed to each other. That it was all right to disagree and really fun to make up.

Only, they hadn't made up yet and it didn't seem like they were going to any time soon.

She didn't even know what had started it, no one did. One day they were fine, and the next there was a screaming match in the common room at the dinner table. Since then, it had been either icy silence or painful insults and fighting with the occasional hurtled missile that, so far, Wash had been able to duck.

"You all right, Little Kaylee?"

Looking up at Mal, she managed a smile and answered, "Sure."

"Seemed a pretty heavy frown accompanying that sigh," Mal observed, sitting on the engine room floor beside her.

Kaylee rested her head on his shoulder and asked, "Are Zoe and Wash splitting up?"

"I thought that might be the problem," Mal said. He put an arm around her shoulder and she snuggled close as he continued, "That's something they need to work out for themselves. It's been a rough couple of years for all of us, but them especially."

Surprised, Kaylee asked, "How so? They seemed fine to me."

Mal smiled faintly. "Married folk need time to be together and they don't get a lot of that."

"Neither do you and Simon."

"True. But we're not married."

Snorting, Kaylee pointed out, "Might as well be."

He grinned outright and asked, "I thought we were talking about Zoe and Wash, here?"

She nodded and settled down.

"Zoe and Wash just need to figure out where they stand with each other is all. Hopefully, it'll work out so they find that they still want to be together. But if it don't, you can be assured that they're both your friend and you'll not lose that."

Sighing deeply, Kaylee asked, "Can't they just stay married anyhow?"

Mal chuckled and kissed the top of her head. "We'll see, Kaylee, we'll see."

* * * *

"How's she doing?"

Mal groaned and answered, "About what we expected. She's scared Wash and Zoe'll break up."

Simon wrapped his arms around Mal's waist and rested against him. "Are you?"

"Kind of surprised they made it this long, to be honest."

"Because they're so different."

"Yeah."

"What about us?"

Surprised, Mal looked into Simon's eyes and asked, "What about us?"

"We're not exactly two peas in a pod," Simon said dryly.

Mal shook his head and disagreed, "In the major ways, we are."

"This I have to hear."

Grinning, Mal listed, "We both put family above everything. We're both take-charge kind of men. We're both more stubborn than a mule. We both come from less than stellar families, emotionally speaking. And, most importantly, we're both madly in love with each other."

Simon chuckled. "Go back to that take-charge part. You think I'm take-charge?"

"Only because you broke your sister out of an Alliance security facility, devised a plan to get into an Alliance hospital, stood up to a bunch of flame-wielding lunatics, got your ass beat about a dozen times defending us. Should I keep going?"

Flushed, Simon ducked his face against Mal's shoulder and shook his head.

Mal squeezed his arms tighter and said, "We're going to make it Simon, I promise. We've already had our bad spells. There can only be good left for us."

* * * *

Book walked slowly towards the cockpit. He wasn't really sure what he was going to say, but knew that he had to say something. Not only was it affecting the rest of the crew, but Book couldn't stand to see such a loving couple torn apart the way they were. Stepping inside the small room, he found Wash staring blankly out of the forward window. "Mind some company?"

Wash jumped, almost falling out of the chair. "Jesus, Book! Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Smiling a little, he apologized, "Sorry. I just thought you might need someone to talk to."

"Because Zoe and I are fighting?"

"Yes."

"No offense, Shepherd, but our private life is our own."

"Not when it spills out and affects everyone else."

Wash scrubbed his fingertips over his hair, causing further disarray to the bright red spikes. "Look, I'm sorry about that, but there's nowhere we can go to kill each other in private on this ship."

"Maybe talking will be helpful. An objective third party can often lend insight where…"

"No insight necessary, Book," Wash cut in. "I appreciate your thought here, but it's not going to do any good."

"May I ask why?"

"Because she's not going to change and neither am I."

"Change isn't necessarily at issue. Bending probably is, though."

Curious, Wash asked, "What do you mean?"

"You don't need to change yourself to work something out. One of you just has to be willing to bend a little."

