This is a standalone set preseries (no Simon, sorry, Leiasky). I have no idea what kind of introduction to slap on this thing, so I'll just say, enjoy! Special thanks to Ann for curtailing the worst of my rambles. NC-17. Comments are love!
"Here she is," Mal said. "The heart of her."
He watched the young woman with her pink dress, her lopsided hair twisties, gage his girl. She scrunched her nose and squinted thoughtful-like at the big mass of metal and spinny bits, most of which made about as much sense to him as he figured war and dying did to her. She didn't look like the type could step on a spacebug. Still, he'd seen for himself what she could do with an engine. The part where his was turning again was on the shiny side.
"So. What do you think?"
"Looks like she's got a big one." Her grin must have been catching, like plague, 'cause he found himself smiling back.
"Big and shiny," he agreed. "Warm now, too. Meant to thank you for that, Miss."
"Oh, Gosh. I'm Kaywinnet, but most everybody calls me Kaylee. Well, everybody but my daddy. Not that your remind me of my daddy!" She laughed, a joyful, hearty sound. "Oh, Hell, no!"
"Kaylee it is," Mal said. She was the cheersome sort—might be nice having someone cheerful on board for a change. "Kaylee, Serenity."
"We already met, Cap'n. Remember when I was on my back under the...?"
"I remember," he said quickly. He thought, if he were her daddy, he'd be sure to have a long chat with her about men like Bester. But then, she didn't exactly seem the naïve sort when she was pressed up against his wall and making noises. He made a mental note not to think on that anymore. She was a little too pretty with all the soft hair, and the bubbly. If she were a few years older, or him younger and...someone not him…
The woman—Kaylee—bobbed her head once, and flashed him a rueful smile.
"Well, I'll leave you two to get acquainted. Reckon you'll make fast friends."
"Machines and me always do," she assured. "Serenity, huh? That's a real nice name."
"I thought so."
Kaywinnet Lee Frye was three months shy of her nineteenth birthday when Serenity got stayed up on her home world. Captain Reynolds asked if she wanted the job before he got around to asking her age. When he did ask, finally, Kaylee beamed bright as the Harvest moon and told him she was three months shy of her twentieth. Her answer seemed to satisfy him, and even if he wasn't thrilled by the thought of teenagers on his boat, Serenity was clear across the 'verse by then. After a time, though, the lie started to guilt on her. Wasn't such an awful one as fibs went. Still, the captain treated her real nice, addressing her as Miss Kaylee and even bringing a dinner tray to her bunk that one time she was down with the flu. Early one morning, while Serenity was en route to Boros, Kaylee decided she wouldn't get a wink of sleep till she went and confessed. Resolved about it, she tugged a set of coveralls over her nightshirt and set off to locate the captain.
She found him in the kitchen, the galley as he called it, his fingers wrapped around what looked to be a mug of tea. He wasn't working or reading or even drinking his tea. He was just…starting. After a month on Serenity, Kaylee knew that the captain keeping late hours wasn't exactly an oddity. She'd learn the rest—what memories kept him from sleeping—in snippets: little encyclopedia entries that filtered in over the next year, adding to her knowledge of the man Malcom Reynolds. Today, she was too distracted by her own worries to let her thoughts linger on all that.
"Hey, Cap'n," she called, her voice hoarse from sleep.
His head snapped up, the line of his shoulders going stiff before he saw it was she.
"Kaylee. Hey. You tryin' to give me a heart attack? Some elaborate plan to kill your captain and seize the ship?"
"Is an awful nice ship," she teased.
"Yeah." He smiled. "Think she likes you, too. Anyway, shouldn't you be lost in dreamland about now? Visions of sugar plums and grav feeds?"
She looked at her hands, embarrassed.
"Okay if I join you, Cap'n?"
Amusement tugged at his lips. Not for the first time, Kaylee thought the captain was sorta swai when he smiled. He looked...how was it? Younger, maybe.
"Have a seat." With the toe of his boot, he pushed out a chair and motioned her to sit.
"Somethin' I gotta say, Cap'n," she said when she was facing him, and the comfortable silence had stretched a few moments longer than was comfortable. "I lied to you...before."
"Okay…." He raised a brow, waiting for her to go on.
"When you asked how old I was..." She looked intently at her lap. "Said I was almost twenty."
She could hear him shift in his seat, more than a little twitchy now.
"How—how old are ya?"
"Almost nineteen," she admitted, face pinking under his gaze.
To her surprise, he just chuckled and leaned back in his chair. He swallowed the last of his tea before speaking.
"Guess I can forgive you on account o' I've done the same myself—lied about my age, that is."
"You did? How come, Cap'n?"
"Wanted to enlist, but the law said you had to be eighteen. So, I spent twelve platinum and got a shiny new ident. card sayin' I was."
"You were a Browncoat, huh?"
Kaylee yawned—suddenly she was exhausted—and pushed back her chair.
"Thanks, Cap'n...for not bein' sore with me."
"Don't hurry the years, Lil' Kaylee. They come plenty fast all on their own."
Somethin' about his tone made her stomach hurt.
Acting on impulse, she bent over and kissed the stubbly skin of his cheek. At the press of her lips, he stiffened, although he didn't pull away, and she wondered when last he was touched like that. She breathed him in and thought he smelled how a man oughta smell—like soap and musk and a hint of sweat.
