The uncharacteristically sober Wash had programmed the autopilot for the night before taking his wife’s arm and leading her softly down to their bunk, leaving Mal sitting alone in the pilot’s seat. It wasn’t that he was needed there, but like Wash he often took comfort from sitting in that comfortable chair in the dark and gazing out at the calm patina of stars.
Serenity had been invaded, and Mal knew he wasn’t the only one still reeling from the night’s events. With seeming effortlessness, a ruthless stranger had entered his ship, overpowered him, and wreaked havoc among his crew. It was an unsettling feeling, being attacked in the one time and place he felt safe, where he’d felt he could let his guard down and relax.
He heard timid footsteps behind him, and turned his head to see Kaylee standing with her arms wrapped tightly around her chest and her face miserable. His sweet Kaylee, the Kaylee who had smiled warmly at him even when she’d been shot in the stomach, was looking hurt and frightened.
“Cap’n?” she asked, shivering slightly.
“What’s the matter, little Kaylee?” Mal asked her softly.
“He scared me,” she whispered brokenly. “He tied me up, said he was going to rape me.”Â
“Kaylee,” Mal said, reaching out and taking hold of her hands gently, “he ain’t never comin’ back.”
“I’m still scared,” she said, a tear beginning to trickle down her cheek. Mal pulled her down into his arms, and she folded herself into his lap.
Kaylee pressed her face against his chest, feeling Mal’s strong arms holding her, his hands soothing the fear from her body. Her beloved Serenity had turned on her, disgorging a terrifying stranger. At this very moment, hidden in Mal’s protective arms was the one place she felt safe.
Mal reckoned even Kaylee knew, deep down, that there are things in this â€˜verse that we only trick ourselves into feeling safe from. The belief in some benevolent force of protection was something that everyone tended to cling to; a divine being, luck, or simply their own strength and intelligence.
It was a psychological imperative, this need for a feeling of security. One the soul was so desperate for that it would trick the mind into creating it where it didnâ€™t exist. A precious thing that Kaylee had never lost, but he could see how desperately she was clinging to it right now, clinging to him. It was ironical, how people turned to him, the one with the least faith, to give them that. Even more ironical the need he felt to provide it; as though by giving others the comfort and security he lacked, it somehow gave him the glimmering of hope that it existed for him as well. Those who knew he was broken turned to him for healing. Ironical. Comforting.
He carefully pulled his brown coat around Kayleeâ€™s shoulders, enveloping her and pulling her close. He needed to protect her, needed to preserve that trust. Mal knew firsthand what it felt like to have that internal feeling of safety and invulnerability broken, knew how a personâ€™s entire being could shatter.
â€œYouâ€™ve got that look in your eyes,â€ said Kaylee.
â€œWhat look, bao bei?â€
â€œHard. Lost. Like you donâ€™t have any hope no more. You gotta have hope, capâ€™n.â€
He craned his head down and kissed the top of Kayleeâ€™s head gently. â€œYou tell yourself that, little one.â€
That illusion of safety was what kept most folks sane. He figured it was human nature to seek a shield, to find a way to feel safe. He did it with his ship. Malcolm Reynolds couldnâ€™t remember the last time heâ€™d felt truly secure, or been free from the awareness of his utter vulnerability. But Serenity was his retreat, even though he knew she could be taken from him, knew she couldnâ€™t protect him. It was where he found comfort and home at the end of so many trying days, fled from countless dangers and left the many things he wanted to forget in the dust. Heâ€™d been happy to trick his own self; needed to in fact.
Mal ran his fingers through Kayleeâ€™s hair, bringing his hand to rest on her shoulder. Felt her relax and press closer to him in response to his touch. â€œReckon you need to find yourself a safer ship to be flyinâ€™ on, little Kaylee.â€ The words broke his heart, but he knew the pain of seeing her hurt on account of him would be worse. He had a talent for leading folks right into danger, and that wasnâ€™t a thing Kayleeâ€™d ever signed on for.
Mal felt Kaylee’s body tense in horror, and she jerked herself away to stare into his face. “Don’t -” she choked on her words. “Don’t throw me off,” she begged him, tears running down her face. She broke down completely, sobbing. “Don’t make me leave.”
Mal’s heart melted, and he wrapped his arms around her shaking figure, holding her tightly against his chest. “I won’t, mei mei,” he whispered softly in her ear. “I won’t throw you off. Just can’t stand to see ya like this is all. Can’t stand to have you bein’ hurt ’cause you’re on my ship.”
“Could happen anywhere,” she whispered. “But anywhere else, you wouldn’t be there. Serenity wouldnâ€™t be there.”