blue flamingos

Gone

Fandom: Firefly

Category/Rated: Slash, Het, NC-17

Year/Length: 2009/~15,951 words

Pairing: Inara/Kaylee (Kaylee/Simon)

Spoilers: Post-movie

Disclaimer: Not mine, to my eternal disappointment.

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.

Author's Notes: Written for thelittlebang

Beta: latentfunction, present_pathos; also feedback from skieswideopen

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

Art: By kiki_miserychic

Soundtrack: Compiled by kiki_miserychic (click for zip)

gone by kiki_miserychic

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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."

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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."

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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."

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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.'

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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Inara bought the dress for Kaylee's birthday, on a whim about a month before. It wasn't like the pink and white monstrosity Kaylee'd had for the ball, or even like any of Inara's own dresses, but she saw it and knew Kaylee would like it, from the curling gold threads in the bodice to the ruffled skirts.

"Oh, Inara," Kaylee said when she opened the box, eyes wide and stunned. "It's beautiful."

Inara smiled, watching her, feeling over–exposed and glad she'd waited to give it to Kaylee in the privacy of her shuttle, rather than at dinner with everyone else looking on. "I promised you a dress, remember?"

Kaylee looked down, her smile dimming. "For Simon," she said.

"For you," Inara corrected. "If I wanted him to have a dress, I'd buy him one."

Kaylee giggled. "Maybe I should lend him the dress the captain bought me."

"I don't think pink's really his color," Inara said, fighting to keep a straight face.

"Thank you," Kaylee said, sudden and sincere. "It's the finest thing I've ever owned."

She came over to Inara to hug her, pressing close. Inara hugged back, wanting to turn her head and press her face into Kaylee's hair. She pushed it aside, thought of Simon and the way he'd fed Kaylee birthday cake at dinner, laughed when Kaylee dotted frosting on his nose.

"Why don't you try it on?" she suggested, pulling back, even when Kaylee resisted for a moment. "We can put your hair up, if you like."

Kaylee nodded, but her smile was fading again. "A fool I'd look wearing it on Serenity," she said. "Not like you, you always look like you're just waiting to be whisked away to some fancy party. I'd look like I was just waiting to get my clothes torn and grease–stained."

"Stay here," Inara offered impulsively. No–one stayed overnight in her shuttle other than her. Even Kaylee, who often came by, knew better than to stay for more than an hour or two in Inara's space.

"You can teach me something," Kaylee said. "Something about being a Companion." She smoothed the dress out at the foot of the bed, tracing the lines of gold thread with one finger, as though she'd break them if she pressed too hard, then bent to untie her boots.

"All right," Inara said hesitantly. There was plenty she could teach Kaylee without going into things she shouldn't be doing with Kaylee. The tea ceremony, maybe, or something about the art of conversation. Just imagining Kaylee putting on an upper class accent and pretending to be interested in the price of tea or the problems with keeping a good servant was enough to make her smile.

Kaylee had her back turned to Inara, her overalls pushed down to her waist as she tugged at the t–shirt she was wearing under them, pulling it over her head and shaking her hair loose. Inara couldn't have placed her better if she'd tried, close enough to a candle for it to coat her skin in a soft glow that made it seem as though she was shining, but far enough away for the shadows to catch at the lines and curves of her body, turning her into something mysterious and alluring. If she hadn't been wearing overalls, she could have passed, in that moment, for a Companion.

"You shouldn't have spent so much money on a gift for me," Kaylee said, half–turning her head to speak over her shoulder, her head still bent as she unfastened the final buttons on her overalls.

"I can afford it," Inara assured her. "Besides, who else do I have to spend the money on?"

"The captain?" Kaylee suggested, laughter in her voice. "You could take him out. Somewhere nice, just the two of you."

"I don't think so," Inara said. "He might get the wrong idea."

"Oh," Kaylee said softly, turning. The movement, or maybe the way her hands came up, was enough for her overalls to slip away, pooling at her feet. She blinked, seeming confused, and Inara felt herself flush, annoyed with herself for it. She had seen plenty of women wearing very little, or even less than Kaylee was now, more than enough to be used to it.

She stood hastily, reaching for the dress and gathering the skirts up. "Raise your arms," she said quietly, stepping closer to Kaylee, who still hadn't moved. "Kaylee."

"Oh," Kaylee said again, almost as though she was coming awake, and raised her arms. Inara kept her eyes firmly on Kaylee's face, guiding her hands through the sleeves, and her head into the right place.

"Now turn around." The dress had a row of tiny buttons in the back, the kind that needed someone else to fasten them. It could never be a Companion's dress, just for that. Inara started at the bottom, her fingers feeling clumsy on the smooth buttons, brushing against the warmth of Kaylee's skin. Kaylee held very, very still as she went, only moving to sweep her hair away a moment before Inara would have reached up to do it herself. The last button had a hook as well, on the inside of the dress, and Kaylee twitched, barely noticeably, when Inara fastened it.

"All done," Inara said, pleased when her voice came out sounding normal. It should have been easy, but what was easy with clients so often wasn't with other people. "Now turn around, let me see how you look."

Kaylee turned, so close that Inara felt the full material of the dress' skirt brush against her own clothing, and forced herself to take a step back. Kaylee was smiling uncertainly, her hair loose around her face, and over her pale shoulders; the dress fitted exactly, as Inara had expected it would, following the lines of her body until it flared into the skirt, long enough to cover her feet without any shoes. "How do I look?" Kaylee asked.

"Perfect." Inara reached out, tweaking the right strap of the dress slightly higher onto Kaylee's shoulder to match the other side. When she made to lift her hand away, Kaylee made a sharp, hurt sound, cut off so fast Inara was barely sure she'd heard it. "Kaylee?"

"I –" Kaylee said. "I want to – Inara," and then she was pressing close to Inara again, but not to hug her this time. Instead, to press her mouth against Inara's, a clumsy, off–centre kiss.

Inara had dealt with far worse from clients – though it was still the kisses, the unexpected affection, that she found most difficult – and turning away a simple kiss from a confused friend shouldn't have been difficult. There was no reason for her to return it, to open her mouth for Kaylee's tongue sliding against hers.

