Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon, and Tim Minear. No disrespect is meant by my borrowing them; no financial gain is mine by employing them.

***
The coveralls had been Kaylee's idea, of course, but Inara wouldn't have been wearing them if her own attempt at child guidance hadn't backfired horribly on her. If Kaylee weren't so utterly guileless, she would have started to suspect that it was all an ingenious plot. It began simply enough, really. The crew was having some unscheduled down time; the latest client was delayed, but since the job was mostly legal and the payoff was decent, Mal was content to wait the extra day. The planet was one of the last to be terraformed before the War - too new and too far out on the Rim to hold much appeal for the Alliance traders, too poor and rustic for a Companion to find suitable clientele. Inara had found herself with time on her hands, as well.

Kaylee, bored, had come to Inara's shuttle as she usually did when she was looking for entertainment. River was in bed with a fever - something about a reaction to the latest attempt by Simon to make smooth what the butchers had done to his sister. Simon, guilt piled on top of his usual worry, couldn't be persuaded to leave her side. Inara was the next logical stop on Kaylee's list. Not that Inara minded having her as a visitor; quite the opposite was true. If she were to be completely honest with herself, she had to admit to feeling a little disappointed that Kaylee's visits were less frequent now that she and River had become friends. By her own design, Inara had kept herself somewhat separate from the crew. Her relationship with them was cordial but distant. She enjoyed sharing her meals with them, joking, hearing their stories of adventures past - but it would just complicate matters if she moved beyond the point of friendly acquaintance. Kaylee was the exception.

From the first day the engineer and the Companion had felt the pull of friendship. Kaylee didn't just accept her, she joyfully embraced the notion of having a Companion as a shipmate. She wasn't overawed or awkward or embarrassed as so many outer world folk are when first in the presence of a woman like Inara; no, instead she bubbled with enthusiasm and peppered her with questions about the glamour and the excitement, and God help her, the romance. For her part Inara couldn't help but be won over by the sheer joy of being alive that clothed Kaylee's every movement. Besides, it would take a woman of stronger will than Inara not to succumb to the kind of hero worship afforded her by the girl. Mal didn't like that the two of them spent so much time together. Words were exchanged and a warning: Kaylee was not a toy to while away the long hours out in the black, and she sure as hell wasn't a recruit for "whorin'." If it came down to a choice as to who stayed on Serenity, there was no choice: Inara would be gone. Remarkably she had managed not to hit him; even more remarkably she had managed to keep her temper and calmly assure him that recruitment was not on her agenda. And she did it without once calling him an ass, although it took every ounce of her training not to do so. Over time Mal came to understand that in her own way Inara cared for Kaylee almost as much as he did. He still was far from happy, though, about her attraction to the trappings of Inara's trade. Which is partly how she came to be in this present mess.

For the better part of an hour Kaylee had roamed the small shuttle that was Inara's home. She'd held up several of Inara's gowns to her own body and watched herself in the mirror as she swayed gently, making the silk move like water. She didn't ask to put them on, and Inara didn't offer; neither would cross that line. She then moved on to the cabinet that held the tea service and the teas and the perfumes and oils that were tools as essential to Inara as the wrenches and bolts were to Kaylee. She toyed with the brushes and combs, admiring the delicate inlay of ivory and onyx. All the while she chatted absent-mindedly about nothing in particular. Finally Inara called her over to the vanity, gesturing to the cushioned chair.

"Come. Sit, mei-mei. Let me do your hair."

Kaylee settled herself into the chair. Inara started the brush on its path through the long, thick hair.

"You seem so distracted today. Is anything wrong? Is there something that you'd like to talk about?"

"No, everything's fine." She closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly to the side. "Umm, that feels so nice, Nara."

"Did you have a fight with River? Or maybe it was a fight with Simon?" She put a teasing tone in her voice.

"Noooo, I didn't have a fight with Simon." She actually blushed a bit. "Nor with River, neither." She picked up the comb and ran her fingers carefully across the fragile-looking teeth. "Everything you have is so beautiful, Nara. Everything you do is so beautiful."

Ah, now she understood.

"Beauty is everywhere, Kaylee. What I have and what I do is just one form of what is all around us."

