Inara holds on tight to Kaylee's hand. She has decided that if she never lets go, then Kaylee can never leave. It's a sort of magical thinking from that secluded realm that is restricted solely to children too young to know better, and to adults too smart to fail to see that final hour when no better idea remains.

Inara caresses Kaylee's arm. She thinks back to the first time that they touched. It was onboard her shuttle, when the paint was still fresh and the cushions with scarcely a dent. Inara had invited Kaylee in for tea. It wasn't that she didn't have better things to do, but for a renter dependent upon the whims of a self-acknowledged criminal crew, it seemed a pragmatic choice.

Like most women--and more than a handful of men--Kaylee had gaped to behold the cornucopia of feminine luxuries that were a daily part of Inara's world. Kaylee bent to feel a length of wispy cloth--an embroidered sari, as it happened--as if to confirm that this microcosm of riches was for real.

"Here, I'll show you." Inara draped the sari over Kaylee, with expert deftness fitting the folds to her form. To all appearances, it was a polite kindness; in reality it was a necessity to keep those hands that worked in grease and dirt from soiling up her silk.

The wrap was not her favorite, but it was sea-foam green with golden stitching, like the lights of The Great City dancing over the Inland Sea on Sihnon, and it always made her think of home. Inara had watched in worldly tolerance as Kaylee danced. But then--to her dismay--Inara found that she was enjoying the show--no, the entire moment--as if unexpectedly infected by a virus of the girl's contagious joy. The realization was so startling that Inara dropped her hands and ceased her clapping. She hadn't planned on having fun.

"You can keep it, if you like," Inara said, covering her confusion with her words. As much as she could ill-afford the wardrobe loss, she needed the mechanic's good will more. Although an able pilot herself, those skills would get her nowhere if her engines ceased to run.

"Oh, no!" Kaylee began to unwrap herself to pass the sari back. "I can't be wearing that!"

Inara paused, embarrassed by her oversight. This girl lived in a world of metal parts and oily floors, not of finery and delight. She redirected her approach and used the voice she had been trained to use for work. "I can see you like it. Take it, please. You don't need a special occasion, you know. You can just wear it to please yourself."

"I know that," said Kaylee, her voice lilting with surprise. As if it had never occurred to her to dress for anyone but herself, and couldn't for the life of her see why anyone else wouldn't think the same. "But this ain't me; it's you. It should stay here with the other shiny things." Kaylee blushed and looked down in that certain way she had. "I like it, 'cause I like to think of you wearing it. If I took it, it wouldn't be the same."

The ingenuousness of Kaylee's face left no room to cover any jealousy or regret. In some distant corner of her mind, Inara thought that she must have known others as open and real, but that was hundreds of clients, years of Academy conditioning, and at least one terrible war ago.

"Tell you what," Inara said. "Why don't I give it to you, but you leave it here. That way you can visit it whenever you want. If I don't have a client, that is." She added the last words in a rush.

Kaylee beamed. "Really? And you would still wear it?"

"If you let me. It would be yours to decide."

"I like the idea of a companion borrowing my clothes. It's rich." Kaylee giggled and Inara thought that that might be the closest she would get to bathing in sunshine on this ship.

Inara swathed the sari around the girl again, this time tucking it, in carefully, lingering hand over waist and skin longer than was strictly necessary.

"How do I look?" Kaylee spread her arms.

"Beautiful. Now, let me fix your hair." Pushing her hourglass aside, she picked a hand-mirror off the dresser and passed it to Kaylee. Inara took her time with the hair. She felt her work with her fingers, for her eyes were watching Kaylee's face.

It was only later, as she straightened up, that Inara realized that she hadn't seen any oil stains at all.

Inara brushes Kaylee's chest. She watches each rise and fall and mentally wills the next. Inara thinks back to the first time that they made love. More gestalt remains than specifics, but she can still replay a certain few: the little coos Kaylee made in her ear, the way she wrapped her legs and the feel of her rounded ass. She remembers the words Kaylee had whispered, begging her to do anything at all save stop. She remembers the smell and the shape of that sweet little pussy and the deluge of barely coherent Mandarin that Kaylee poured out in torrents as Inara plunged her fingers in and worked them from inside.

One thing Inara remembers is her own release. Oh, not moment by moment. That she never does. Each climax is like a snowflake, individual if not perfect, with much of the wonder stemming from its fleeting, ephemeral nature.

What she remembers is that was the first time that she had let herself be brought to climax by another not for show, not to gratify or reassure or attempt to increase her pay, but purely and selfishly because it she wanted to and could.