"Night, Cap'n," she said softly, and left before he could answer.
In her room, Kaylee burrowed under the blankets and slept without dreams.
Kaylee was sure people left Harvest for good. She just hadn't known any personally.
She knew some who'd tried real hard to go. Sam Shepherd, her junior-year date for the annual October Ball, hopped a transport after graduation. He made it as far as the neighboring world before he ran out of coin and had to wave his folks for a ticket home. He returned a month later, scrawnier and shame-faced, with stories of the famed Eavesdown whores, whom he had the pleasure of meeting personal during his all-too-brief stay on Persephone. Kaylee's great aunt Bess was more successful. A writer of all manner of depressing poems about bugs and darkness—a lifelong drama queen according to Kaylee's ma—Aunt Bessie ate a bottle of painkillers on her seventy-sixth birthday. She left a note asking that her ashes be sent up with the mail transport and released in space, a request Mrs. Frye had a hell of a time explaining to the distraught mail carrier. But poor Bess had to die to leave Harvest. Kaylee just said yes to a swai blond ship's mechanic with a suntan and tattoos.
Wash liked to tease her, and take guesses at what deep, dark secret had her leaving home.
"You're a trained assassin woman…no wait, an ice dancer!"
The embarrassing secret was, she didn't have any secrets. Just a life that she'd been frittering away a little more each year. She worked for her daddy, when there was work, and when there wasn't she sunburned down by the docks and talked to anyone with a ship. She thought men who flew spaceships, men who'd been places, must have stories, and usually she was right.
Eventually Kaylee knew she'd have settled down with some local boy—the ones with the stories never did stick—and married him and had his babies. Maybe she'd have loved him, or thought she did. Or maybe the babies would have come first and she wouldn't have had a choice about the marriage part. But Kaylee wasn't ready for that—not yet. She wanted some of those stories first. When she had a baby girl of her own one day, she intended to tell her stories.
It was Bester's stories that had her following him back to his ship. Well, his stories and his six pack. He talked to her in the engine room—told her about Serenity and the sights he'd seen between muffled oh, babys—and Kaylee's knees went numb but her blood began to pulse. When the captain asked her to crew up, she could give only one response.
Two hours later, Kaylee waved goodbye to her parents and brushed tears from her cheeks. Beside her, Mal held a duffel bag, weighted down with favorite stuffed animals, her captograph and whatever clothes she could fit, along with two steaming pies from Kaylee's ma.
"Chicken pot." Sniffling, Kaylee pointed to the bottom pie. "And the other's apple."
"And they smell delicious." He seemed to be looking everywhere but her face, and she made an effort to get a hold of herself. After all, this was an adventure, and Kaylee Frye had been searching for adventure her whole life or for the last two years anyway.
"Listen," the captain began, as they stood together on the ramp and watched her daddy drive away. "Something you should know, Miss."
"You mean about how this is a smuggling ship and you all are thieves? I know." He'd stared at her, sort of amazed, and she shrugged. She wiped away the last of the tears with her knuckles. "Bester showed me the hidden compartments in the cargo bay and said how eager you was to get off-world. Sorta put the pieces together."
Mal had nodded, suppressed anger making the vein in his forehead twitch.
"I'm beginning to think letting Bester go was one of my better decisions," he said thoughtfully.
Kaylee just grinned.
"I'm starting to think humpin' him was one of mine."
Serenity was always moving, so Kaylee never felt left behind. Almost every week they hit a new port, and usually the captain let her off-ship to see the sights. Other times, Mal and Zoe went on jobs while she and Wash stayed with Serenity. Wash helped her suspend a hammock bought secondhand on Persephone, and they sat up for hours, gossiping and drinking cheap red wine with their legs draped over each other's laps and their hands tracing dusty patterns on the engine room floor. She thought about having a crush on Wash, who was cute in a boyish way and made her smile, but realized pretty quick it wouldn't work. She and Wash couldn't ever be lovers. They'd laugh themselves silly trying.
Still, Kaylee thought her thrilling space adventure should include some equally thrilling sex, and ruling out Wash kinda cut back on her options, as Zoe unnerved her and had the wrong parts.
The idea of it—him and her rutting like teenagers in their bunks and the engine room—didn't exactly vex her. And a fool could see the captain was handsome. Twice she'd caught him in his underwear—once outside the showers when Kaylee was about unusually early and the captain unusually late, and again when he sat on a rusty nail in the cargo bay. The nail tore a gash in his backside, and Zoe had to stitch him up without numbing agent, as they'd run out a week before. In fact, she'd seen a bit more than the captain's shorts that day. Still, all that blood—not to mention all the cussing—tended to spoil the mood for romance. She wound up holding his hand while he alternately whined that he didn't need hand-holding and squeezed hers hard enough to bruise. But she got a good look—enough to know the man was as attractive without clothes as he was with them on.
He threw her some. She didn't usually fall for the tricky, tormented ones. A few times, Kaylee had wanted to grab him and shake him, ask, "What's going on in there?" She liked her men uncomplicated. Easy charmers with long hair and big biceps and crazy notions. Men like Bester, and half the boys back on Harvest that she rutted and forgot, assuming they didn't forget her first. Men without duty or attachments or a clear remembrance what they had for breakfast. The captain was so wound he probably kept a breakfast journal. Still, she'd seen him smile. It was a rare occasion, but when he did smile, he had a nice one. He was painfully in need of affection, and everybody always said Kaylee Fry had affection to spare. It seemed a good match in Kaylee's mind, and her mother, when Kaylee waved her, agreed that the captain was a fine catch.