There was no excuse for it being Kaylee who broke the kiss, ducking her head and stepping back. Her foot caught on the long skirt of her dress as she did, and Inara started forward to catch her elbow, keep her from falling, or ripping it.

Kaylee made a sharp, shocked sound, wrenching her elbow free and stumbling over to sit on the edge of Inara's bed. Hunched into herself, wearing a glamorous dress with none of the accessories that should have gone with it, she looked too young, too vulnerable. Inara forced herself to take a step back instead of towards her, and sit on the low couch several feet from the bed.

"If you want to leave now," she said softly, "I won't mind. I won't be upset."

Kaylee shook her head. "Can I stay here for a while?" she asked, voice not quite trembling. "I need..."

"As long as you want to," Inara said, keeping the endearment in her mouth where it belonged. She pressed her hands together in her lap, trying not to notice whether they were trembling. For a moment, she wondered if perhaps she should leave, allow Kaylee to collect herself with some privacy, but she stayed where she was. It wasn't fair to leave Kaylee alone, when she had been just as complicit in the kiss as Kaylee – more so, maybe, knowing Kaylee's concerns about her relationship with Simon. She should never have bought the dress for her; it was a lover's gift, even between women, not a friend's, especially given in private as she had, and she'd long known how Kaylee thought of the Companion lifestyle, how much she'd be taken with such a luxurious dress.

She'd been so proud of herself for finally leaving behind her feelings for Mal. How had she failed to notice the same feelings developing for Kaylee, while she was listening to Kaylee's relationship troubles and telling herself it was as a friend that she felt so negatively towards Simon sometimes?

"Would you like to change back into your other clothes?" she asked after a few minutes of silence.

Kaylee looked up then, her eyes red, her face pale. "In a minute," she said. Her fingers strayed to the skirt of the dress, worrying it between her fingers. "I want to –" She cut herself off, shaking her head. "What will I tell Simon?"

"Whatever you feel comfortable with," Inara said.

"I have to tell him the truth," Kaylee said, almost a whisper. "We can't keep this a secret."

Inara leant forward automatically to touch her, offer comfort, pulling her hand back as soon as she noticed herself moving. They were too far apart, anyway. "I won't say anything," she said. She didn't add that she knew how to keep secrets, was already keeping so many that one more would make no difference. It would be harder than usual to act as though what had happened had not, but she had done much more difficult things before.

"I know." Kaylee smiled, watery but strong. "I know, but I don't want to have to."

"I don't understand," Inara said. "If you don't want to tell him –"

Kaylee shook her head. "I don't want to have to not say anything," she said. "I want..." Her face fell suddenly. "Oh. I understand, you were just being nice. With the dress, and because it's my birthday." She stood up, twisting awkwardly, obviously trying to reach the buttons.

"Stop." Inara took Kaylee's hands in her own, drawing them back between their bodies. She'd always made it a rule not to get involved with anyone, particularly anyone she was as close to as she was to Kaylee. Even if the person didn't feel as Mal did about her work, there was little chance of it not ending in disaster or disagreement. Breaking her own rule – especially for someone she was as close to as Kaylee, in so many ways – should have been the result of careful thought and consideration, for the sake of both of them. With Kaylee so close, though, trembling with the urge to flee, asking for that time would be as good as making the decision, whatever she chose later.

"Kaylee, look at me." Kaylee did, holding Inara's gaze steadily. Inara took a breath against the way her heart seemed to flutter in her chest, the vaguely queasy feeling in her stomach, the sense that she was about to take a step neither of them was quite ready for. "It wasn't just because it's your birthday," she said. "And I wasn't just being nice." She risked a smile, watched Kaylee slowly smile back. "Although it was very nice."

Kaylee's smile grew, catching her eyes, and then she laughed, light and quick. "Truly?"

"Truly," Inara promised. It was, she thought, her turn to move first. She pulled gently at Kaylee's hands, bringing her closer, close enough to kiss, then ducked her head to do so. Kaylee was still smiling against Inara's lips, and she made a pleased, happy sound into the kiss.

Inara had kissed clients over the years to whom she'd been truly attracted; had kissed women; had kissed people she considered friends, or cared for. Even so, it had been years since she'd kissed someone who was all three, and she feared she'd forgotten how it felt, how nice it was. Kaylee melted into her, sliding her hands from between Inara's to wrap around her waist, holding onto her, and Inara moved her own hands up the bare skin of Kaylee's back to rest on her shoulders. Kaylee's skin was warm under her palms, smooth despite the rough work Kaylee did on Serenity, and her lips were soft, mobile under Inara's.

It took her a few moments to realize that the clock which ran down in her head while she was with a client had started running, enough to make her draw back. Kaylee followed her for a moment before opening her eyes. "Inara? What is it?"

Inara shook her head, not wanting to explain. She was still in the circle of Kaylee's arms, still close, but suddenly very aware of the rest of the crew on the other side of the shuttle door, of Simon, waiting, presumably, for Kaylee to return to him for the evening. "I think you should talk to Simon," she said.

Kaylee's face fell. "I still don't know what to say," she said, ducking her head to rest against Inara's shoulder.

"What do you want to say to him?" Inara asked. She let her hands slide down Kaylee's shoulders to fold gently together at the small of her back, feeling ridiculously intimate doing something she'd done with Kaylee before without thinking. Maybe it was something in the way she could still feel the phantom pressure of Kaylee's mouth against hers.

"That I don't want him to choose between me and River, and I think one day he'll feel like he has to," Kaylee murmured into Inara's skin. Inara felt her own heart lurch at the words, the implication that Kaylee was choosing her simply because she couldn't have Simon the way she wanted him. Perhaps Kaylee felt it too, because she added, as though she had always meant to, "That I think I might have been in love with my best friend since I met her, and now I think she might be in love with me as well."

Inara kissed the top of Kaylee's bent head, breathing in the smell of her shampoo. "What do you think he will say to that?"

"Probably nothing," Kaylee said. "Whatever I tell him, I don't think he'll say much to it."

"Do you think he'll be relieved?" Inara asked softly, guessing, but not surprised when Kaylee nodded. "Oh, sweetheart."

"I would be as well, if he came to me," Kaylee said. She was still for a moment, then took a step back from Inara, her face composed and set. "Help me out of this?"

