Em (bluflamingo) wrote in thelittlebang,
Em
bluflamingo
thelittlebang

Fic: Gone (Firefly) (part1/2)

Title: Gone
Author: bluflamingo
Fandom: Firefly
Pairings: Inara/Kaylee (Kaylee/Simon)
Characters: Kaylee, Inara, Zoe
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: None
Spoilers: Post-movie
Word count: 15,951
Betas: latentfunction, present_pathos; also feedback fromskieswideopen

Summary: After Shepherd Book, after Miranda, after Wash... it seems to Inara as though the universe owes something to the crew of Serenity, some chance at happiness, or at least not any more misery. The universe itself might even agree, but the universe is populated with human beings who know nothing of what's owing to Serenity, and human beings don't concern themselves with the balance of the universe's scales.

Artwork: Here by kiki_miserychic



Gone

Inara wasn’t unprofessional enough to look at the clock while she was still with a client – not obviously, anyway – but then, she didn’t need to. Every Companion had a good sense of time, as well as timing, and she could feel the minutes sliding away from her.

“Oh,” Jun said, face pressed against her shoulder. “Oh, you feel -“

“Yes,” Inara said, stroking his back, tilting her head so he could kiss her neck. “Yes, just like that.”

Jun groaned, going still against her, then shuddering. Inara held him close, careful not to let any outward sign of her relief show. “That was lovely,” she said.

Jun shifted, raising himself up on his elbows to look down at her, sweat lining his forehead. “Did you..?”

“Of course,” Inara lied, smiling at him. “I only regret that we do not have longer.”

Jun, just like always, took the hint, drawing back and reaching for his shirt. Sometimes, Inara thought that was her favorite thing about regular clients, the way experience and repetition smoothed over any awkwardness afterwards and negated any rushing away by clients who didn’t know what to say and were unwilling to sit with her for more conversation. She reached for her own robe, wrapping it around herself as Jun finished dressing.

He held out his hands for hers, squeezing them as though she were his niece, rather than a Companion several years older than him. “I hope we can be together again soon,” he said. “You pass our way so infrequently.”

“I’m sure you would tire of me were I here more often,” Inara said, gently extracting her hands from his. “I look forward to us sharing time together again soon.”

Jun smiled, bowed slightly, and left. Inara waited for the shuttle door to close, then hurried into the cockpit, sparing a brief glance for her clock. She was overdue, now, for meeting Serenity at the dock. She should have said no when Jun contacted her to ask if they could meet later in the day, but she hadn’t anticipated needing quite so long.

“Serenity, this is Inara.” She wasn’t wholly surprised by the lack of response. Mal had become increasingly more unwilling to use the comms on-planet lately, half-convinced that their transmissions were being tapped. “Serenity, if you’re receiving, I’m on my way to the rendezvous point, and expect to arrive in fifteen minutes.”

She left the radio handset on the control panel as she fired up the shuttle, just in case someone responded, but it remained silent even as she lifted away, easing gently up into the sky, Jun’s private dock falling away below her.

She picked up speed as she gained height, the lush green of Verlana blurring beneath her, broken only by one of the world’s many rivers and lakes. Inara could easily picture the people whom she couldn’t see, lazing at the edge of the water, enjoying the luxury of Verlana, one of the most prosperous of the core planets, with more second homes than any world that Inara knew. It was a Companion’s paradise, more clients than she could see in a week, and yet she still itched with impatience to be gone, unsure if it was her own anxiety or Mal’s that affected her.

After the lack of response to her call, she was already half-expecting to find the rendezvous point deserted, though she couldn’t help feeling that it would have been nice to know there was no need to hurry. She set the shuttle down on the edge of a patch of empty grass barely large enough to land Serenity, taking care to tuck herself out of the way of Serenity’s incoming flight path. She tried the comms again, getting the same answering silence. It wasn’t soon enough to begin worrying, especially when Zoë had promised that they had a legitimate job on Verlana. That ought to be enough to keep the crew from getting into trouble any more serious than the usual tangle with a local who resented them stealing something he felt was his.