"Make a sweet daddy, that one," she teased.
Kaylee hooted a laugh.
"Ma! Anyway, you think I'd share that man if I got him in my bed? Nuh-uh, not for a long, long time!"
Her mother's yearning for grandbabies aside, Kaylee decided that sexing the captain would do them both a 'verse of good, besides providing a diversion during lengthy space rides—something to do other than drink and take Wash at Tall Card.
She started off slowly—this was the captain after all, and she didn't want to scare him away by coming on too strong. She tried brushing up against him in the kitchen, but all he would do was apologize and step aside. Or, if he were feeling playful, he'd make a fuss.
"Dammit, girl! Always underfoot!" He'd swat at her with a dishtowel till she scooted away giggling.
When the kitchen seduction failed so spectacularly, Kaylee tried to ply her skills on the hoopball court. In the middle of a game, she tackled him around the waist, knocking them both to the floor in a tangle of limbs. But Mal just laughed, said, "Damn, Kaylee, maybe I oughta take you on jobs," and righted them both before jogging off.
It was gorramn frustrating.
Kaylee had never been the shy sort when it came to interactions with the male species, and after a few weeks of none-too-subtle hinting, she figured it was time to act. She decided this particular act would feature cuddling. Egged by the thought of how toasty-warm she'd feel snuggled up to his well-muscled chest, Kaylee set her alarm for 1AM Serenity-time.
I had a real bad dream, Captain. Can I get in with you? So it wasn't original. She had her lucky PJs: blue ones patterned with little silver stars, spaghetti straps and shorts that cut high on her thighs. She lamented briefly her lack of cosmetics, but made an honest effort to brush the knots from her hair. She shimmied up her ladder and headed for the captain's bunk.
Kaylee knocked softly and tried to make her face appear downcast. Her efforts were met with silence, and conjuring he might actually be sleeping, she turned her fist and pounded a little harder.
The ship sang softly as was it's way, but aside from Serenity's hum the hallway was silent. Kaylee had an awful realization—maybe the captain was pretending to be asleep so he wouldn't have to see her. Maybe he was lying in bed right now, wishing she'd go away. She wanted to be mad but couldn't quite summon the passion. Mostly she was just hurt. What had she done to rub him wrong?
Kaylee slid to the floor and ran her fingers through hair she'd spent ten minutes mussing before she came up here. She sat on the hard metal flooring till her thighs went numb from the chill and her backside started to ache. She knew she should go back to her own bunk, but the prospect of spending another night there, cold and lonely, seemed unbearable just then. She felt a few, fat tears slide over her cheeks, and stuck out her tongue to catch one.
The hiss of a hatch opening startled her. She lifted her chin to see a figure emerge from Zoe's room into the darkness. Drying her cheeks on her hand, Kaylee rose and squinted down the corridor, trying to make out the shape.
"Zoe?" she called tentatively.
Nope. Not Zoe.
"Kaylee. I, uh, hey there…what are ya…hey, there."
His shirt was undone, the tan halves spread to bare his chest.
If she didn't feel so sick, she might have laughed at how flustered he seemed to be standing in the hallway half-dressed. As it was, her stomach hurt something awful.
"Cap'n," she said quietly.
On instinct, her arms came up to hug her middle.
"You, uh...somethin' you're needin'?"
Casual-like, he slid the loops of his suspenders over his shoulders.
"Good, so…yeah, good. Well...well, I'll just see you at breakfast, then."
She jerked her head once before scurrying down the hall. She just about made it to her bed before collapsing in a fit of hot tears.
After a day or two spent moping about the ship, sticking mainly to her bunk and the engine room and prompting the captain to ask whether she needed a medic for some womanly affliction, Kaylee decided she was being silly. If the cap'n and Zoe were a couple, she'd just have to accept it. Weren't no sense sighing over what was never really hers to begin with. She supposed it made sense, really. The captain and Zoe fought in the War together. They'd been a pair for years and years, long before Kaylee crewed up. Maybe they weren't what you'd call passionate. They didn't hardly fight, or bicker like Zoe bickered with Wash. More often than not their minds seemed to journey along the same paths, so one could complete the other's thoughts, or answer questions before they were asked. And maybe they weren't especially affectionate either, not squeezing and kissing all the time like Kaylee's daddy and ma. But a fool could see there was something between them—a bond real and solid and not easily broken.
The only thing Kaylee didn't get was all the hiding. She knew Zoe was private-like, and the captain, too. But in a way they was a family now, living and breathing on the same little ship, and family shouldn't keep secrets. At least that was Kaylee's reasoning when she decided to speak to Zoe at lunch one day, while the captain and Wash were off buying supplies.
"Shuh muh?" Zoe didn't look up from her soup, but her hand stilled on the spoon.
" 'Sokay, Zoe. You don't gotta talk about it or nothin'. Well, not unless you wanna..."
"Would seem you're operating under a misconception, Kaylee. Captain and I ain't lovers."
Kaylee arched a brow and sat up a little straighter.
"Saw him comin' outta your bunk the other night," she said quietly.
The older woman did look up now, glanced across the table long enough to meet Kaylee's gaze.