"It's not the same." She gave a dismissive shrug.

"Of course it's not the same. How boring and dissatisfying would the universe be if all that was seen as beautiful could be captured in one room or in one person?" She lifted the girl's chin so that she was looking at herself in the upright mirror on the vanity. "Do you really have no idea how beautiful you are?"

To her credit the girl didn't drop her eyes but examined her reflection.

"I'll do," she agreed. "My folks were always sayin' I was beautiful, but that's what your folks are supposed to say." She really was an innocent. "And Simon said I was pretty. He was pretty drunk, but I think he meant it."

"I've seen the way he looks at you when you don't see him watching. He meant it." That brought a grin to her face.

"But what you do, it don't compare. It's so clean and proper and everyone is so fancy and rich. If there's beauty in overhauling an engine, I ain't seen it. It's grease and sweat and skinned knuckles is all."

"Kaylee Frye, are you sitting there telling me that Serenity is just a piece of ugly le-se? That working on her is beneath you?"

She straightened indignantly in the chair.

"That ain't what I meant to say, and you know it. Oh, forget it. You'll just never get it. You don't see what I see."

"So show me." Inspiration!

"What?"

"Show me. Let's go down to the engine room. Show me your world. And I'll show you the beauty right in front of your eyes."

Kaylee took a moment to consider it, and then hopped to her feet in excitement.

"You're on! But you can't go dressed like that. You'll ruin your pretty dress. Wait right here - I'll get you some clothes to wear." And she rushed out of the shuttle.

Which is how she came to be on her back under the main engine dressed in a pair of Kaylee's coveralls and one of her old shirts. They weren't a perfect fit: she was a bit taller and more slender, but they were comfortable. Inara had forgotten just how comfortable a pair of old, worn-in pants could be. It was many years, it seemed, since she had the need - or the right - to wear them. The two women laughed like children while Kaylee explained and Inara carefully explored this foreign world. And in truth, Inara did find beauty in the complexity of parts, in the rhythm and the hum of the thing. She tried to explain it.

"It's a dance you do, Kaylee. You and Serenity. You each have your part to do, each in step with the other. The music is in the machine, the cadence is in these lovely hands." She clasped Kaylee's hands in her own. "If I falter on the dance floor, there's a moment of embarrassment. If you falter, then the music stops. Serenity stops. It's you who keep us all dancing safely through the black, bao-be. And that is a beautiful thing indeed."

They shared a comfortable silence there under Serenity's engine, their torsos hidden beneath the machinery, their legs relaxed and askew in the aisle. And that was how Mal found them. From the sound of his voice he wasn't pleased.

"Kaylee, why are you bringing strangers into my engine room? And just what the hell are you two doing under there?"

"Zao gao!" Inara kept her voice low, but she suspected that the sound carried out to Mal anyway.

"You come out of there now, the both of you."

Kaylee emerged first, and sat cross-legged in the aisle. She gave a small smile and a smaller wave. "Hi."

Inara slowly pushed herself out from under the engine. Mal just stared as she sat up next to Kaylee, pulled her knees into her chest and primly clapsed her hands across her knees. "Captain Reynolds, good afternoon."

Mal started to say something, but he appeared to be having trouble finding words. He settled for pointing vaguely toward Inara. "You, uh, you got some grease on your face."

"Oh. Thank you." Damn, she didn't have anything with her to clean her face. She was mortified to find that she was completely flustered.

Mal was starting to recover his footing.

"Kaylee, I don't remember sayin' anything about hirin' another mechanic. Fetching as she is." Inara couldn't believe that she was starting to blush. "Decided on a career change, have you? Good for you. You'll still be on your back now and then, but your time will be your own. The retirement plan ain't as good - in fact there ain't one - but . . ."

"Cap'n," Kaylee cut him off. "Nara was helping me." She beamed at the woman sitting next to her. "She was showing me the beauty all around me."

"Was she now. Is that a fact?" Mal was looking intently at Inara, and she was now able to hold his gaze without a waver.

"You came down here for a specific reason, I assume. I'll leave you so you can talk to Kaylee." She arose gracefully and turned to give Kaylee a hand up.