"What if I'm tired of doing that?" Wash whispered.

Book's heart went out to the young man. It was obvious that he was still very in love with Zoe, but was also at the end of his rope. It looked like he was talking to the wrong person. "Then you have to decide what's more important. Your pride, or your love."

* * * *

Looking at the tired man in front of him, Mal said, "We've got a slight problem. There's a distress signal coming from an outer rim colony needing medical assistance. Simon says that he can handle it, but we've also just gotten a job in the other direction. I'm thinking that maybe you'd like a chance for some time alone."

"You want me to shuttle Simon to the planet?"

Mal shrugged. "Just a suggestion. Maybe you and Zoe need some time apart."

"Can't hurt, I guess," Wash agreed slowly. "You going to be all right flying Serenity on your own again?"

Snorting, Mal said, "I think I can handle it. It's a milk run, even all legal-like so we don't have to worry about getting boarded."

Wash thought about it for a few minutes. "Yeah. Sounds good. Thanks, Mal."

Gripping the other man's shoulder, Mal replied, "Just think about what you want while you're gone, Wash. 'Cause I can't have my ship ripped apart with this any longer."

They looked at each other for a long minute, then Wash nodded. "I understand, Captain."

* * * *

"You did what?" Simon demanded.

"Told him to get himself straightened out," Mal answered defensively. "Simon, they can't keep fighting like this. It's hurting everyone."

"And naturally you assume that the problem's with Wash, and not Zoe."

Mal froze at the angry tone. "Excuse me?"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Simon stated, "Zoe's not a saint, Mal. You don't know what goes on in their marriage and shouldn't assume that she's blameless."

Astounded, Mal exclaimed, "I don't!"

"Yes, you do. Whenever there's a problem, Zoe is the one you go to first. You think that she's perfect, that she can't do any wrong."

"Uh, wait a second here, back up. This isn't about how I feel about Zoe, this is about them fighting all the gorram time."

"They're practically one and the same," Simon snapped.

There was a shocked silence for a few minutes where neither looked at the other.

Then Simon sighed and said, "I'm sorry. It's just…it hurts that you always ask for her opinion first. Every time. I know you went through a lot together and I know she's your second in command. That's a big tie that I'm not part of and I feel it, every day."

"Simon, you can't be serious," Mal protested. "I ask for your opinion all the time!"

"Only after you and Zoe have discussed it, whatever it might be, and pretty much decided on a course of action."

Mal opened his mouth to make another protest then realized that he couldn't. Simon was right. But there was also nothing to be done about it, because it wasn't going to change. "Simon, I can't run my ship to make you happy. I need Zoe's opinion because this is what she does, it's who she is. You're a doctor. When there's a medical problem, I go to you first."

"How long have I been on board Serenity?"

"Uh, about two years now. What's that…"

"And how often have I planned jobs with you? How often have I planned rescues? How often have I come up with new ideas on how to do something that saves time and money?"

Uncomfortable, both with the conversational tone in Simon's voice and the answers to the questions, Mal replied, "Enough."

"Right. Enough. Enough, maybe, that I might know what I'm doing at least a little? Enough, maybe, that if you asked my opinion on something, I could possibly give you a decent answer?"

Wondering how in the 'verse they'd moved from Zoe and Wash's problems to one he hadn't even known they'd had, Mal answered reluctantly, "Yeah."

"That's what I thought."

When Simon didn't continued, Mal asked, "What else?"

"Nothing else. I've spoken my peace. What you do with it is your business," Simon answered. "I'm going to go see if Wash is ready to go."

Groaning to himself as Simon left, Mal rubbed his temples, trying to relieve the killer pressure.

* * * *

Simon looked down at his sister and sighed. She wouldn't turn over to say goodbye, instead remaining huddled up, facing the wall. "I won't be gone long, mei mei, I promise. These people need a doctor and I'm the only one around."

She didn't respond and he wondered painfully if anything was going to go right any time soon.

* * * *

"So you're leaving then."

"Yep."