"Rut each other sometimes. Don't make us lovers."
Kaylee bit her lip.
"I don't think I get it."
"Ain't your place to get it."
Her eyes must've shown her hurt because Zoe's softened some.
"It's complicated, Kaylee-bird."
"You don't love him?"
Zoe shrugged and held her coffee cup even with her lips.
"I love him."
"He don't love you?"
"In his way, he does."
"Well, what's complicated then? Way I see it, two people in love oughta be together."
"Didn't say we were in love, Kaylee."
"So it's just sex then?"
That didn't sit right with her, though she couldn't say exactly why. Not like she'd loved every man she rutted. Some she knew well—knew their names, and their mamas' names, and the colors of the houses where they grew up. Some she'd only known hours. She knew the spicy smell of their cologne, and how it tickled her nostrils when she kissed their stubbly necks. She knew the damp press of their palms at the small of her back, and how some of 'em liked fingering her hair when they made love to her. Mal and Zoe knew things about each other that weren't nice or cute or shiny. They carried each other's memories, shared the weight when it got too great for one to bear alone. If sex could ever be casual, seemed to Kaylee it couldn't ever be such with folk like them.
"The sex is important. So's the comforting." Zoe offered a small smile. "Ain't somethin' we do often, Kaylee. Just when one of us needs it. When the remembering gets too bad, dong ma?"
Kaylee nodded slowly.
"I understand." Her voice sounded all manner of small. "Is it...are you always the one to comfort him? The only one?"
"Cap'n don't trust easy," Zoe mused. She stirred her spoon idly around her soup bowl. "But neither of us is beholden to the other. Both free to seek out other means of comforting."
Kaylee hesitated, chewing up the inside of her cheek.
"You think he'd let me...comfort him?"
If the question surprised Zoe, she didn't show it any.
"Dunno. Imagine that's a question for the captain."
"He ever talk about me?" she blurted before she could help herself.
"He talks about you," Zoe answered evenly. "Says you're the best mechanic flyin', and that he's glad to have you."
"Anything else? Something more personal maybe?"
Zoe lowered her lashes to her coffee.
"Haven't known the captain to talk of any woman, Kaylee. Not since we lost the war, at least. And even then, he wasn't much for sharing."
"War was real bad. Wasn't it?" She didn't know what made her say that.
Zoe just shrugged and rose, pushing in her chair.
"Jeez, you guys fighting a war in here?"
Kaylee padded barefoot onto the bridge, not bothering to change out of her stars-and-moons pajamas or scoop her sleep-mussed hair back from her face. She'd been having a real nice dream—one with sun-bleached sand beaches and turquoise ocean water—and was just about to the good part when they woke her. In her dream, the captain was rubbing something warm and coconut-scented into her feet. Lubing her up just like she was engine parts. He was dressed like a mechanic instead of a captain, wearing some coveralls with the sleeves cut out and one of her pink tee shirts that stretched over his broad chest and left bare his midsection. She decided he didn't need to know that part of the dream. He also didn't need to know that it was just the two of them on that sunshiny beach and that she, Kaylee, wasn't wearing a stitch.
Not like this—her dreaming of the captain rubbing her arches—meant something. Not like she was still trying to snare him. But a girl would have to blind not to notice the swai.
"Had a real shiny dream, Cap'n," she said cheerfully. "We all went to the seashore. Yep, all four of us."
She got a rueful smile from Wash, but Mal and Zoe kept on arguing like she wasn't there.
"Can hear 'em all the way down in my bunk," she protested sulkily. She dug her knuckles into her eyelids, puffy from lack of sleep. "Don't they know Saturdays are for beauty rest?"
"Aw, you're pretty enough alread—hey, is it Saturday? 'Cuz, hello, cartoons. Can I just—"
Wash made a move to tinker with the Cortex controls, and the captain fairly growled. Wash dropped his hand back to his lap, and Mal went back to cursing at Zoe in fluid Mandarin.
"Push over," Kaylee murmured and nudged Wash in the ribs.
He eased across the console, making room.
"Why's everybody yellin'?" she complained.
Wash slung a friendly arm over her shoulders.
"Well, Kaylee, sometimes when two people really enjoy each other's company, and one of those two looks like an Amazonian sex goddess and the other has all the restraint of a Labrador in a stick-catching contest—a Labrador that's horny—"
"Wash." She patted her mouth to cover a yawn. "Remember the rule 'bout mixed metaphors before coffee…"
"Sorry. Short story short, and believe me that this one was tragically short—short in the unsatisfying sense—Mal caught us."
They watched the exchange in companionable silence. For the first time, Kaylee took note of the others' clothes. The captain wasn't exactly a formal dresser. But usually he wore pants, and not just a pair of gray undershorts with socks. Zoe didn't typically wear Wash's Hawaiian shirts like dresses either. In fact, she'd never seen Zoe quite so…casual. She also happened to be sopping wet. Kaylee turned to Wash, grinning, and saw there were soapsuds in his ears.
He shrugged, the flush already creeping up his neck.
"Well," she said brightly, "maybe it's for the best. I mean, the captain can't be mad forever—"
"—ta ma duh…I mean, c'mon, Zoe. Him?"
"Sir…sir, you need to stop talking now."
"Oh, yeah? Why's that?"
"Well, for starters, I'm armed, sir."