"You don't think it would give him the right impression?" Inara teased.

Kaylee shook her head, turning round. Inara felt far less clumsy opening the buttons than she had fastening them, slowly revealing the smooth, pale skin of Kaylee's back as she went. She couldn't resist stroking her hand down the curve of Kaylee's spine, feeling Kaylee shiver as she did so. She opened the final button and lowered her head to kiss Kaylee's neck, just where it curved into her shoulder.

Kaylee made a low noise in the base of her throat, so Inara did it again, a little higher, then again, tracing the line of Kaylee's neck with the very tip of her tongue, something that often worked wonders on her clients. Kaylee was no exception, tilting her head to offer Inara better access, her breathing speeding up. Inara sucked gently at the edge of her jaw, then reversed direction, tracing the same path of kisses back to Kaylee's shoulder, then across, smoothing the straps of her dress away as she went.

"Don't stop," Kaylee murmured, lifting her arms slightly as Inara pushed the straps down and over her hands, baring Kaylee to the waist. "Feels nice."

Inara kissed her way across Kaylee's shoulder, one hand going to sweep her hair away, the other chastely on her waist, just where the bodice of the dress folded over the skirt, one finger stroking at the skin there, the others on folded material. Kaylee sighed a little and brought one hand down to cover Inara's. With her other hand, she took Inara's where it still rested against her neck and placed it over her breast, holding it there until Inara shifted her own hand, cupping Kaylee's breast and stroking one thumb over the tight, hard nipple.

Kaylee gasped, pressing back into Inara. "Qi," she said, her voice roughened. "Inara."

Inara stroked her nipple again, pressing a little harder, and Kaylee dropped Inara's hand to reach back and grip Inara's hip instead. Inara kissed her neck again, then bit gently. Kaylee's startled cry surprised her, as did the way Kaylee tensed against her. Unsure, she shifted her mouth, bit down again, then nibbled her way back up Kaylee's neck. Kaylee shuddered, but all the tension flowed from her, melting her back even further against Inara's body.

Inara smiled, pleased, and moved slightly, sucking gently on Kaylee's ear lobe, then harder when Kaylee didn't protest, thumb still moving over her breast. She could have been with one of her clients, each move practiced and familiar, but for the ache between her own legs, the warm rush of having Kaylee in her arms, open and wanting, moaning when Inara pinched at her nipple.

Kaylee's head was turned just far enough for Inara to see the flush on her cheeks, the way her closed eyelids flickered, her mouth open slightly, breathing getting less and less steady. The hand still pressed over Inara's tightened, relaxed, then tightened again, holding on. Inara waited, but Kaylee just shuddered, hand tightening a little more, a clear enough hint for something that Kaylee didn't seem ready to ask for.

"Kaylee?" she asked softly. In all of Kaylee's openness about sex, she'd never once mentioned another woman, and there was still Simon, plenty of reason for her to be hesitant.

Kaylee made a choked, breathless noise, pushing at Inara's hand. "Keep going," she said, no hesitation at all in her voice. "Inara, please."

It was awkward to slide her hand under the fitted waist of Kaylee's dress, even when Kaylee released her hand with a sigh of pleasure. Still, Inara managed, sliding her hand into Kaylee's underwear, over hair damp with sweat, stroking a single finger over Kaylee's cunt, already wet. Kaylee moaned, loud and gratified, then again when Inara slid two fingers between her labia, pressing firmly. Kaylee was relaxed enough, ready enough, that Inara thought she'd have no trouble penetrating her, but the angle was awkward, difficult, and she knew from experience that she'd struggle to make Kaylee feel as good as she could like this, thumb on Kaylee's clit, fingers moving firmly over her.

Kaylee's breath caught, and her hips shifted, hesitantly, then more assuredly, mirroring the movement of Inara's fingers. Inara slowed the motion of her thumb on Kaylee's breast, matching the rhythm between her legs, unable to take her eyes from Kaylee's face, expression intense, almost strained. Even so, she didn't seem as though she'd have trouble achieving orgasm, even less so when Inara adjusted her fingers slightly and Kaylee groaned, then again, until she was crying out with every press of Inara's fingers against her, loud enough for Inara to hope no–one was passing by the shuttle, the sound unmistakable.

On a whim, almost, she ducked her head again, bit at the base of Kaylee's neck, and Kaylee shouted, her thighs tightening on Inara's hand as she shuddered and came, her whole body stiffening and releasing with it.

Inara stilled the hand on Kaylee's breast, shifting her thumb to press against the inner curve of it, and slowed the hand between Kaylee's legs, gentling her through it.

Kaylee groaned, hips still moving. "Don't stop," she said, breathless. "Oh, please."

Inara bit back her own groan, the ache in her own groin drawing too much of her attention, and crooked her fingers, sliding a single one shallowly into Kaylee, rubbing firmly with the others. Kaylee's hips jerked a handful of times, and she came again with a long, low groan, slumping back into Inara's body as she finished.

Her face, when she turned her head to kiss Inara, was almost blissful; ecstatic. "That was nice," she said.

"Just nice?" Inara asked. "I must be losing my touch."

"Definitely not," Kaylee said, her laughter turning into a gasp as Inara withdrew her hand, wrapping both arms round Kaylee. "Can I –"

Inara could feel the echo of her own pulse between her legs, but she could also hear movement beyond the door to her shuttle, a reminder of what Kaylee had been going to do. "Later," she said.

Kaylee blinked, eye lashes fluttering against Inara's cheek, and said, "Simon."

"He should know first," Inara said. It would have been better for him to know well before; she had no idea what had come over her, when she didn't lose her control like that for anything or anyone, ever.

Kaylee nodded, stepping slowly away from Inara, turning to face her as she slipped the dress down over her hips. Her hair was tousled, her left nipple red from Inara's fingers, and her underwear was almost translucent between her legs. Inara couldn't be sure in the candlelight, but she thought bruises were beginning to form along Kaylee's neck where she'd pressed her teeth.

If she was Simon, she wouldn't need Kaylee to say anything, which was maybe a blessing for both of them.

Even dressed in overalls and shirt that covered some of the obvious signs, Kaylee still looked post–coital and rumpled. It didn't help that her mouth, when she stepped closer for a parting kiss, was reddened, her lips faintly swollen. "Go on," Inara said.