"Coming back?"

"Gotta pilot the doc back, so yeah."

"Watch yourself."

"You too."

* * * *

Mal snuck up behind Simon and dragged him close. Simon jumped and gave a breathy exclamation before realizing it was him. Then he smacked Mal on the hip, the only place he could really reach, and exclaimed, "I wish you'd stop doing that!"

Grinning, Mal kissed behind Simon's ear and asked, "You still pissed at me?"

Simon gave a long-suffering sigh. "Yes. And no. I know it's just who you are and something I have to accept. It just rankles sometimes."

"I'll try to remember that Zoe's not the only one who has good ideas, but you'll probably have to keep reminding me to do it," Mal offered softly.

Surprised, Simon turned in Mal's arms and asked, "Really? Because you're right. This is your ship and the running of it is completely up to you. I'm a doctor, not an officer."

Mal nodded with a grin, saying, "You're also someone with a pretty mean knack for criminal activity."

Snorting, Simon drew him in for a long, sweet kiss. When they parted, he murmured, "I wish I wasn't going."

"Me, too. But I had an idea," Mal said, settling them together against the nearest wall.

"Uh oh."

"Very funny. When we get done with this job, and you're all done your doctoring, Serenity's going in for some long-term upgrades."

"Upgrades?"

Mal nodded. "Yeah. Kaylee's been chompin' at the bit to get some real work done to the engines and install some protective shielding now that we can afford it. It'll be her idea of heaven to stop in to a real dock and work on Serenity. And the place I've got in mind has recreation facilities for the crew. Everyone can get some downtime while we're there."

Arching an eyebrow at his lover, Simon asked dryly, "There aren't any casinos nearby, are there?"

"No, smarty-pants, there aren't," Mal answered, nipping Simon on the ear. "We'll just have to make due."

* * * *

What a pitiful excuse for a goodbye, Zoe thought, watching as the shuttle disengaged from Serenity. And it was her fault, of course. She knew that this time, there was no reason for her not to be apologizing. It was just...she couldn't.

"Get anything straightened out?" Mal asked from behind.

Zoe shook her head. "Not really."

"Comes to mind that maybe this is something you've got control over."

Looking over at him, she saw an odd glint in his eyes and asked, "What do you mean?"

"That maybe Wash isn't the one in the wrong here and doesn't want to take it like he usually does. Everyone's got their limits, Zo. You keep pushing him, you're gonna find out that even Wash eventually pushes back."

Zoe stiffened. "No offense sir, but, fuck off."

Inclining his head to her, Mal turned and left.

Great. Now she had something else that she really didn't want to think about.

* * * *

They were most of the way towards their destination when River completely freaked out. No matter what Mal did, she wouldn't calm down, so they had to strap her down and sedate her. Brushing sweaty bangs from the girl's forehead, Mal wished that Simon were there to handle this because he'd have known exactly how to calm the girl down without resorting to brute force.

Which reminded him exactly of how much Simon did on Serenity, how much work was involved just in keeping River on an even keel. Yet the other man did it without complaint, even without any comments. Mal sighed and continued to stroke River's hair, hoping the touch would ground her somehow to reality.

"Is she okay?" Kaylee asked hesitantly.

Mal motioned her forward and answered, "Don't rightly know. Book says that physically she'll be all right. Jayne didn't hit her all that hard to get her down. Upstairs, though, that could be a problem."

"How long until Simon gets back?"

"Can't say. We'll be done with the job in another few days then be able to turn around after them."

"Simon," River murmured restlessly. "Don't hurt Simon, don't hurt Simon."

"Ssh, River, it's all right. Simon's fine," Mal assured her.

Dazed eyes looked at him and she said in a clear voice, "Dead man walking. Dancing in nothing. Back for more. Can I be the ship again? Want to be Serenity."

Worried, Mal just kept stroking her head, trying to soothe.

* * * *

"Ow."

Simon looked over at Wash at the sound of pain and asked, "Wash? Are you coming around now?"