"It's nothin' you can't hear. In fact, I was comin' to find you next. It seems we landed on a holiday around here. Some birthday of some loyal son of the land or such. There's a celebration of sorts startin' up in town. I thought you might like to know about it. The others are already checkin' it out. Thought you might want to do the same." His words were to Kaylee, but his eyes were on Inara.

"It'll be fun! Let's go, Nara. Come with us, please." She was using her best wheedling tone.

"I don't know . . ."

"Please, Nara. Please? I'll let you win at all the games. There's games, right?"

"Don't know. Expect so." He was standing with his arms crossed, a challenge in his eyes. "What do you say? Care to mingle with the plain folk?"

"I think that would be a lovely way to spend the rest of the day." Damn him. "I'll just go change and meet you there." She started to move past him.

"Don't. Don't change, I mean." They were standing facing each other now. "These ain't fancy folk. A Companion suddenly showing up, it'll put 'em off, change the way everything is." He paused. "'Sides, you look good just like that. It's a new look for you, but it suits you. Just need to clean your face up a little." He touched her face with his fingers and gently wiped the grease spot from her cheek.

"Uh, I'm gonna go, and you two can meet up with me later." Kaylee started to sidle by them.

"No!" "No, that's all right." They both spoke together, and then stopped sheepishly.

"Ok then. Let's say we hit the fair!" Kaylee turned away from them quickly to hide her grin.

It was a perfect afternoon. Inara couldn't remember a more perfect afternoon. The weather was warm but cooled by a soft breeze. The fair was simple but overflowed with good feeling. Mal had been right; the townsfolk never gave her a second glance beyond that given to any pretty girl out for a day of fun with her friends.

The fair was spread out across the small town and spilled over into the fields surrounding it. There were the usual booths of foods and crafts. Farm animals were being displayed and judged in pens on the edge of town. In one of the fields they could see the farmers putting their draught horses through their paces, competing for strength and smarts. A saloon of sorts had been set up under the open sky. Kaylee had guessed right - there were games. Silly games, games of chance, games of skill. Mal, more relaxed and boyish than Inara had ever seen him, won several prizes: a blue ribbon with a little polished stone hanging from it like a poor jewel, a small vase with a slowly wilting flower, a cloth cat stuffed with something soft. He gave the ribbon and the cat to Kaylee; after a moment's hesitation he offered the vase to Inara. She hesitated in turn.

"It don't mean nothin', Inara. It's just a souvenir." She took the vase from his hand, almost shy. "Not every man expects you to pay for their gifts." She looked quickly at him, but although his words were barbed there was no hint of scorn on his face. A touch of sadness maybe. Or maybe it was just the shadows cast by the now lowering sun.

The three of them strolled farther afield. Without any conscious thought, Mal and Inara had kept Kaylee with them all afternoon, a buffer between them. The conversation had grown easier as the day wore on, the two of them relaxed into each other's presence slowly until now it felt like the most natural thing in the world for Inara to be here like this. She tucked the vase into the bib pocket of the coveralls so that all that could be seen was the top of the flower peeping out. She put one hand in her hip pocket and crooked her other arm through Kaylee's.. She felt young, younger than Kaylee. She felt free. Why was that? She was brought up short before she could pursue that troubling thought further. They were standing at the edge of a cemetery. There were so many graves; more than she would have expected for a town this small. She sighed. It was easy for those that kept to the sky to forget how dangerous and fragile life was for those who settled the new worlds. Kaylee broke the silence, her voice soft and sad.

"All them graves. So many dead."

"Everybody dies. It ain't nothin'." Mal's words were flat and bitter. Kaylee turned her face back towards his, her eyes bright, her expression solemn. Inara looked quickly at him, ready with a gentle reprimand for casting a pall on this beautiful day; before she could speak, though, she could see his eyes close and he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head that meant he regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He moved up behind Kaylee and wrapped her in a hug, his arms around her shoulders, his chin resting on top of her hair. "Except you, mei-mei. You don't die." He started to swivel slightly from side to side, playfully, bringing her body with him. "You just continue on growin' old and fat and happy surrounded by your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids and your great-great-grandkids . . ." She was laughing now.