It was peaceful in the shuttle, in a way that being on Serenity rarely was now, even when it was quiet. Still, Inara found herself on her feet again, stepping back into the body of the shuttle, moving her things back into place, collecting together the tea service she’d used with Jun.

Kaylee’s capture was tucked at the back of the cupboard, where Inara had placed it hurriedly when Mal had come in without knocking a few days before. She touched the smooth edge, ran her finger over the blank screen, knowing what she’d see if she turned it on. She hesitated, torn, and her comm crackled into life.

“Inara, are you there?” asked Jiao’s clipped voice. It was getting to be less of a surprise to hear her over the comms as the months went on, proving her to be as good a pilot as she was a mechanic.

Inara slid back into the pilot’s seat, reaching for the headset. “I’m here.” The cockpit was in shadow where before it had been lit with sun, and she wasn’t surprised to see Serenity put down in front of her. “And so are you, I see.”

“Starboard port is free for docking,” Jiao said. “We’re not in a hurry to leave…”

“But we don’t want to linger either,” Inara finished. The whole exchange was so familiar, even if the voice on the other side of the radio still seemed like the wrong one. “I’m on my way.”

*

Serenity was quiet when Inara left her shuttle for the main ship, but she could feel the faint hum of the engine thrumming as they flew, through the metal floor. Apparently Jiao had been under-stating things slightly, given that Inara had been docked for fewer than ten minutes.

It was normal, now, for no-one to come to greet her when she arrived back, though she found she couldn’t exactly remember when it had stopped being something worthy of note. She took the long route to the kitchen regardless, avoiding the engine room, and sparing only the briefest of glances up to where Jiao was sitting at the controls of the ship, turned towards the black of space already swallowing them up. From behind, she looked close enough to River for a moment of disorientation – long dark hair, though Jiao’s was darker, straighter, slight frames, and sitting down, the height difference between them was hardly noticeable. Of course, the similarity faded, looking at their faces, Jiao’s almond eyes and sharp cheekbones, River’s dark eyes and gradually softening face.

Inara shook her head at herself, standing in the corridor and drifting. It had to be tiredness. She no longer slept well planetside, for all that her shuttle was her home, kept awake by the lack of movement outside her door, missing the movement she swore she could feel when they were travelling, for all that Kaylee had always told her it was imagination.

Not that she slept so well in space any longer either.

Making tea was as soothing as the drink itself, a routine she fell into easily enough from doing it so often while she waited for a client to arrive. Mug, tea leaves, water boiling on the small stove of the ship’s kitchen –

“Enough for two?”

“Oh!” Inara exclaimed, one hand going to her throat as she started in surprise, barely catching the boiler in time to keep it from falling.

“Sorry,” Zoë said when Inara turned to her, a wry smile on her lips. “Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“You didn’t,” Inara assured her, taking a deep breath to still her rapidly beating heart, feeling foolish. They were in no danger here. “I didn’t hear you come in. You startled me.”

Zoë’s eyes turned understanding before she looked away, crossing the kitchen to reach for a second mug. “Still.” She took the boiler from Inara’s hand, replacing it on the stove to boil again. “Enjoy being planetside?”

“I –“ Inara started, fumbling for words for a moment. She was, she thought, too used to Mal’s disapproval and Kaylee’s bright, salacious curiosity to deal with the question as she would have before joining Serenity, as though it were normal.

“You don’t have to answer,” Zoë said, looking down at the two mugs. “Wasn’t looking to pry.”

Inara touched her wrist, offered a reassuring smile that she was too aware she had used most recently with a client. Like a lot of her expressions, she was no longer sure that they had a real and a pretend version, one bleeding over into the other till she wondered if one day she would find herself completely unable to lose the artifice she used with her clients. “It’s not that. More that – I’m not sure I know the answer. Here.” She took the boiler, added water to both mgs, releasing the sweet, smoky scent of the tea leaves. “And you?”

“Don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed being on a planet this close to the core.” Zoë took her tea and sat, straight-backed, at one end of the table. Inara hesitated for a moment, then joined her. “But we made a contact.”

“Did they –“ Inara started, looking up sharply, fast enough to see Zoë’s face fall into understanding.