"Not so loud, doc, please? M'head's fallin' off," Wash moaned.

Arching an eyebrow at the other man, Simon said, "It shouldn't be. You must be allergic to the drugs they used. Not too allergic, thankfully, or you'd be dead."

Wash groaned and said, "Please stop talking."

Shrugging to himself, Simon returned to contemplating their cell. He'd just come around a few minutes before, but didn't have the same reaction to the drug as Wash. Fortunately. At least one of them would be clear headed.

They were in a small, plain, metal cell, and chained to opposite walls. There was a door, but it was too far away to reach. There were no furnishings and no windows. He didn't think they were on the planet anymore, which sent a shiver of fear through him. How would Mal track them down? And who had them?

"Glad to see you're awake, gentlemen. It would be a ruin to my plan if you didn't make it."

Simon's eyes widened and Wash stopped groaning, meeting Simon's eyes with a shocked look. No, no, no, Simon thought frantically. It couldn't be! Mal had killed him! "Uh, Early?"

"I am my mother's son," Early confirmed over the comm.

"I ah, I thought you were dead."

"So did I for a time. Some neighborly folks in a freighter picked me up, though. Which was right convenient as I had some unfinished business with your Captain. Giving me that kind of send-off wasn't very friendly."

Helpless, Simon offered, "He's not a very friendly kind of man."

"I did notice that, doctor. How's your sister?"

"Dead," he answered.

"Nice try. But that's all right. I'll get my reward for turning you in and they can torture the information out of you themselves."

With a dry mouth, Simon asked, "Where are you bringing us?"

"Purgatory."

Wash started tugging on his chains, despite the green tinge to his skin, trying to get free.

"Titanium alloy, pilot, so don't bother. Have a nice flight, gentlemen."

* * * *

Mal took a deep breath and tried not to keep his hand near his gun since it was making the magistrate real nervous. And a nervous magistrate made for not a lot of good details. "Come again?"

"I said, they never arrived."

"I know that's what you said. Now I want the truth."

"It is the truth!" the man insisted, watery eyes wide with fear.

Zoe's hand suddenly wrapped around the older man's throat and squeezed. Practically on top of the man, she hissed, "My husband was the pilot. I suggest you think real careful about lying again if you don't want me to take his worth out of your hide. Because there's not enough of you for it, I'll tell you that."

Mal let the magistrate stew until a blade appeared in Zoe's hand and pressed to the man's throat. Then, quiet, he said, "Zoe, give the man a little breathing room."

She glared, but backed off.

Stepping forward, Mal straightened the man's suit and informed him, "I'm of two minds right now. The first is to let Zoe have her way with you, and I don't mean that in a pleasant fashion, for setting us up. The second is to listen to what you have to say and leave. I'll even let you choose."

Sweat beaded along the man's forehead and dripped down the side of his neck as he exclaimed, "He's insane! He had a nuclear and threatened to blow the whole colony with it! And he would've done it, too, I swear!"

"He, who?" Mal demanded.

"Didn't give his name. Black man, tall, not real built, but strong, you know? He had this manner of speaking that was just…sent shivers down my back each and every time. Said he had a personal grudge with you and a girl. Said this was something he'd been looking forward to since his dance as an object in space."

Mal's heart stuttered with fear at the description and he looked at Zoe, who appeared equally as shocked. "No, no chance. Zoe, he's dead!"

Swallowing, Zoe pointed out, "You left him breathing, sir."

"Yeah, and shoved him out into space! Where there weren't no gorram stations or planets or moons or nothing for millions of miles!" Mal shouted furiously.

Zoe stood there, getting herself under control as she stated, "Won't be no doubts about it this time, sir. He's mine."

* * * *

"So, um…Purgatory would be a real place, then?" Simon asked when the silence got to be too much.

Wash nodded and made another useless tug on the chains. "Very real. Very nasty."

"I've never heard of it."

"Very secret."

"Oh." Simon leaned back against the wall and tried to think about the last time he'd told Mal that he loved him. It had been a couple of days before their argument about Zoe. Thank God they'd made up before he'd left Serenity. He couldn't stand to have their last words be in anger.