Inara walked to them and took Kaylee's hand with a smile. "Let's start back. It'll be dark soon." She looked at Mal across Kaylee, and something shifted between them - an understanding about their mutual knowledge of a dark world, an acknowledgment that this girl laughing in his arms was an anchor for each of them. Mal's smile was easy now. He released Kaylee with a quick kiss to the top of her head and agreed with Inara: "It's time to be headin' back."

It was almost full dark by the time they reached the town square. The lanterns had been hung up and lit; a small string band was tuning up on the grandstand at the end of the street. They could see the rest of their party sitting to one side, waiting for the music to start. They had all seemed to have taken Inara's sudden change in stride. Wash and Zoe had raised their eyebrows and exchanged looks. Wash smiled happily and started to make a joke, but Zoe, with just a hint of a grin directed at Mal, pulled him onward with a, "Leave the nice people be, dear." Book had taken it all in in an instant, his eyes knowing, his smile warm. Jayne had leered, recognizing whose clothing Inara was wearing. "So, Kaylee let you get in her pants." Inara and Kaylee simultaneously sighed and shook their heads, and Book quickly stepped in front of Jayne to forestall the fight in Mal's eyes. "We were just leaving," as he pushed Jayne back and away. They could hear Jayne's indignant voice as Book maneuvered him into the crowd: "What? It was a joke! Nobody can take a joke no more."

Now, though, there was only a comfortable welcoming as they rejoined the group. Zoe sat on a bench while Wash stayed on the ground, his arm draped across her thighs, his head resting on her knee.

"You're back!" he called, even though they were standing right next to him. "Look, Zoe, they've come back." Wash had been drinking.

"Yes, husband, I see them," Zoe ran her fingers slowly through his hair. It was a rare display of public affection. Maybe she'd been drinking, too?

There was no doubt that Jayne had been drinking. Jayne was in fact stinking drunk. It was one of those small, unexplained miracles of the universe that there was no happier drunk alive than Jayne Cobb. He looked at Inara and fairly beamed at her. He pointed to her chest and grinned broadly. Inara looked at him cautiously. "You got a flower." Inara looked down to see the flower peeking out of the hidden vase. Jayne continued, nearly overcome with wonder, "It's . . . it's . . ." He held his breath while he searched for the perfect phrase. "It's so gorram beautiful!" The words burst outward, the speaker nearly giddy from the joy of it all. The group exploded with laughter; she joined in, laughing until her sides started to ache.

The music spilled over them: the fiddles and guitars in an irresistible surge of ecstatic rhythm that urged everyone to seize this moment of time. The street quickly filled with couples. Mal took Inara's hand and moved toward the happy crowd. "Dance with me, Inara."

She danced. She danced as she hadn't since she was young and carefree, since before she had ever felt the caress of silk or the iron bonds of contract. She danced with joy; she danced with abandon. The lights bounced and jittered on their poles, jarred by the crowds bumping into them. The music soared and echoed to the jeweled stars above, the musicians taking nary a breath as they moved from one song to the next and the next. Mal twirled her around and around, neither one of them hearing the music anymore, both of them caught up in the glory of being young and alive and together. Mal threw back his head and laughed, full-throated. Her heart swelled at the sight. Kaylee swirled past them in the arms of a young ranch hand, her eyes sparkling, laughing, the image of exuberant life.

"I don't want this night to end." Had she said it aloud? No. Mal continued to whirl her among the other couples, each of them also caught in their own worlds of sound and movement. The musicians, tiring at last but unwilling to admit defeat, moved into a slow song. After a moment, Inara recognized it - an old lament of tragic love, a story as ancient as the sky. They continued to dance, closer now. Still not touching except for their hands, but now Inara was too aware of Mal's fingers on her skin, too conscious of his breath moving across her hair. To one side she saw Zoe and Wash standing now, her arms around his neck, his arms holding her tight and close - not so much dancing as being ever so softly moved by the music in the air. Kaylee and her young man moved into view, arms around each other's waists, eyes locked in a deep, sensual gaze. She felt Mal's arm tighten around her as he pulled her closer into him. A small part of her was surprised that she offered no resistance, the rest of her was lost to conscious thought. She looked into his eyes and remembered the old cliche about drowning, but all she could think was, "So this is what it feels like." His mouth was moving slowly towards hers, her lips were opening to receive him. With a ragged sigh he pulled her tightly to him.