“Not that kind of contact,” she said, words hasty, for Zoë, but not quick enough to stop Inara’s hope. “Contact for a job, over on Bernadette.”

“Of course.” Inara sipped at her tea, burning her tongue, the steam warming her face until she blinked. “I’ll speak to the captain, find out how long we’re going to be staying. Two consecutive worlds where I might find clients, I shan’t know what to do with my riches.”

“Inara.” Zoë reached out, her fingers cool again Inara’s wrist, sense memory that made Inara gasp. “There’s nothing to be found, not here. Core planets won’t have answers.”

If Inara closed her eyes, she could see the silhouettes of Mal and Zoë in the kitchen, weeks ago now, Mal’s voice raised in more anger than Inara could ever remember, You don’t know that for sure. Tiansheng de Alliance planets, everyone knows something.

And Zoë, sounding like it was breaking her heart, sounding like she was standing at Wash’s grave, Yes I do. I know.

She took another sip of her tea, not caring when it burned her tongue again. “I’m sure you’re right,” she said. Zoë kept looking at her, and she felt her smile slipping away. “I never thought I’d be wishing to be back out on the rim.”

Zoë’s eyes crinkled in sympathy. “Never thought we’d be safer along the core.”

*

Dinner was not just quiet, but empty, too many spaces around the table, and Jiao, ten years younger at least than the rest of them, made still by the weight of their silence. She’d only been with them a few months, not long enough to know the others, and Inara worried that she’d leave. Even if they didn’t know her well, she wasn’t sure they could stand it.

Wasn’t sure that she could stand it herself, when she still woke most mornings wanting to return to the training school and knowing she couldn’t, not yet.

Being a Companion had taught her all sorts of things, some more use than others. Chief amongst them in that moment was the ability to break the most awkward and strained of silences. “Zoë tells me we’re going to Bernadette,” she said, looking straight at Mal, who didn’t lift his eyes from his plate as he grunted what Inara thought was an affirmative. “Will we be there long?”

“Not if I got any say,” Jayne muttered.

“You don’t,” Mal said, still not looking up. “Should be a day, maybe two. Not long.”

“Still too long,” Jayne said. Inara remembered, suddenly, the ship of dead settlers they’d come upon, not long after River and Simon joined them. They’d been, she thought, from Bernadette. The shiver ran down her spine before she could stop it. If there were any ghosts, they weren’t on Bernadette.

“Long enough for me to see a client, then,” she said, smiling firmly. “When will we be arriving?” No one answered. ”Jiao?” Inara asked carefully.

She blinked, as though coming back from far away, and smiled. “Tomorrow, in the afternoon. The reports say it’s winter there now.”

“Perhaps I’ll have my clients come to me, then,” Inara said, fighting to keep her tone light. She would have given anything, in that moment, for Kaylee and her chatter that filled a room, and felt guilty for wishing for that, when she should be wishing for something much more.

“You do that,” Mal said, rising, plate in one hand. Inara still felt the missing shape of the insult she would have taken that as, back before Miranda. The stories always spoke of love deepened in extreme situations; she wondered what they would say of her and Mal, the way the fight and the aftermath had changed their relationship into something beyond romantic or sexual love, something they both understood without quite having words for it. “I’m going back up to the bridge. Someone needs to watch the sensors.”

***

Simon and River left them on Deran, a month before Jiao joined them. Inara had been waiting for it, expecting it, even – of everyone on the ship then, Simon was the most transparent, the easiest to read. She still hadn’t expected to return to Serenity, from a fruitless trip into town with Zoë, to find him standing in the cargo bay with his case.

“What’s going on?” Zoë asked, striding ahead. Deran was hot, too hot, a desert, really. Inara had never liked it, the two or three times they had stopped there before. It felt like she was breathing sand, more so when she hurried, sand swirling in her skirts. “Wasn’t aware you were planning a trip, Doctor.”