Kaylee nodded, kissing her one last time. "I'll come back tonight," she promised. "It's your turn," she added, her voice gone low with promise, enough to send a shiver chasing down Inara's spine.

She waited a few minutes after Kaylee had left before going to the trunk in one corner of the shuttle, covered by a pink and gold cloth, and taking out the vibrator she kept in there for days when her clients had been good, but inappropriate for her to go so far with. She closed her eyes, thought of Kaylee shuddering and breathless against her, and came swiftly.

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Kaylee didn't come back that night, though Inara sat awake until long past the time she would usually have gone to bed. At first it was easy to find explanations for her absence, from Simon to Serenity.

By morning, Inara was cursing herself for her own behavior. Kaylee was a friend, and hadn't she avoided any kind of entanglement with Mal for partly that same reason? After all the months of Kaylee talking of how much she wanted to be with Simon, Inara must surely have been crazy to think that Kaylee would give it up. She'd been flattered by Inara's attention at the same time as she was struggling in her relationship with Simon, but more than that was hardly likely. They'd both been carried away by the moment.

Inara felt that she would have believed her own thoughts more easily were she not hiding out in her shuttle as the day wore on, listening to the sounds of footsteps passing by the shuttle door, unable to settle to anything as each set made her look up, waiting for a knock.

They landed on Fakar that evening, where the crew had plans that Inara had taken pains to avoid hearing about, half certain that they involved one of the two clients she had booked. She had no choice but to put her evening with Kaylee from her mind, and was almost successful. Enough, anyway, that it was a surprise to step from her shuttle when she returned to the ship two days later and find Kaylee waiting for her.

"I wanted to see you," Kaylee said, before Inara could recover from her surprise and say something.

"Here I am," Inara said.

Kaylee nodded, her expression strained, her eyes flickering to Inara then away. "I'm sorry I didn't come back," she said, looking down at her feet. Inara caught her breath, waiting for the rejection. "I had to talk to him, we both had... I wanted him to understand." She looked up then back down, too fast for Inara to pick up her expression.

"I understand," she said, hoping to let Kaylee off the hook, but Kaylee shook her head, sharp and swift.

"No. I wanted to come by in the morning, but I thought you'd think – and then you were gone."

"I had clients to see." Inara released her grip on the shuttle door, taking a single careful step towards Kaylee, unsure whether she was misreading her words.

"I know." Kaylee looked up, and this time, her face was open, moving towards a smile. "I was worried you'd have a glamorous client who'd offer you untold riches and you'd decide to stay with him."

"Only told riches," Inara said, smiling back, feeling all the knots in her shoulders ease when Kaylee took a step towards her, reaching out to rest one hand on Inara's wrist.

"So I don't have much competition, then," she said.

"Hardly any," Inara agreed, allowing Kaylee to guide her back into the shuttle.

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Simon, by Kaylee's account at least, took the news reasonably well, though Inara found that they were rarely in a room alone together for the first few weeks, and even with others there, rarely sat besides or opposite each other. Still, it wasn't a wholly unexpected reaction, all things being as they were.

Neither she nor Kaylee intended for it to be a secret amongst the rest of the crew, and yet it seemed to become one anyway. Inara was used to keeping her reserve in public, and even Serenity was still public, with Jayne's lurid imagination and Zoë's grief to make a romance seem something unsafe, to be hidden. There was River, of course, but perhaps someone had spoken to her, or she had simply picked up Simon's feelings about the end of his relationship with Kaylee, whatever they were beneath the platonic friendship they seemed to have fallen into once more, because she said nothing.

"Do you want to tell them?" Inara asked one night, a little over two months after that first night. "You never mention it." She'd been thinking about almost to the point of distraction it while she'd been on Davin, away from Kaylee to accompany a client to a party, thankfully this time without anyone getting involved in a brawl.

Kaylee removed the last of the silver clips she'd decorated Inara's hair with before she'd left, and which Inara had replaced carefully that morning, an inexact match of the pattern Kaylee had made, to turn it into a gesture, rather than a lie. "I don't know," she said, reaching past Inara for her hairbrush. Her hands, carding through Inara's hair to find any bad tangles, were gentle, for all that they were callused from her work, completely unlike a Companion's hands as they curved to a Companion's task. "Do you?"

"I don't know," Inara said. She caught Kaylee's eye in the mirror, both of them smiling. "Maybe not yet."

Kaylee bent to kiss her cheek. "I like you being my secret," she said.

A week later, they landed on Athens, so that Mal, Zoë and Jayne could meet a potential contact, Inara could screen a potential client who happened to be passing through there, being a nomadic noble–man originally from Ariel, and Kaylee could go into the town to buy three parts they needed.

"Take Jayne with you," Mal said over breakfast the day before they were due to land, when Kaylee mentioned her trip.

"Why've I gotta be her gorram babysitter?" Jayne grumbled. Inara, sat next to Zoë at the other end of the table, hoped that no–one would mention that it had been Wash's job, for all that he lacked much skill with a weapon.

"Because I'm the captain and I say so," Mal said. "And because we'd be stuck if we lost little Kaylee."

"That aint ever going to happen," Kaylee said, laughing. "You've met the trader before, he's trustworthy."

"Captain's got a point," Zoë put in. "Might know the trader, but Athens aint exactly the safest place in the 'verse. Couldn't hurt to have a decent bodyguard. Or, you know, Jayne."

Jayne growled at her over his mug, making Kaylee poke him with a chopstick until he stopped.

"Zoë's right," Mal said.

"Captain!" Inara watched Kaylee turn her hurt little girl face on Mal, and sat back to watch him be forced into capitulating. "He won't even trade with me if Jayne's with me. He'll think I brought him because I don't trust him."

"Let him think that," Mal said.

"He's the only person got what I need," Kaylee protested. "Less you want Serenity falling out of the sky."

"Girl's got a point," Jayne said, which made Kaylee beam, to Inara's surprise. She hadn't thought Kaylee cared what Jayne thought of her.

Mal looked at her for a long moment, Kaylee practically bouncing even under his scrutiny, then sighed. "Fine. But if you get carried off by Athens ruffians or some–such, don't think we'll be coming back for you."