"Don't start thinking like that."

Simon looked back at Wash and asked, "Like what?"

"Like you're never going to see him again," Wash stated. "Because you are. Just like I'm going to see Zoe again."

"So you've decided to make up with her then," Simon questioned.

Grinning faintly, Wash replied, "Yep."

Curious, Simon asked, "Mind if I ask what the fight was about?"

Wash shrugged. "Doesn't really matter. But you know what?"

"What?"

"Just once, I'd like for us to make up all on our own, without having some life or death thing shoved in our faces. You know. Like a real married couple?"

Simon snorted. "I know the feeling."

"Yeah. I kinda figured you would."

* * * *

Ever since River had gone crazy, well, crazy again, things on Serenity just hadn't been normal. Jayne had kept to himself more than usual because of the weirdness. Mal had been downright ornery and Zoe looked like she almost didn't need an excuse for violence. Inara hadn't set foot outside her shuttle, same with Kaylee and the engine room. The Preacher was driving Jayne nuts every time they talked; too much sermon in the man, even if he meant it kindly.

He also felt a touch guilty at having popped the doc's sister like he had, even if she had been waving a large kitchen knife at him.

Again.

Then they found out about the doc and Wash getting pinched by Early of all people and things had gotten really bad. Mal had taken to living in the cockpit while trying to find out anything and everything about the assassin's resurrection. Zoe had started prowling the ship when she wasn't doing the self-same as Mal, Book, and Inara in trying to find the doc and Wash.

Seemed like Jayne was the only one who didn't have 'contacts' to find things out from. Made him feel a little useless, but then, once they found Early, it'd be his job to take care of the kuang. Assuming Zoe left any pieces big enough for him to take care of. He was really hoping she did because this was the second time Simon had gotten into trouble with the ta mah duh and Jayne hadn't been able to stop it.

He was starting to get downright pissy about that, because how could he do his gorram job if everything happened when he was either asleep or not around?

Book shifted uncomfortably as he reported, "He's taking them to Purgatory."

Mal's jaw tightened and Zoe didn't move a muscle.

Neither were good responses and Jayne took a half-step back, just in case.

"You're sure?" Mal asked.

Nodding, Book said, "Unfortunately, yes."

"One of these days, Preacher, you and me are going to have a long talk about how you find these things out," Mal promised quietly. "In the meantime, we've got some lost crew to get back. Jayne?"

Jayne looked over at him. "Yeah, Mal?"

"Get Vera ready."

* * * *

Sitting in Wash's chair, Mal toyed with one of the dinosaurs that littered the confined space. Strange how this had become Wash's room even though Serenity was Mal's ship. Even stranger that he'd never thought to tell Wash what a good job he did. Compliments weren't a natural part of his vocabulary, and Mal was feeling a bit bad about that. He didn't tell Simon what a good doctor he was, or Zoe how much he valued her or anyone anything really.

God, what a depressing time it was. Too soon for them to get into action, but too close to the mark for him to get any real sleep. It was like that time before dawn when you had nothing to hang onto except yourself and usually, that just wasn't enough.

A wave chimed and he answered it with, "Yeah?"

The picture came on and Early was grinning back at him.

Straightening, Mal just looked at the man for a moment, noting the wild tint to the eyes where before there had only been coldness. Great. A psychotic psychotic. Just what they needed. "Well hey, Early. I hear tell you've got a couple of my people with you."

"That I do."

"Anything I can do about that?"

"Might be."

"Like?"

"We could set up a trade. The girl for the pilot."

Hating himself, Mal asked, "What about the doctor?"

"I've taken a liking to the good doctor. Think I'm going to keep him a bit."

Over my dead body, Mal thought. "Sorry. Girl's worth more than just the pilot."

"Is that so? Well, sorry we couldn't do business."

"Wait!" Mal exclaimed as Early leaned forward to cut off the connection.

Early pulled back. "What for? We've said all there is, haven't we?"