Inara cried out, surprised by the pain over heart. Mal, shocked, pulled away.

"Inara?" Concern. Confusion.

She put her hand to her heart and through the pocket felt the shards of the vase, crushed in their brief embrace. She wondered if it punctured the skin beneath. In a flash of pain she hoped that it had.

"Inara, are you hurt? Are you OK?"

"No. Yes." Hand still on her heart. "It broke."

They stood silent and awkward. She was the first to speak.

"It's late. I should be getting back to my shuttle."

"I'll walk you back."

"No, Mal, that's not necessary. I'll be fine. You stay with the crew."

"I'm not lettin' you walk back by yourself." Subdued and stubborn.

Book appeared suddenly at their side, an even more drunken and now speechless Jayne draped across him. His words were neutral, but his eyes showed that he knew the truth of what had just passed. "I believe that Jayne has graciously presented me with the opportunity to use my shepherding skills. I'll be taking him on back to the ship now. Would of either of you care to accompany me?"

"We'll both go. Here, give him to me." Mal hauled Jayne off of Book, putting one of Jayne's arms around his neck. "Where'r the others?"

"Zoe and Wash seem quite at home here. As for Kaylee, I do believe that she'll be sleeping away from Serenity this evening." He saw Mal's frown and continued. "It's all right, Captain. I asked around. Apparently the young man is well regarded. She'll be fine."

"We'd best get started then." He headed down the path half-carrying, half-dragging his human cargo.

The evening was cool, the way dimly lit by the waxing moon. The journey was completed in silence but for the stir of the breeze through the leaves and the sounds of their footfalls on twig and grass and earth. At last they were home. Book excused himself quickly and went to his quarters. Mal and Inara stood facing each other across the cargo bay, the barely conscious Jayne of no more account in their private world than would be a sack of grain. Mal took in the sight of her as if consigning it to memory: Inara in her borrowed clothes that were a little too big and a little too short, her hair wild from the dancing, her color high and her eyes dark, a few crushed petals stuck to the rim of the pocket near her heart. He turned without a word and carried an unresisting Jayne down the corridor to the mercenary's quarters.

Inara waited alone for a while, listening to sounds of Serenity. Slowly she moved toward the stairs, slowly climbed them. In her shuttle at last, she stood in front of the vanity and slid her hand into the pocket that had contained the vase. She pulled out the remnants, some jagged and sharp, some almost powdery and collected them in the palm of her other hand. Moving now to the chest by her bed, she pulled out a small lacquer box lined in velvet and shook out the contents: a cameo, a silver-framed miniature portrait of her commissioned by a client. Into the box she placed the shattered vase, then she locked it and returned it to the chest. The two displaced items she placed carelessly in one of the drawers in the vanity. She slowly undressed, almost reluctant to shed the worn coveralls and the soft shirt that Kaylee had insisted she wear. She folded the clothes and placed them neatly on her writing table. Examining the skin where the shard had pierced her, she saw a slight puncture but no blood. For an instant she considered using one of her long enameled nails to draw out just a spot of red. She shook it off and sighed to herself. She drew on a silk gown and was suddenly overcome with a sense of fatigue - not just her body, but her mind, her spirit were weighed down. Inara laid herself across the satin sheets and fell into a dreamless, restless sleep.

Impossibly early the next day Kaylee was knocking on the door to her shuttle, excitedly asking for entrance. Inara blearily let her in and Kaylee kissed her on the cheek while simultaneously handing her a cup of coffee.

"I thought you might need this," she grinned. She unceremoniously sprawled on the bed, beaming at the Companion. "Wasn't it wonderful? Wasn't it the best night?"

Inara picked up the borrowed clothing and quietly placed the folded garments in Kaylee's lap.

"Nara? Wasn't it grand? It was like a dream!"

"Yes, mei-mei," she affectionately stroked the girl's cheek. "It was all a beautiful dream."

Finis.
Jan. 03