"You'll always come back for me," Kaylee said, confidence absolute after years of experience, and Inara thought that, as much as she hadn't wanted it, Mal had come back for her, in a way, bringing her back to what should have been her life.

She felt, in that moment, like she was finally where she'd been waiting to be since she was a child, at the start of the rest of her life, looking into the future that was meant for her, at the path she was meant to be on. That for the first time, she was really there, not just thinking it until something came along to sweep that life away.

In retrospect, she should have read it as the sign it clearly was.

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She knew something wasn't right when it took her three tries to get anyone over the comms as she was flying back to Serenity, but she assumed it was normal job–gone–bad wrongness. It wasn't until she finished docking and went to open the shuttle door to find Zoë waiting for her on the other side that she started to worry.

"I think you want to sit down," Zoë said.

Inara's fingers went cold. She wanted to reach for something to hold onto, and couldn't move. "What's happened?" It came out cracked, unlike her voice.

Zoë took a step closer, as though she was worried Inara might pass out. "Kaylee's missing," she said.

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"Why didn't you tell me?" Inara demanded, unsure who she felt more betrayed by, Zoë or Mal, for keeping it from her. They – more often Zoë than Mal, of late – had come to her with every lead, every possible person who could have taken Kaylee, every possible place she could be, every possible reason for her to have vanished, somewhere between the ship and the town. She'd shared in every false lead, every failure to find her, every tiny scrap of information they managed to scrape up, every contact with whom they left word for Kaylee, in case she somehow ended up in their hands.

"You said you were making contact with a client," she said.

"We were," Zoë said. Mal made an angry shushing sound, but Zoë kept going, speaking over him. "A message came through less than an hour ago, old comrade from the war. Says there's a place other side of the world where there's a good chance she might be."

"I –" Inara had to force down the hope threatening to choke her, the need to believe competing with the need not to. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked again.

"You want to come with us?" Jayne asked. "Maybe get shot, or taken as well?"

"Of course not," Inara snapped. "But I don't see why –"

"It's been a year," Zoë said, low and calm. "Didn't want to get no–one's hopes too high."

"The same way you haven't with your own," Inara said, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice.

"Shouldn't all have to suffer with it," Mal said, pushing past her to climb into the mule. "Best get going, wouldn't want to keep your nice rich client waiting for you."

"I won't be going," Inara told him, too angry to steady her voice. She should have walked out on that line, but she couldn't do it, even when no–one looked back as the mule shot out into the bustle of Bernadette's dock, the bay door closing behind it, presumably at Jiao's hand.

The hollow clang of it sounded ominously final, to Inara's ears. She wondered if Jiao knew where they were going, or who'd told them where to look. They were so few on the ship now, if they didn't come home, who'd go after them? Jiao was a mechanic, a sometime pilot, not a fighter like the others. If these people really did have Kaylee – if they were the type of people who might – then they wouldn't be won over by Inara's Companion training, any more than they would by Jiao's ability to coax open any door in the verse, and who would they go to on Bernadette, where the only people Inara knew were clients with little power and less influence.

"Stop it," she told herself firmly. Mal and Zoë wouldn't let Serenity go without a fight and Jayne wouldn't pass on the opportunity *for* a fight. There was no reason to expect the worst.

Marcus Orvette took Inara's apologetic cancellation of their appointment about as well as she had expected that he would, even when she promised to look for him the very moment she next set foot on Bernadette. It was one thing to be said for the poorer planets, she supposed, that there was rarely anyone with the power to drive a Companion's reputation down to the point of being unable to book clients there, something which did happen, on occasion, though not close to as often as the reverse.

With no clients to see, Inara changed out of her warm clothes and coat, folding her clothes carefully away in their trunk. She felt as though she were putting them away for a long time, for a period of rest from work in favor of some other duty. A year, almost exactly to the day, and a contact whom Mal and Zoë both could trust, someone who wouldn't lead them astray at the promise of money for information. They felt like signs, enough so to make the hope hard to fight against.

Her fingers scraped over something hard and smooth, and she knew what it was before she drew it out of the trunk. Not that she remembered moving it there from the cupboard, but there it was, tucked between a dark red shawl and a dress she had meant to pass to Kaylee, but never gotten to.

The capture wasn't truly hers, though it had fallen into her possession, near enough. Kaylee had wanted to show her what she'd missed, being away from Serenity for all those months, and even after she'd transferred the videos to something more permanent, the capture had lingered in Inara's shuttle, along with a handful of Kaylee's other things, so that Inara had never quite felt able to ask if she wanted to take it back, instead adding it to the small drawer she kept for her personal things, every time she invited a client to the shuttle.

She hadn't looked at the images, when Kaylee was there to offer to share them, if that was what she wanted with them. Even in the first few months, when they'd all been so sure they'd find Kaylee, bring her back to them, as Simon had with River, she'd left the capture mixed in with her own belongings, though she hadn't needed to hide her things away, too caught up in searching to take on any clients.

She'd waited three months, skimming her hand over the capture the same way she sometimes did over Kaylee's hairbrush, the shirt she'd once left behind, and when she'd finally closed the shuttle door and turned the capture to run, she'd tried not to think of funeral rites, of the candle she'd burned for Nandi, three months after the siege at her house, or for Shepherd Book and Wash, three months on from Miranda. She'd told herself it didn't mean the same, but once she'd watched it once, she could hardly bear to turn it off, until the pictures were ingrained into her memory more strongly than any of her real memories of Kaylee.

She traced one finger slowly over the screen, too light to leave a smudge in its wake, then replaced the capture on her dresser.

She found Jiao up on the flight deck, where she usually was when the crew was out, cross–legged in the pilot's chair, staring at the side of the large storage building they'd docked opposite. "Hello," she said, not turning around.

"I came to see if you wanted tea," Inara said, the lie springing fully–formed to her lips without thought.

"No." Jiao pushed against the console, turning her chair without unfolding her legs. "Thank you. I should stay up here."

"I can bring you something," Inara offered.

She wasn't surprised when Jiao shook her head again. She was more surprised when Jiao said, already turning back to the window, "If you want to wait with me here, you can."