Simon smiled tightly, his eyes catching Zoë’s for a moment, and flickering over Inara’s. She was used to it, by then, almost welcomed it. He’d been so angry at first, like the frightened young man who’d arrived with River and threatened to let Kaylee die to save her. He’d hardly let anyone other than River touch him, but Inara he refused to even be close to, and it took less than she had to pick out why that was. They’d been something a little like friends, once, and while she’d wanted to reach for one of the few people who’d understand how she felt, he’d wanted the opposite. “We waited for you to return.”

“Return?” Inara asked. The metal deck felt hot beneath her thin shoes, the interior cool and shadowed. “Has something happened to River?”

She hadn’t known she was thinking it until she said it, but the moment she did, her throat went tight with fear, with memory.

“No,” Simon said, too fast to be anything but the truth. “No, she’s –“

“Here.” River’s voice came from inside the ship, hidden in the shadow for a moment, until she straightened, sliding out into the light, hair hanging over her face, not looking at anyone, and that was something Inara was no longer used to. River had been so different since Miranda, so much stronger. It was like stepping back in time, and Inara kept her eyes firmly on River, didn’t let herself look for anyone else. “She’s still here.”

“Yes,” Simon said. It was his very patient voice, the one he used with Mal, and hardly ever with River. “Though she’s supposed to be packing her things.”

“She doesn’t want to,” River said. “Serenity wants her to stay.”

Inara looked away, searching for some sign of Mal, who must know of this, or Jayne, who she would have thought would be there to gloat. There was only Zoë, a few steps ahead of Inara, her back stiff, poised on the right line to go to River, not Simon.

“Serenity doesn’t have feelings,” Simon said, stern, and older than he should have sounded. “We’ve talked about this, River.”

“Talked about what, exactly?” Zoë asked. “Because I don’t see a decision that’s been wisely come to, if you’ll pardon me saying, Doc.”

“We can’t –“ Simon started. He looked at Zoë, though, and stopped, seeming like he’d lost all motion. “We can’t stay here,” he said softly. His face was pleading, and in that moment, Inara was alarmed to find that she could have happily struck him, for saying what they all had wanted to sometimes. Not just for saying it, but for doing it too, forcing everyone to choose. And what right did he have, of all of them, to decide to do this, now?

She remembered saying once that he was just young, that what he’d done for his sister showed that it wasn’t selfishness, just youth, but in that moment, she wished she could take it all back.

“Seems to me that you’ve been doing just that for several years now,” Zoë said, expressionless.

“Well, but who can resist the charms of Deran?” Mal asked, suddenly there at the top of the steps down into the cargo bay. “Aint that right, Doc? You took one look at all that sand, and you just had to stay behind to build sandcastles with your little sister.”

“Mal,” Inara said in warning, unsurprised when he ignored her.

“Why don’t you tell them?” Mal asked, looking at Simon. Head still down, River was sliding towards Simon, body half-twisted away. Not wanting to, but going anyway, and Inara knew that Simon wouldn’t go without her. Knew that River knew it too, and that was why River was creeping, gradually, to his side; that when she got there, there’d be no turning back.

“Please,” Simon said, some of his calm cracking. “Try to understand, after everything I did for her, everything she’s been through. I can’t take the risk.”

After everyone they’d lost, Inara thought, and what if River was to be next? It wasn’t so hard to understand – hard to accept, but not hard to understand – when she would have done the same for her own, given the chance. Even after what had happened to Wash, Serenity had felt safe, like no-one could really touch them there, and maybe it hadn’t happened on the ship, but somehow that didn’t make it feel any safer to be there.

Mal’s murmured curse said he maybe understood just as well. Inara wondered if that was why Jayne was absent, or if he was just missing because he was Jayne, and the only person he’d ever make a gesture for was Mal.

“It shouldn’t be here, then,” Zoë said, firm and practical. River turned her head at Zoë’s voice, tracking her. Through the curtain of hair, her face was pale, troubled. Inara wondered what she was feeling, from Zoë. “Deran’s hard, wait until we’re somewhere better for you.”

“They have need of a doctor,” Simon said. He smiled, pained. “I checked – they don’t believe in witchcraft here.”

“See that they don’t,” Mal said darkly. “We won’t come for you again.”

“I know,” Simon said softly, looking right at River. “I know.”