Kaylee winced, patted Wash's hand in sympathy. Her belly was rumbly, and she really wanted pancakes. She wondered if the captain would take a break from yellin' at Zoe to cook her some. His were real good—all light and fluffy.
"Hey, Wash?" She poked him in the ribs. "How come you're not sayin' nothing?"
Wash hiked a thumb at Zoe.
"I'm not supposed to speak."
Her cheek hit the ground hard enough to bruise. In the morning, she'd be covered in bruises.
She groaned and tried to lift her head. The weight of Mal's body had knocked the breath from her, and she choked on dust and the rotten smell of garbage.
"Stay here," Mal hissed.
He rose to a crouch, brushing the blood and dirt from his hands.
"Cap'n! Don't leave me—"
"Kaylee, look at me. I ain't leavin' you." He said it so earnest she was ashamed for thinking the disloyal thought. "I promise. Just gotta take a second to assess the..."
He stood slowly, his body even tenser than usual but also more alert, and peered over the top of the enormous garbage bins they were using for cover. Cautiously, he rounded the corner, gunhand extended.
A rustling to his left had his head swiveling but not fast enough. The gunshot was so loud her ears rang. She didn't know he was shot till she saw the wet blotch on his forearm. Blood soaked through the brown of his shirt, staining it, well, darker brown.
"Stay down," he bellowed.
She dropped to the ground, and crawled over the spilled trash to reach him. She pried his hand away from his arm and saw red.
He handed her a balled handkerchief from his shirt pocket, and she simply stared until he jerked his head at his arm, and she understood she was meant to bandage him.
"I'm sorry." She tied an awkward knot around his forearm. "Oh, gosh, Cap'n, I'm so sorry."
"Why? You didn't shoot me."
He was trying to cock the pistol with his good hand.
"I'm the one made us come into town today," she said miserably. "Had to have my stupid party."
She was gonna make a pizza—a big, greasy pizza with fresh tomatoes and lots of gooey cheese. Jayne seemed to perk up when she announced her culinary plans, and considering Kaylee hadn't once seen him smile since crewing up the previous month, she took that as a good sign.
"A get-acquainted party," Kaylee had proposed at breakfast that morning, "so we can get to know Jayne, and he can get to know all of us. Won't that be nice, Cap'n?"
"Hmm?" He'd glanced up from his coffee, blank-eyed in that way that meant he'd really been listening all along but wanted them to think otherwise. She fixed him with a pointed glare, and he coughed. "Don't you got, you know, work? I mean, I am payin' you to work. Aren't I, Zoe?"
Zoe hid a smile.
"Right. Work. Bad Kaylee." She shook a scolding finger, which Wash immediately caught and kissed.
Mal deliberately rolled his eyes. Zoe hesitated a moment before allowing Wash to keep her finger in his possession.
Kaylee grinned at them both before she got back to wheedling.
"Captain, Jayne don't hardly know us. And how much do we really know 'bout Jayne?"
Mal raised a brow.
"Oh, I'd say I know him pretty well."
His eyes had a funny glean, one he never used on her, or Zoe, or even Wash, and relations between Wash and Mal were still strained at best. When the captain looked on Jayne, his eyes carried a coldness, broken only by a glimmer of amusement around the rim. Somehow that trace of humor made Mal all the scarier by contrast.
Like a weary hound dog she had as a kid, Jayne stared back, his gray eyes even and expressionless. She wondered which of them would look away first, if ever, and finally Jayne dropped his gaze to his plate and started shoveling in spoonfuls of mashed protein.
"So can I, Cap'n? Have a party?"
Mal groaned and carried his coffee mug to the sink.
"No clowns for chrissake."
Kaylee bounced up and kissed him on the cheek.
"Best cap'n I ever had."
He shook his head.
"I'm the only captain you ever had."
"And you're the best." She grinned and headed for her bunk to make a list. "Don't leave without me," she called over her shoulder.
"I'm serious about those clowns, Kaylee. I see clowns, and I'm gonna be real unhappy. Dong ma? Kaylee?"
"Kaylee? I need you here, okay? Gotta focus."
She tore her gaze from his arm, bleeding through the bandage.
His big hand swallowed hers.
"Now you're gonna stay behind me, and—"
It happened real fast. One minute they were creeping along the wall of garbage bins, and the next Mal was shoving her down so the pavement skinned twin streaks in her knees. One minute shots were ricocheting off the trash drums over her head, and the next the man doin' the shooting lay dead on the ground, a bullet between the ribs.
"Jen dao mei," Mal swore, tucking his gun back in his belt. "Son of a bitch musta been doggin' us since...Kaylee? Kaylee, are you—?"
"Awful lotta blood." She gaped at the mess of the man on the pavement, and at her own ruined coveralls. Mal offered his hand, and she flinched. "Don't gotta help me; I'm okay," she assured.
He watched her an extra few seconds before nodding.
"C'mon. Best we be gettin' back to Serenity."
He hopped awkwardly onto the exam table, and started unbuttoning his shirt. One handed, it was sort of a spectacle, each button taking him twice as long to work through the hole. Didn't help that his fingers were still slippery with blood. Blood belonging to himself, and that boy lying dead on the pavement...
"Sit down, Kaylee." He didn't look up. "You're bleeding."
"I'm fine. Don't gotta—"
"Zoe!" he shouted. "Wash!"