"What about me for the doctor?"

Pursing his lips, Early considered it then shook his head. "No, I've already got my revenge on you."

Sickened and thinking that he already knew what was coming, but trying not to let it show, Mal asked, "And how's that?"

"I've got the doctor. You want the doctor. To my way of thinking, that's a disappointment to you. On top of which, when I really have the doctor, and rest assured that I will, that'll be a sight more than just a disappointment. Ask Kaylee about what I promised her before. She'll be able to give you details on what I'm going to do to your doctor."

"If you hurt him, I will hunt you down and kill you, but not before making you eat your own shit," Mal vowed.

An eerie smile lit the black man's face as he replied, "I look forward to the hunt, Captain. Early out."

"No!"

But the screen was already dark, the connection cut.

* * * *

Being Early's only prisoner was extremely nerve-wracking. With Wash there, Simon had been able to convince himself that things would be all right. That Mal would find them and rescue them and he'd never go on another trip by himself ever again. But alone, there was no one to relieve his doubts and fears.

Then the door opened to reveal Early himself and Simon was reminded that he wasn't dealing with a sane individual.

"Just spoke with your Captain."

"And?"

"And he's right fond of you, I can tell. Was going to trade himself for you, but what use have I for a captain with no bounty on his head?" Early pointed out. "You, on the other hand, are a very different story."

Simon wanted to run, but he couldn't even stand. The chains were too short for him to do anything except stay exactly where he was. "Wh-what kind of story?"

Crouching down, Early answered, "The kind that doesn't have a happy ending, doctor. Anything you'd like to record as a farewell for your kin?"

With a heavy swallow, Simon whispered, "Just let me go, please? I can't go through that again, I can't. I'll, I'll do whatever you want."

A black eyebrow arched and Early repeated, "Whatever I want? Is that some kind of offer, doctor?"

Remembering the pain of having each finger broken, of how easy it was for the skilled 'interrogators' to peel his skin away and then fuse it back on, Simon nodded raggedly. The memories of his torture came back so easily, fueling the panic and desperation, not that they needed any encouragement. Slicing lasers over his entire body. Straight out beatings. Broken and healed bones all over his body.

And worse that he'd never told anyone about and never would.

"Please, please don't send me back there. Please."

"Well now. Isn't this an interesting situation?"

* * * *

When Wash woke up, it was to another splitting headache and a stomach that just wouldn't stay put. After he finished heaving up nothing, he just lay on the damp ground panting, trying to get himself together.

Wait.

Back up.

Ground?

Clearing his head by sheer force of will, Wash forced his eyes opened and saw that he was in the middle of nowhere, on a planet, not in a tiny metal box on a ship. It was dark, but the horizon was getting slightly brighter, a dark purple, not jet-black. Light enough for him to see that he was in the middle of a field and there were no buildings anywhere around. Also light enough to see that there was no Simon, either.

He didn't remember anything of how he got there. Just passing time in the cell by talking to Simon. Early had never even entered the room to knock them out, so it must have been done with gas somehow.

Getting to his feet was a struggle, but he managed it and started walking towards the sunrise.

* * * *

Putting each piece together smoothly, like a well-worn and well-loved puzzle, Jayne closed his eyes and savored the heavy weight in his hands. He knew every slot and groove, every scratch and dent, better than he knew the back of his hands. Better than he'd ever known any actual person.

Jayne fitted the weapon to his shoulder and looked through the scope. This was what he'd been born to do. This was precision work. This was skill and there almost wasn't anyone better at it than him.

At the end of his sight was Early, talking with a group of Feds. Didn't look like he was going to get pinched for his part in taking the doc and that just pissed Jayne off even more. Leaving the anger for later, he used the scope to check the area and make sure the security was just as they'd been told. So far so good, because there was only the one group of Feds, Early, and Simon in a heap on the ground where Early had dumped him a few minutes before.