"Thank you," Inara said, hesitating in the doorway. It wasn't so unusual for her to be on the flight deck, but it wasn't usual either, that being the crew's space. Even as a paying tenant, she'd understood the line. With Jiao there, though, the line seemed to fade, and she settled herself carefully into the second seat, looking at the same nondescript view that Jiao had turned back to. The narrow stream running between them and the building kept people from slipping round that way, it seemed, and the view was far duller than Inara was used to at a dock.

"Do you know when the others are expected back?" Inara asked after a while, just to break the silence.

Jiao tilted her head just far enough to look at Inara from the corner of her eye, her face as unreadable as ever. "By nightfall," she said. "According to the captain."

"Of course." Inara shook her head slightly. Gods forbid Mal be specific for once in his criminal career. "Did he at least say where they were going?"

"Yes," Jiao said. She leaned forward, until Inara was half–sure she'd fall, and touched the screen in front of her, bringing up a map of the planet. She touched another button, and the planet slowly revolved to show a stationary dot on the far side of the world. "They're already there."

She was still leaning over the screen, but Inara thought she caught a flicker of wry amusement on Jiao's face. "Does Mal know you bugged the mule?" she asked.

Jiao shook her head. "Probably not," she said, sitting back calmly in her seat, the dot staying where it was on the screen. "He doesn't like things that are for his own good."

Inara laughed. "You know him well."

"Not that well," Jiao said, turning slightly away again. "But those like him. I knew a lot of them."

There was something about her as she said it that made Inara think suddenly of Mal and Zoë, the times they'd sit and talk of people they'd fought with who were gone. Jiao didn't seem old enough to have fought in the war, and yet Mal had chosen her for a reason, the day he'd brought her back to Serenity with barely a word, refusing to even look Inara's way for a full week, even after she'd started trying to talk to Jiao.

"Are they back on your world?" she asked.

Jiao shook her head. "I doubt it."

Inara knew an unwillingness to talk when she heard it, letting them lapse back into silence that, while no less comfortable, was also no more comfortable than it had been before. She didn't carry a watch – it hardly gave the right impression for a Companion – and with the unchanging view, she felt that time had come to a stop, that they would sit there forever, waiting, until there was nothing of them left to wait.

It was Jiao who broke the silence, turning her chair back towards Inara. "Your friend, the one they've gone to find."

Inara forced an encouraging smile that she was sure couldn't seem real. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry, I know it's not my place to ask."

"You may ask," Inara suggested. "I can still choose not to answer."

"Of course." Jiao flashed a brief, flat smile. "Do you think she'll want to come back?"

Inara opened her mouth to dismiss the question, to tell Jiao how inappropriate it was to ask, but the words wouldn't come. They always spoke of Kaylee as taken, Athens being less than safe for a girl like Kaylee, alone and trusting, and yet... Kaylee would have had no trouble bargaining her way out of the world while their backs were turned, if she'd chosen it. It would explain why they never really came close to finding any trace of her.

But Kaylee – bright, loving Kaylee, who loved the ship more than she loved any person, who was always loyal – wouldn't have left without telling someone. Inara found it hard to believe she would have left at all, given the choice.

The question remained whether she would, if she looked for them, be any more able to find them than they were her.

"I'm sorry," Jiao said, breaking into her thoughts. "I shouldn't have asked."

"It's all right," Inara assured her, reaching out to touch the tips of her fingers to Jiao's shoulder. "Yes, I think she'll want to come back. I think she's waiting for us somewhere." She hesitated. "When we find her –"

Jiao held up one hand, sudden and sharp, turning back to the console. Inara followed her gaze. The little dot was moving.

"They're coming back," Jiao said needlessly.

Inara nodded, eyes fixed on the tiny dot. The resolution wasn't good, making it appear to move in jumps rather than smoothly. "How long?" she asked.

"They've been there two hours," Jiao said. "Well, a little more."

"No." Inara looked up, frustrated, to find Jiao still looking at the screen. "How long will it take them to get back to the ship?" She looked down again, surprised to see how far the mule's dot had gone in the few seconds she'd been turned away.

"Soon," Jiao said. She looked away from the screen, catching Inara's eye for a brief moment, her gaze sad. "You should go down to meet them."

Inara could read some of Jiao's feelings on her face, her concern that Kaylee's return would mean her departure, her worry for whether they would return with her or not, her own hope, a diluted version of the crew's. None of it mattered in that moment – Inara was already on her feet, half–turned to the open doorway. "Thank you," she said, for want of anything else to say.

"Wait for them to return first," Jiao said, the words following Inara as she hurried through the ship, down the metal steps into the cargo bay. Her hand was shaking when she reached to touch the button to open the doors.

"Kaylee, please, put that capture down. No–one will want video of me brushing my hair."

"Not you. A Companion. How many people can say they've seen a real, true Companion brushing her hair?"

"Plenty, if they get their hands on that capture."

The dock, from where Inara stood on the ramp, hands pressed to her thighs to keep from wringing them together, was calmly bustling, several vehicles moving between the ships, obscuring her view of the direction from which the mule would come. The air was cold against her bare arms, making her wish for the wrap she'd left in the shuttle.

"When we land on Persephone, will you take me somewhere?"

"I have clients to see, mei–mei."

"I could come with you."

"To do what though?"

"'Nara! That's not what you were saying last night."

"Was I not? Perhaps you should refresh my memory..."

She was sure the dock was as noisy as most docks she'd stood on were, but the noise seemed far away. She didn't believe in signs. It having been a year didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't mean that they'd come back with Kaylee, or even with a clue to where she was.

Even in her own head, it sounded hollow.

"And then this plugs in there..."

"I see."

"Really?"

"No, not really, I'm sorry. But I like to watch you explain it."

She would have said, before, that she had no idea what the difference was in the sound of the mule's engine compared to the sound of any other vehicle's, yet she turned her head at just the right moment to see it come speeding through the other vehicles, Mal at the wheel.

"Shen gei ji wo li liang," Inara murmured, barely able to hear the words over the roaring in her own ears. Her fingers ached, wrapped suddenly round the edge of the doorframe as the mule slowed, coming to a halt at the back of the bay. She felt frozen there, unable to move, watching the three of them as the mule rocked to a halt.

"Was she –" she started, too soft for anyone to hear.