"Missed you too, Mal. In fact, I was just saying to Zoe how quiet it was without you here to yell—ohhh!" Wash turned the corner into the infirmary, and stopped short, eyes bugging. "Christ, Mal. Are you shot?"
"If not, I'm makin' an awful fuss."
Zoe brushed past Wash and Kaylee, sliding a wheely chair up alongside the captain. She slapped his hand away from the buttons and finished the job herself before easing his arm from the torn sleeve of his shirt.
"How bad, sir?"
"Been practicing those small, even stiches?" Mal jerked his head at Kaylee. "Wash, get her cleaned up."
"I'm okay." She wrapped her arms around her middle and squeezed. "Don't need nobody to see to me."
"Kaylee." Zoe glanced up from inspecting Mal's arm. She met Kaylee's gaze, her eyes sympathetic but firm. "Do as the captain says."
Before she could argue, Wash was ushering her towards the spare bed, his voice soothing, hands gentle at her elbow. She didn't fight him as he nudged her shoulders down
"Let Zoe bandage up the captain, Kaylee. That's it. You're in the extraordinarily talented—okay maybe not actually talented, but at least moderately capable—hands of one Dr. Hoban Washburne."
"Hoban?" Mal and Zoe said in unison.
Wash blushed red as the tomatoes they left squished on the pavement, the blood pooling on the infirmary floor, and tried to chuckle.
"I, uh, did I forget to mention that, sweetie?"
"Think you did, dear."
"You're sleeping with a guy named Hoban?" Mal demanded.
"Sir, you think now's a good time to be smart? When I'm about to stick a big needle in you?"
Mal smirked but, smartly in Kaylee's opinion, kept his mouth shut. He winced as Zoe started rooting around in his shoulder, caught Kaylee staring and tried to smile. She lowered her gaze to her lap.
"Kaylee? Kaylee, does this hurt?" Wash asked.
She smiled faintly and shook her head no as he sprayed the disinfectant over her torn hands and knees. She couldn't feel nothin'. In truth she was all manner of numb.
The sky parted and grumbled and let loose a torrent. She tucked her knees into her chest, raising her face to the rain.
"Kaylee!" Mal stood on the ramp, bellowing into the downpour. "Tzao gao, where'd that girl get off to?"
Kaylee leaned back, letting Serenity support her. She shut her ears to the clap of thunder, the crack of Mal's voice.
"Said she was goin' for a walk, sir."
Kaylee heard Zoe take her usual place at the captain's side. Those two were bound as much when they weren't rutting as when they were. As though the physical joining didn't mean all that much, really, and was just another aspect of their connection. Course Kaylee didn't know how much they connected anymore, now that Zoe was connecting with Wash fairly regular.
"I'm goin' out there."
"Might be best you let her alone, sir. We ain't set for departure till the morning."
"Not safe for her to be wandering about. Anyway, think she might be a little shook up, what with the getting shot at earlier."
"Maybe, sir. Or, could be what's shaking her is you doing the shooting."
"What? She's seen me shoot people before."
"Pretty sure that was the first."
"Huh. Didn't exactly have much choice in the matter."
"I know that, sir, and probably Kaylee does too. But perhaps you ain't the one to go after her just now."
"Whadda you…? Oh. Hey, now, she ain't in love with me, Zoe. Just a girl with a crush."
"Kinda hard to separate one from the other when you're all of twenty. You do remember twenty, sir? Know it's been awhile…."
"Ain't you a riot. If she's not back in an hour, send Wash."
"I'll do that."
"They talk about me, too."
Kaylee jumped, almost smacking her head on the side of the ship. She turned slowly, one hand pressed to her pounding heart.
He stood at a few paces, gaze trained not on her but the rain. He was soaked, drops of water running in rivulets through his beard.
"Comin' down mighty heavy. Gonna catch your death you keep sittin' in it."
"If I didn't catch my death this afternoon when they were shootin' at me, don't see how I could catch it from a little shower."
She smiled, and he frowned a little before smiling back, real hesitant.
"If you wanna hide from Mom and Pop," he began, jerking his head in the direction of the cap and Zoe. "Welcome to hide out in my bunk for awhile."
She raised her hands in the air, and after a moment he got the hint and leaned down to help her up.
"C'mon, Lil' Kaylee. Let's you and me get dried off."
Jayne's bunk was cleaner than she expected, but then she wasn't expecting much. Like hers, it was small and tight—just a bed and a dresser, a narrow closet that wasn't keeping clothes. (She found the clothes later, still stuffed in the only duffel bag he brought on board, and wondered not for the first if Jayne weren't plannin' on staying long.) Still, he was organized if not exactly orthodox in his decorative choices. A nudie calendar hung over the dresser, with June the fourth circled in red. She wondered if that was his birthday, and made a mental note to ask. Combined with the calendar, a stubby blue candle with a scorched wick and a threadbare gray blanket thrown over the bed made up the whole of his furnishings.
"Wow, Jayne." Kaylee rubbed her forearms to warm herself. "Your room's real...tidy."
"Don't got much use for knick knacks."
"Well, if' you ever wanna borrow somethin' o' mine, you're welcome. I got music discs and um, books, oh, and some big snuggly blankets...Don't you get cold at night?" She pressed his frayed blanket between her thumb and forefinger. "Ship like this can get real shivery in the Black."