“All alone,” River murmured, and Inara thought, as though River herself had put the thought into her head, ‘Just like the rest of us.’

***

A year ago, two, Inara wouldn’t have entertained even the prospect of finding a client on Bernadette. It was an average planet: average temperatures, average terrain, average sized towns of average sized houses, nobody with the sort of wealth that would usually attract a Companion. Even before she left Serenity, when Mal never took the ship to anything but backwards planets where they wouldn’t recognize a Companion if they saw one, Bernadette would have been another world where she stayed in her shuttle and cursed his name.

It didn’t even seem all that strange any more, to have four messages from four potential clients waiting for her when she checked her screen. Only one of them was familiar, a man she’d seen on her first visit, who asked for her every time she went back, never seeming to take the hint in her continued refusal to accept his offer.

She dismissed the first of the other three when his message came to asking her to give him an entire day of her visit – too presumptuous, for a first meeting.

The second, when she brought up the message, turned out to be a woman.

“Oh! Sorry, I -.” She paused, shifted, then reached up to tuck a strand of auburn hair back. She wasn’t like the female client’s Inara occasionally took – not as smooth, as well-presented or certain of herself – but Inara still hesitated to dismiss the message. “My name is Treya, I manage a bank here in the capital city. Well, a branch of a bank, not the actual bank. I’ve heard – that is, I don’t want to seem forward, but I have…” She looked down, pale skin flushing, and Inara reached for the screen too fast, dismissing the message with a tap so hard the comm unit bleeped out a protest.

She wasn’t familiar, not really, nor even alike, different in every way. Every way but the one that mattered. One of the first things she’d learned at the training house, the one thing she’d always tried to teach her girls: never take a client who makes you think of someone else. Never put yourself at risk of becoming too involved.

They’re paying for your services. The kind of people you want to have fall in love with you are the kind who wouldn’t pay for you, no matter how much they loved you.

Not that the kind who loved her for free had always turned out so well, either.

The final message was from a man looking more like Inara would expect a client to, maybe ten years older than her, smartly dressed in the type of plain black suit that had been worn on Earth-that-was, according to the pictures, hair neatly combed. He smiled smoothly at the camera, and his voice, when he spoke, matched his smile.

“I hear you are honoring our world with a short visit, and it would flatter me greatly were you to find time in your no doubt demanding schedule to spend with me. My name is Marcus Orvette, though I doubt you have heard it before – I manage several factories around the docks…”

He seemed set to go on at length, but Inara cut the message short. He appeared inoffensive, polite, mostly charming, clean… Inara laughed at herself. How her standards had fallen of late. She brought up the screen again, tapping in Marcus’ contact details, and smiled into the small camera.

“Thank you for your kind invitation. I’m delighted to say that I shall be able to meet with you. I’ll send details in a textual message to follow. Until then, bao-bei.”

She smiled again, sending the message, then shut the unit off. Looking up, she could see the blue/green curve of Bernadette taking shape ahead of them. No dramatic stripes or colors down there; the planet, she thought, reflected its people well.

She watched it for a long moment, trying to see it growing larger, though they were still too far away, then went back into the shuttle to pick out her clothes for her coming appointment, and a warm coat for the walk.

*

Inara expected the cargo bay to be empty when she went down to leave, Marcus’ chosen apartment being close enough for her not to take the shuttle, not least because he didn’t have anywhere for her to land. She hadn’t brought a client back to the ship in fifteen months. Instead, she found Mal, Jayne and Zoë surrounding the mule, accompanied by a mix of weapons, bags that she recognized as holding the take from a job a few weeks ago, and, in Jayne’s case, a can of oil that he was pouring slowly into the engine.

“I thought you were just meeting a contact,” she said, coming down the steps. “If this is to be another bank heist, perhaps I should stay with the ship.” Mal looked up and she smiled, to make it clear she was joking. He seemed to find it difficult to tell lately. “In case a swift getaway is needed.”

“It won’t be,” Zoë said, but Inara barely caught her words over Mal saying, “Thought you were.”

“Staying with the ship?” Inara asked. “I told you I would be screening clients, at dinner last night.”