Except maybe Mal had, because he swung himself over the side of the mule and out into the body of the ship without even looking at Inara.

When she turned from watching him go, Zoë was in front of her, eyes soft with disappointment. "I'm sorry, Inara. She wasn't there."

"Did they – did anyone –" She stopped, unable to complete the sentence, unsure what she even meant for it to be.

Zoë shook her head. "If she was there, he don't know of it."

"Are you sure?" Inara persisted. "Are you sure he was telling the truth, you weren't there for long, maybe –"

"We're sure," Jayne said, suddenly there by Zoë, dark and angry. He still had his gun in his right hand, though Inara hadn't seen any sign of them being followed. "He'd have told me."

Zoë nodded, eyeing Jayne worriedly from the corner of her eye. "I'll tell Jiao we can leave."

hr

Back in the shuttle, lifting away from the dock, Inara picked up the capture, sitting on the foot of her bed with it. She took a deep breath, then turned it on.

It started with Mal, sitting at one end of the kitchen table with a mug of tea in both hands, watching Jayne at the other end, cleaning a gun. It took a few moments for him to look up and see Kaylee – and he didn't even hear me coming, she'd said, narrating it to Inara later.

"Put that gorram thing away, before I confiscate it." He stood up, taking his mug to the sink, then leaning on the counter.

"Aw, Captain. You wouldn't even."

"Do you really want to try me?" Mal asked, giving Kaylee his best threatening glare. On the edge of the picture, his back still to the capture, Jayne grunted out a laugh, though it wasn't clear who he was laughing at.

"I'll go on strike," Kaylee promised.

Mal looked at Jayne. "You know, it might almost be worth falling out of the sky in exchange for five minutes without you getting that thing out. Shouldn't have let you buy it in the first place."

It was hard to tell with her out of the picture, but Kaylee didn't seem to notice that Mal was moving gradually towards her. "Too late now," she said brightly, and Mal leapt for her.

She jerked back, squealing in surprise, the picture abruptly shifting to show the ceiling, then the edge of Mal's hand as he grabbed for it. "No!" Kaylee yelled. The image shifted again, jerky and jumping. "You wouldn't dare! You wouldn't –"

The picture shut off suddenly, then came back on Inara and Kaylee, sitting next to each other on the couch in the corner of the kitchen. Inara remembered River picking the capture up from the table where it had been left, turning it on the two of them, and she'd half–expected swooping camera effects when she'd watched it back later. It turned out that River had a very steady hand.

On the screen, Kaylee had her legs curled under her, and was pressed against Inara's side, head on Inara's shoulder, Inara's arm around her. For all that they were so close, that Kaylee was smiling absently, that Inara had her head tilted to rest against Kaylee's, Inara didn't think they looked like lovers, though they were by the time of the images. They didn't look any different from how they always had.

"–And you'll have all the riches in the verse, because you'll Companion for a rich man who leaves you an entire planet in his will," Kaylee was saying, obviously well into her speech. "So you can have beautiful clothes, and a new shuttle."

"I like my old shuttle," Inara said mildly.

Kaylee raised the hand in Inara's lap to wave her comment away. "Simon will have the most high tech medical surgery ever seen, and treat poor people for free. And River – what will you have, River?"

The camera shifted slightly as River shrugged. "She likes it here. She doesn't want to leave."

"Something you can have while you're on the ship, then," Kaylee said. "Music, or books..."

"What will you have?" Inara asked Kaylee. She remembered being worried that Kaylee would mention something that would upset River, though River had been doing so much better by then.

"New compression coil for Serenity," Kaylee said immediately.

Inara laughed. "You wouldn't want to replace the whole engine?"

"No!" Kaylee said, sounding horrified. "It's Serenity's heart, you couldn't just rip it out."

Inara on the screen laughed again, patting Kaylee's hair, and Inara in the shuttle gasped and started to cry, like she hadn't in an entire year, capture forgotten, hands pressed to her mouth to keep the sobs inside. She was afraid that if she didn't, she might scream, just to get out everything inside her that felt like jagged pieces of glass, like a thousand needles pressing into her stomach.

She curled forwards, bent over against the pain – God, how badly it hurt, worse than anything she remembered. She couldn't breathe, wanted to curl up and shake apart. It couldn't be worse, it couldn't, than a year of failing, a year of nothing, looking towards another year of exactly the same, dozens of years of nothing, never quite being able to stop hoping.

She nearly choked at the knock to the shuttle door, startled. "Inara?" Zoë's voice called. "You in there?"

Inara pressed her hands harder across her face, trying to silence her sobs. Not that Zoë would be fooled for long, Serenity being so small, but it would be enough for Zoë to realize she didn't want company.

"Inara?" Zoë called again, her tone shading into concern. There was a pause, then Zoë said, "I'm going to come in now."

"No," Inara said, but it came out cracked and broken, not really a word, and then Zoë was stepping into the shuttle, competent and together as always. "Please," Inara whispered, fumbling blindly for a handkerchief. "Please, I'm fine, please leave me alone."

"Fine people don't look like you do," Zoë said. She came over to the bed, sat down next to Inara and handed her a white handkerchief. "It's new," she said. "Haven't even had to use it wipe up any blood yet."

"Thank you." Inara blew her nose, wiped her eyes, which were already starting to hurt from crying. It didn't help much. The tears kept coming. "I just need a few minutes."

Zoë didn't say anything, just moved to lay her hand between Inara's shoulder blades, warm and comforting.

"I'm sorry," Inara said, wiping her eyes again. "This is hardly fair to you –"

"Let me judge that," Zoë said, unmoving. "Blow your nose again."

Inara complied, then took some deep breaths, feeling the tears begin to ease. "Thank you," she said, turning to look at Zoë as she said it.

It was as sudden as the tears, her hand on Zoë's face, Zoë looking at her, solemn and serious. Inara's mouth against Zoë's, tentative, then not so much so.

"Not a good idea," Zoë said, but she was murmuring it against Inara's mouth, not drawing away.

Inara kissed her again. "I know," she said, and it was Zoë who leaned through the breath between them to kiss her, the third time.

Inara's eyes burned when she closed them, dry and raw from crying, and she felt strange as she did it, too far removed from the world. When Zoë drew back, she couldn't stop the half–sob from crawling out of her throat.