"Guess it's me bein' so big. Never did have trouble stayin' warm."
"How...how big are ya?" she asked, real curious of a sudden.
"More 'n six."
"Inches?" she murmured.
Jayne blinked a few times then shrugged.
"Anyway, you wanna sit? Could get us a pair o' drinks."
"Drinks'd be nice."
Grateful for the diversion, Kaylee lowered herself to the edge of the bed. She glanced down at her front, and saw that her thin tank top was soaked and sticking to her skin. She folded her arms over her chest.
"Whadda ya want?" Jayne asked.
"Whadda ya got?" she teased.
"Oh, reckon I got a half a bottle of whiskey and a mug ain't too dirty." He produced both from under his bed, and rubbed the glass clean with the front of his shirt.
"Which would you prefer, Lil' Kaylee?"
She snagged the bottle from his outstretched hand and sucked a shot down straight. It warmed her belly, and the other parts of her still cold from the rain and the day. Jayne grinned, impressed, and held out the mug for her to fill.
"Startin' without me, huh?"
"Wouldn't be the first time," she said, and grinned.
Jayne raised a brow but didn't say anything. He held out the mug for her to fill, and she obliged before taking another gulp for herself.
"My shoulders are awful stiff—must come from sittin' out in the rain. Wanna rub 'em for me, Jayne?"
He stared at her so long she was sure he'd say no. His eyes were narrowed to cool blue-gray slits, not thoughtful so much as calculating. They were such a nice shade of blue—one that oughta belong to a girl in fairness. She wondered how she'd feel with that cool blue gaze gliding all over her body. Exposed. Eaten up, but in a good way.
"Yeah," he said at last, and she couldn't help thinking he sounded like a man condemned. "Yeah, I do."
Another bright smile, and she lowered the mostly-killed whiskey bottle to the floor. She stood and stretched, raising her hands high in the air so her shirt rose over the waist of her coveralls, exposing a creamy strip of bare belly. She scooted over so she was between Jayne's legs and slowly sank to the ground.
"One sec," she cooed, and tugged her hair loose so it tumbled down her back. "Okay, all ready."
For several seconds, she felt naught but his breath, warm and heavy on the nape of her neck. Then his hands came down, his fingers long and calloused, worrying the kinks from her shoulders.
She sighed and squirmed against him.
"This is real sweet of you, Jayne."
He laughed, a low rumble that didn't sound at all like a laugh ought to.
She tried to turn her head but he just nudged hers down, working his fingers up into her hair.
"That's me. I'm sweet alright."
Where in the nine hells had he learned to touch folk that way? Didn't seem like something a man of Jayne's talents oughta know. But then that was her favorite thing about people: that they could surprise you.
She sniffled a little while big hands stroked over her spine. By the time those skilled fingers found the knots in her lower back, she was sobbing.
She popped up and landed in his lap with a whimper, burying her tear-streaked face in his shirt.
"Happened right in front of me." She whispered the words into the warm curve of his neck. "Today in town. We was being chased, shot on, and Cap'n killed the man doin' the shooting. Kid couldn't have been any older 'n me, Jayne—just a boy, really—and the cap'n just shot him down like he was nothin'."
He smelled like sweat, but not the bad kind, and some sort of hard soap. Kinda like her big brother, Arden, or her daddy, even. It was comforting in a manner—like being back home again.
"Uh, there, now." She felt that big, heavy hand, patting her back through the wet fabric of her top. "Gotta shoot to kill sometimes. Keeps 'em from killing you. Hell, Kaylee, I'd shoot someone to keep you safe."
"Reckon I'd do all manner of mayhem to keep you safe."
His voice sounded strange—all low and gravelly.
She blinked a few times and rubbed her eyes on her arm.
"Thank you, Jayne."
"Uh, you're welcome?"
"Cap'n was just doin' what he had to. And now he's prolly lyin' all alone in his bunk, shot up on account o' me. I'm gonna bring him some tea, I think. Maybe some cookies, if I can find any in the cupboard ain't molded half to death."
"Well, hold on a minute. In all fairness, I ain't known the cap'n that long. Hell, maybe he does got a happy trigger finger—"
Kaylee ducked her head down and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You're a good man, Jayne Cobb. I feel all silly for carrying on that way, and for comin' on to you like that! Oh, Gosh, you must be so embarrassed. Can you forgive me?"
"I'm gonna make you that pizza. Soon as we hit another moon with a real market, I'm gonna bake you the best gorramn pizza you ever ate."
She paused at the top of the ladder.
"Hey, Jayne? When's you're birthday?"
"Your birthday, silly. When is it?"
"Oh. Eighth of November."
"November 8. I'll remember, Jayne."
She shut the hatch with a hiss and started down the hall humming.
She waited till evening in case he was resting. When he didn't come to dinner, she searched the bridge and the cargo bay before finally snaking her way back up to his bunk. She hadn't found any cookies, and the tea was cold now, but she figured it was the thought.
"Cap'n?" She turned her fist and rapped at the hatch. "You up?"
"Door's open, Kaylee."
She climbed down the ladder, going slow so as not to trip over her fuzzy slippers or spill the now-cold tea. Mal sat hovered over some printouts. He had on an undershirt and brown cotton trousers, and when he turned to face her, she saw the bandage swathing his upper arm, and how it was soaked through with blood. Blood shed in the course of protecting her. She knew suddenly and without question that he'd always protect her, or die in the trying to, and for no other reason than he was the captain and she was his crew. He'd kill if it meant keeping her safe. It was a terrible role to have in life, but he did it. He'd always do it.