“It’ll be fine,” Zoë said firmly, straightening to look at Mal, who seemed to ignore her. “No getaways required.”

Jayne dropped the can of oil with a loud clang, but didn’t say anything. Despite the number of weapons he was wearing, he lacked the satisfaction and anticipation Inara was used to seeing in him when they went out on a job likely to require shooting. Lately, it had become the only thing to shift the oppressive quiet he’d fallen into. Inara felt a shiver of something like unease, suddenly sure that she was missing something.

“Still might be best for her to stay with the ship,” Mal said, obviously speaking to Zoë, though he didn’t look up from loading the bags into the mule. “In case.”

The bags had to be full of money, when Inara had thought they’d spent that money, and why would they need it if they were just to meet with a client? Mal refused to take jobs where they had to pay for the cargo and get the money back from the buyer, claiming that those never went well, more often than not leaving them out of pocket their initial outlay as well as the time and trouble of transporting whatever the cargo was. “In case of what?” she asked.

“Bernadette’s not the safest world in the ‘verse,” Zoë offered, almost hesitantly, eyes flickering over to Mal.

In his corner, Jayne muttered something too low for Inara to catch the words, glaring at nothing. Whatever he’d said, it had sounded angry, though Inara couldn’t see who the anger could be directed at, when it seemed so much more than his old fights with Mal over how much and what weaponry they should take with them. She took in Mal’s tense, unhappy expression, and the way Zoë’s eyes kept flickering between him and Jayne, then up to Inara and away, as close to nervous as Inara had ever seen her. She couldn’t say how she knew, but, looking at them, she did.

“You’ve found someone who knows where she is.”

***

Inara had always intended to leave Serenity again – had never intended to go back in the first place, not even when she’d contacted Mal at the operative’s demand – and yet, as time spun out after Miranda, after losing Shepherd Book and Wash, she still didn’t ask Mal to take her back to the training house, or leave her somewhere to make her own way. It wasn’t entirely an unconscious failure to ask, though if anyone had asked she would have told them that it was. She had reasons for wanting to stay: Kaylee’s youthful relationship with Simon, River’s slow healing, Zoë’s silence in the face of her loss, and Mal’s in the face of his, not the same, but no less strong. She wasn’t ready to leave, to go back to the training house, her sheltered life there, inured from the impact of what had happened on Miranda and the fallout of its revelation.

And yet, she continued to live in the guest room that had once been the Shepherd’s residence, to pay her way with the little she had brought with her from the training house. She certainly had enough to buy what she would need to set up once more in the shuttle that remained empty, especially once she took a client or two. Clients wouldn’t even be hard to find; the Alliance had been forced by public response to the Miranda recording to declare war on the Reavers, which had driven Mal towards the core planets, away from trigger happy alliance ships.

She drifted back into life as a traveling Companion, in the end, when she happened on an old, familiar client in a tea shop on Boros. She’d been a Companion her entire adult life; sliding back into it wasn’t difficult.

Mal said nothing when she asked to resume renting her shuttle, other than a clearly forced joke about not getting a reduction in rent. She’d been bracing herself for his attitude to hurt, the way his disapproval always hurt more than anyone else’s. Instead, she felt only a faint relief, one that she wasn’t sure whether to assign to his lack of comment or to being back in a world that felt familiar to her.

She took Kaylee with her the next day to shop for some of the things she’d need, glad to be away from the ship, glad to be with Kaylee, her easy enthusiasm.

“You should ask the captain to take you back to the training house for your things,” Kaylee said, trailing her fingers over the bolts of bright green silk that Inara had already rejected, waiting for the store-owner to come back with more offerings. “You used to have such beautiful things.”

“And I’m sure I will again.” It would have been less expensive to return for her things, even if she ended up having to pay the fare for the trip, and she knew that eventually she would have to visit a trader to Companions, for some of the things that couldn’t be easily bought anywhere else. It was just that she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t choose to stay there, if she went again, and it didn’t seem fair, not when she’d committed to Serenity and the other members of the crew.

“But all your lovely dresses,” Kaylee said. “Not that the dresses you have now aren’t lovely,” she added quickly, eyes going wide in horror of her imagined insult.