"Ssh." Zoë kissed Inara's left eye, then her right, soft pressure that made Inara want to blink. Zoë kissed the corner of her eye, her cheekbone, the corner of her mouth, her lips cool against Inara's over–heated, tight skin, then kissed Inara gently on her mouth and pulled away. Inara opened her eyes to Zoë's face, not too close, her eyes full of worry. Her hand was still on Inara's back.

"It's all right," Inara said, not sure if she meant herself, or what they were doing, or whether she just wanted something to make Zoë stop looking like that. She lifted the hand not still clutching Zoë's handkerchief to cup Zoë's cheek, thumb stroking the soft, bruised skin under her eyes. Zoë was very still under her hand, the kind of calm Inara associated with the handful of times she'd seen Zoë defending the crew. "It's all right," she said again, meaning it a little more.

"Probably not," Zoë said.

"Probably not," Inara agreed. Maybe it didn't matter any more. Zoë was there, the only person Inara talked to in any real way any more. Maybe that would have to be enough now. "Kiss me again," she said.

Zoë drew her in with the hand on her back, Inara's dress sliding against the silken material of her bedspread, both chosen for just that effect. It was a strange kiss, slow like they were familiar lovers, sad, as far as it was possible for a kiss to be, not enough to be the escape Inara would have expected from it, if she'd expected anything. If she'd thought of this at all.

She kept her hand on Zoë's cheek, holding her in place as they kissed, chaste, only lips pressing together. She felt every slight movement Zoë made, right up to the slight twitch that signified she meant to pull away. Inara raised her free hand, taking advantage of the way Zoë's movement broke the kiss to open the buttons of her shirt, rubbing her palm over the shape of Zoë's breast under the vest she wore under the shirt, always behind layer and layer of clothes.

"Inara," Zoë said.

Inara kissed her again, pushing the shirt away and slipping her hand under Zoë's vest, feeling her skin, warm and tight across the muscles of her stomach. "Let me," she said against Zoë's mouth. "Just let me..."

Zoë leaned away from her a little, reaching up to curl her hand around Inara's wrist. "Not like this," she said. "You don't want to do this."

Inara tried to press closer again, held back by Zoë's hand on her shoulder. "I just want to forget," she said, hating how weak her voice sounded, how fragile. "I want to think of something else."

Zoë looked away, and when she looked back, her eyes were dark and troubled, her face pained. "You'll regret it in the morning," she said. "Trust me."

"Not with you," Inara said. The words sounded true out loud, maybe true inside as well. She couldn't tell any longer. She lifted her free hand, stroked one finger down the side of Zoë's face, Zoë's eyes flickering closed. "I wouldn't regret anything I did with you."

"Maybe I would," Zoë said quietly. "Shouldn't ought to start like this."

"I –" Inara started, and then the words caught up to her and she stopped. Zoë opened her eyes, looked right at her, and Inara felt herself flush with realization. She couldn't look away, caught by Zoë's intensity, by the meaning she'd never seen before. She wanted to ask what would happen when they found Kaylee, but the thought of what Zoë might say in response choked her. "Kiss me again," she said instead.

Zoë didn't say anything, but she let Inara slide the hand under her vest out and up to rest lightly on her shoulder, and when Inara pressed slightly, she swayed forward so Inara could kiss her again.

Zoë's mouth was hesitant now, only opening gradually for Inara to slide her tongue inside, gentle and careful as she never would have imagined being with Zoë, if she'd imagined it at all. "Lie back," she said.

Zoë shook her head.

"It's all right," Inara said. "I promise you."

Zoë still looked uncertain, but she complied anyway, shifting until she was lying on her side and Inara could curl against her, relax into her body and kiss her, light, soft kisses. She let her eyes slide closed, feeling the warmth of Zoë's body against hers, and thought she could lie there all day like that, until she fell away into a world where nothing existed by Zoë's mouth against hers, forget about everything else for just a little while...

As she had with Kaylee, one long ride through empty space, with nothing for either of them to do but lie curled together, kissing and touching, filling the air with the smell of sweat and the sound of their own gasping breaths.

She was pulling away before she even thought to do so.

"What's wrong?" Zoë asked, sitting up. Inara shook her head, mute, eyes burning all over again with tears, and Zoë's eyes widened into understanding. "I might be best to go," she said.

Inara grabbed for her arm, caught her wrist. "Please don't," she said, words mangled with tears wanting to fall. "I'm sorry, it's not – I wanted this. I want you. I'm sorry." She blinked, knocking the tears free to run into her hair.

Zoë looked away, barely moving, but suddenly not touching Inara at all. "Seems this wasn't such a good idea after all."

Inara sat up, not quite facing Zoë but not quite faced away either, watching Zoë watch her, both of them looking from the corners of their eyes. "I wanted to," she started, except she didn't know any more what she'd wanted. Someone to comfort her. Someone to make her forget, or maybe someone to let her remember, just for a while, the things she didn't let herself remember, not right when Kaylee was who knew where. The things she'd hidden in the back of her mind, like the way Kaylee would go down on her with enthusiasm before she picked up the skill as well, or how she'd walk around Inara's shuttle unashamedly naked, where Inara would always put on at least her robe.

"Not to think of it," Zoë suggested quietly, repeating Inara's own words.

"Yes," Inara agreed. She reached for Zoë's hand, turning it carefully to hold in her own, half–expecting Zoë to pull away. "Is this what it was like for you?" Zoë made a small, questioning sound. "After Wash died, is this how you felt?"

"No," Zoë said, curling her fingers a little more closely around Inara's. "I knew he wasn't coming back," she added after a while.

Inara had nothing to say in response, and so they simply sat, moving through empty space, holding hands in silence.

hr

The final scene on the capture ended with Kaylee resting her head on Inara's bare shoulder, both of them sated, exhausted. After a few seconds, she started stroking Inara's nipple with her thumb. "'Nara?"

"Yes," Inara said, echoing Kaylee's motions on Kaylee's back.

"You won't go back will you? To the training house?"

"No," Inara said, certain, and kissed the top of Kaylee's head.

"Good," Kaylee said, sounding half asleep. "Don't want you to leave me behind again."


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