It was a strange place for a meet, but then, Early was crazy so that about figured. They were on a colony in the middle of nowhere, kind of like the place that Simon and Wash had been nabbed in the first place, only without the colony. From the friendly way Early and the Feds were talking, Jayne figured they were personal friends, though that was freaky in its own way. What kind of man would be friends with a ghoul like Early?

The kind that he couldn't let Simon fall to.

Unlike a lot of folks, Jayne didn't need a laser sight to know where to aim. To him, that was cheating, no matter how far the distance. On top of that, there was always a chance that the target would see the pointer and rabbit. And on specialty jobs like this one, that just wasn't an option.

Taking a breath and then releasing it, Jayne stared at Early, picturing the hole that would go right between the eyes. Seeing in his head exactly how good and easy this would be, anticipating.

Then Early looked up at him, staring back at him through the scope. Jayne didn't even waste time being surprise, he just caressed the trigger and coaxed death out for a dance.

* * * *

"Does that seem right to you?"

Simon heard the odd comment from Early, but was in too much pain to pay it any attention. Then there was a muffled thump and the man fell over backwards, his head shattered by something none of them could see. When gunfire was exchanged, Simon just kept his head down. He'd either be dead or not by the end of it; he didn't really care which at that point.

Footsteps stopped by his head and Mal's voice asked softly, "Simon? Are you hurt?"

Hurt? No, not at all. Permanently scarred? Definitely.

"C'mon, Simon, answer me if you can, we need to know how badly you were hurt," Mal whispered, settling a gentle hand on his head.

Simon whimpered a little and the hand was instantly withdrawn.

"Maybe we should get a cart or something," Zoe suggested quietly.

"Maybe we should," Mal agreed.

Jayne's voice arrived as he asked, "Is he hurt bad?"

Their voices came and went as Simon drifted. He vaguely felt himself lifted into Mal's arms and automatically wrapped his arms around the other man, clinging. There was the sensation of distance and then nothing but darkness.

* * * *

Staring at his lover from the all too-familiar seat in the infirmary, Mal absently stroked the hand he held. Book had treated Simon and found that none of them were life-threatening, just vicious in their placement and dispensing. He hadn't been able to conclusively determine whether Early had raped Simon or not. If he had, he'd done it in such a fashion so as not to hurt Simon, which wasn't consistent with the lunatic's MO.

No longer restrained or drugged, River was sleeping quietly with her brother. Carefully wrapped around him to make sure that she didn't accidentally hurt him as they slept, River was frowning fiercely. To Mal, that wasn't a good sign. Whenever Simon was in serious trouble, River felt it more than she felt things from anyone else. E should have known her freak-out was tied to Simon.

"Mal?"

Straightening up at Simon's raspy question of his name, Mal leaned forward and stroked the bangs back from Simon's forehead. "Right here, Simon."

Dark eyes stared at him blankly for a moment, then Simon whispered, "How'd you find me?"

"Friend of Jayne's, believe it or not. Has a grudge against Early and'd been keeping track of him," Mal answered. He knew that Simon wouldn't rest until he got all the answers he wanted.

"Early's…"

"Dead."

Simon breathed a sigh of relief then winced, his eyes losing some of their blankness, Mal was thankful to notice.

"Did you get Wash?"

Mal shook his head, a sliver of pain going through him when he remembered Zoe's heartbroken look at discovering that her husband hadn't been on the ship. "He wasn't on the ship that Early had you in."

"Early dropped him off, I'm pretty sure it was on the same planet," Simon said.

Surprised, Mal asked, "He just let him go?"

"So far as I know."

"That's good news. I'll tell Zoe."

Simon's eyes closed and he shivered, but agreed, "Good."

"Simon, did Early…"

"Please," Simon whispered. "I'm so tired."

Swallowing heavily, thinking that was pretty much a 'yes' anyway you sliced it, Mal stoked his fingers through the soft, thick hair and whispered back, "Get some rest, then. I'll be right here, I promise."

Simon nodded, murmuring, "Thank you."

As Mal stared at his lover's bruised face, he wished that the rage inside his soul had a target, because he felt about ready to explode.