And she remembered that it was fun.

When it was over, then came the guilt. Propped on one elbow, Inara had watched while Kaylee sat, cross-legged on the floor with basin and sponge, to wash.

"Kaylee, I shouldn't have done that."

"It's okay," Kaylee said. "I ain't hurt. Just next time, maybe you could cut your nails."

Inara rose and knelt behind her, hand sliding over to caress between breast and shoulder, almost exactly where it lay now. "No, I mean, the whole thing. I shouldn't have done any of it. Registered companions aren't supposed to take lovers."

Kaylee chuckled. "Silly, we ain't lovers."

Accenting the absurdity, Kaylee washed the evidence from between her legs as Inara stared.

"We're just...us," said Kaylee. "That's all." She turned her head back towards Inara's face and grinned.

Torn between laughter and affection, the latter won out in Inara's brain. She leaned in and kissed her on the mouth, her hand slinking further down Kaylee's side until Kaylee dropped the sponge.

"Then...I'd very much like to be 'just us' again," Inara, when she finally broke away.

Kaylee shrugged. "I'm always me. If your gonna be you, then I guess we have plan."

This time Inara did laugh. They kissed again, playfully at first, but soon for hard and real. Together they went down amidst the plush and silk and cushions and stayed until Kaylee had to start her wash all over again.

Inara traces Kaylee's neck. Was it only six hours ago they had made plans for tonight? Plans that did not include getting shot. It seems like a whole lifetime ago. For Kaylee, she considers wryly, it might well be just that.

Inara smiles recollecting the demure, 'hey you's on the stairway--a secret language for a province that is all their own. They had kept it quiet not because they had to or should, but because there were no words to make the others understand. And neither of them could think of a good reason that they should try.

Inara fondles Kaylee's hair and thinks of all the things they may never do. She thinks of things that she never knew that she wanted until a mere half-hour ago. She thinks of window boxes and bathrooms with two sinks and a yard cluttered with countless engines in various states of disrepair. She thinks of midnight feedings and diapers, of kites and schools and scraped knees on a clever boy with Kaylee's eyes. She thinks of growing old and gray with a houseful of children and grandchildren so mingled together that they can no longer remember who issued forth from whom.

Inara holds fast on to Kaylee's hand, for Kaylee holds Inara's heart. She hadn't meant to let it happen, but it seems that we do not always get a say. You see, Inara has known intimately more people than Kaylee has ever met by name. She has known people who have lusted for her, pined for her, killed for her. She has known those who came to use her, humiliate her, hurt her or just ride through life the easy way on her power and position. Most have wanted to rescue her, worship her, marry her, adore her, save her, keep her, love her--or at least hire her long term.

Inara has even loved some of them back--at least as close to love as she had thought that she could come. Yet in all those people, in all those hours, days and nights, she had never known a single one who wanted nothing more from her than just to be a friend.

Ironically--or not, perhaps, considering the life that she has chosen--Inara finds that the most erotic thing of all.

In the Companion Academy they teach, among other things, psychology. They teach that at the root of all anger is fear. And Inara is so very angry now. She is angry at the Fed spy and at the Alliance government that sent him here. She is angry at Mal and Simon for almost doing nothing. She is angry at Zoe, who was perfectly happy to let it stay that way. She is angry with Wash and Jayne and with everyone else in the whole universe who doesn't care as much as she does for the pale, still body clinging to life before her on the surgical bed.

But mostly, Inara is angry with herself.

Here, with Kaylee teetering on the rim of Shan-Yu's proverbial volcano, Inara knows her thoughts should be on her friend, but no matter how hard she tries, they won't stay. When Inara looks at Kaylee, touches her, thinks of all they had and now, perhaps all they never will, Inara sees herself and the long, dark lonely years that loom ahead, poised to begin the instant that Kaylee fails to take another breath.

Inara drops her face to Kaylee's neck, not caring who else is there to see. Inara breathes in the scent now almost lost to that of antiseptics and laser scalpel scabs and blood. Inara clings frantically to Kaylee's hand, and for the first time in her pampered, privileged, useless life Inara finds the words to pray.

Inara doesn't like the woman she used to be. She thought that selfish side of her was dead. Had she her way, she would bury her entirely and forget her--another late-entry casualty of that rutting, pointless war.

That she doesn't, is for one reason only: because Kaylee loved that woman and found something good, something redeemable inside. Only a fool would argue with what Kaywinnit Lee Frye declared to be good, and whatever else Inara may think of herself, she knows that she is no fool.

And so, Inara holds on tight to Kaylee's hand.