Inara laughed, reaching out to tuck Kaylee’s hair away from her eyes. “I understand, mei-mei. You’re right, they were very beautiful. But now I get to choose new things, with you.”

Kaylee smiled, ducking her head and worrying the silk between her fingers. “Do you think Simon would like it if I wore a dress sometimes?” she asked quietly, her earlier animation fading away.

Inara frowned, drawing a little closer for privacy, though they were the only customers in the small store. Kaylee’s ducked head and slumped posture made it seem that this was a conversation better to be conducted in hushed tones, stood close together. “I’m sure Simon would think you very pretty if you dressed up,” she said, choosing her words carefully, aware that she still didn’t know Simon particularly well, for all that he sometimes seemed like he was a friend. “Then, I think Simon would find you beautiful if you wore a refuse sack, or nothing at all.”

“Beautiful’s not what he calls me when I’m wearing nothing at all,” Kaylee said, turning slightly so Inara could see the sly expression sliding over her face.

“I’m sure it’s not,” she said, and her smile felt forced, unreal. “Why did you ask about the dress?”

Kaylee shook her head. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think – all the wealthy girls who must have chased after him when he was a surgeon, and now I’m the only girl…” She trailed off, tipping her head to rest on Inara’s shoulder with a sigh.

Inara slipped an arm round her waist, pulling her close. “Didn’t you tell me he said his only regret was not being with you?” she asked, the words like ashes in her mouth with the memory of that awful moment, the certainty that they would die in that place, tortured by Reavers until death was a blessing. “And he seems to care for you very much.”

Kaylee nodded against Inara’s shoulder. “I suppose,” she said, still sounding doubtful.

“Well, then,” Inara said, hearing the store-owner returning. ”But perhaps we might buy you a dress anyway, if you’d like.”

“Really?” The way Kaylee’s face lit up was enough to make Inara glad she had offered, even when she wanted to say, For you. Not to wear for Simon, just for you.

*

A week later, Kaylee stormed into Inara’s shuttle and threw herself face down on the bed, though not, Inara noticed, so carelessly as to drag her boots over the rich gold throw they’d chosen at the store.

“Kaylee?” she asked, replacing her calligraphy pen carefully in its box and moving to sit beside Kaylee’s hip. “What’s wrong?”

She heard Kaylee draw breath as if to speak, but nothing followed.

“Sweetie, did you fight with Simon?” Inara asked, taking her best guess. Though Kaylee sometimes seemed very young, she wasn’t prone to fits of sulking, whatever the provocation.

“Yes,” Kaylee said. She shifted, keeping her face pressed into the covers, but curling her body towards Inara. It looked uncomfortable. Inara drew up one leg so she could turn, stroking her hand slowly through Kaylee’s soft hair, easing out a few tangles. Kaylee sighed, and said, quietly, “I feel so guilty.”

“Have you done something to feel guilty for?” Inara asked.

Kaylee looked up, her face bleak, her eyes troubled. “I look at Zoë,” she said quietly, “And I think, you know, how can I be with Simon when she’s lost Wash? What must she feel like when she sees us together? They were married, ‘Nara, and now he’s just gone, and she’s on her own.” She blinked. “She wanted to have a baby.”

“I know,” Inara said softly, waiting.

“Simon says we don’t have to give up being happy because Zoë’s sad. He says she –“ Kaylee stopped, shook her head under Inara’s hand. “I think he’s forgotten how he felt when River was… He’s so happy that she’s getting better, it’s like he can’t notice things that aren’t right.” Her voice was bleak, matching her face. “And I don’t – I’m glad too, I am, she’s so much better now, Inara, it’s so much better –“

“I know,” Inara said again.

Kaylee wrapped one arm round Inara’s waist, pressing her face against Inara’s thigh. “Everything was so much better before,” she said. “It makes me feel like a horrible person, like I’m wishing River was still…”

She went silent, and Inara kept stroking her hair, lost in the repetitive motion and the quiet.

“I’m so glad you didn’t leave again,” Kaylee said after a while. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too, mei-mei,” Inara said.

*



Part Two
Tags: fic:firefly
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