"Oh," she said softly, as a wave of dizziness and guilt caused her to sway on her feet. She almost upturned the tea, would have if he didn't pop up and take it from her.
But she was already snuggled close, both arms wrapping his torso, her face buried in the warmth of his chest.
"Ohh," he said.
He patted her back, a little awkward with the hand not holding the tea.
"You got hugged a lot as a kid," he observed.
"Yep." She smiled into his shirt. He smelled fresh, and clean, like he'd washed after Zoe sewed him up. "Whole family of huggers," she explained.
"Kaylee." Serious now, he set down the mug and caught her by the shoulders. "I'm sorry you saw what you did today. I got no desire for you to be made a part of that world. Now I won't make you promises; gave up makin' those a while ago. But I'll do my level best to keep you clear of that business."
"You're a good man, Cap'n, and I shouldn't ever have forgot it. Jayne helped me remember. He's good people, too."
"Jayne helped you. Kaylee…."
Mal shook his head.
"Nothin'." He raised a brow. "Ain't it past your bedtime?"
Kaylee hooted a laugh.
"I'm not a little girl, Cap'n. You don't gotta worry about me so. I knew what I was gettin' into, way back when I first crewed up. Sometimes I get a little shook up, but I'll be okay. I'm stronger than I look."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's so. Still, you shouldn't have to be—"
"We all got pasts, Cap'n. And most of us are tryin' to leave 'em behind." She smiled and headed up the ladder. "Night, Cap," she called over her shoulder.
After a moment, he nodded, smiled back.
"Sleep tight, Kaylee."
Inara came with four trunks so weighty it took Jayne and Mal both to heft them. They hauled each in turn, with no small amount of sweating, and a good bit of swearing on Jayne's part."Tell me, Miz Serra." Mal dropped the trunk and rocked back on his heels, arms hugged to his chest like a child's. "Are veils back in fashion? Harem the new look for spring?"
"Actually, Malcom," she said, and Kaylee took note that she used his first name without pause. "Actually, I'm rather certain suspenders are due for a comeback. And then the pompador."
Wrapped in a blue-green sari, her dark, riotous hair spilling over bare shoulders, Inara stood at the entrance to her new shuttle while the men set about positioning her bed.
"Just there," she judged. "Perfect."
She didn't prop her hands on her hips, or shove them deep in her pockets. Instead, both bracelet-adorned arms rested motionless at her sides, shoulders square but still soft beneath the sweep of her veil.
"Really?" Mal asked, lifting a sleeve to mop the sweat from his forehead. "Sure you don't want it a bit to the right?"
"My porters would have seen to my things." Her tone was mild. "I told you as much."
Inara lifted the veil, and Kaylee saw she was a good bit younger than she looked at first glance. Silvery sparkles clung to her lashes, like a fairy princess in some story.
"Porters?" Jayne grumbled. "How come nobody mentioned the porters?"
"What, and deprive us the supreme honor of helping Miss Serra, here, with her doohickeys?" Mal grinned but his eyes held a hardness. "I personally wouldn't miss the chance to handle her doohickeys. Anythin' more you're needing? I aim to please."
Kaylee had rarely heard the cap'n speak with such scorn, and never when he was speakin' to a woman. Also, she had the sneaking suspicion he was flirting. Someone, she thought not for the first time, oughta teach that man how to flirt. Or smack him.
"I'll unpack on my own. But thank you." She had an inimitable smile, one Kaylee very much yearned to imitate. "I'm grateful for the help, gentleman."
She managed to emphasize the last word without any stress whatsoever. Jayne blinked, missing the dig. Mal grinned, a sharp smile that he failed to suppress before Inara saw it.
"C'mon, Jayne," Mal suggested. "Let's leave the working woman to her duties which, I'm beginning to suspect, are many. Reckon any number o' lonely souls are requirin' her fine services even as we speak. Kaylee?"
She lifted her cheek from where it rested on the doorjamb and moved to follow him. She intended to waylay him in the common room, and give him an earful about speaking to folk that way, especially them as were crew. She knew an insult when she heard one, even disguised as his was with pretty words. Inara's voice, low and gentle, halted her on the threshol"Hello, there. Yes, you," Inara teased, when Kaylee raised a brow. "It's Kaylee, right?"
Mal rolled his eyes and brushed past her, giving her braid a quick tug on his way out the door. Kaylee shot him a look of disapproval. Determined to make up for his coldness, she resolved her expression into a bright smile and held out her hand.
"Uh-huh. I mean, yup, I'm her." She shrugged, embarrassed her own manners weren't better. "Real nice to meet you, Miss Serra."
"Inara," the Companion insisted gently. "It would appear the captain lacks the time to make proper introductions. Or perhaps the manners."
"Oh, the cap'n ain't so bad," Kaylee said loyally. "He's just crotchy. Crotchety, I mean. Hell, maybe some o' both."
She blushed then, wondering if she'd been too forward. But Inara just laughed, a light floaty sound that seemed to soften the mood.
"In truth, Kaylee, I'm not sure I see the difference myself. Perhaps neglecting the former tends to lend itself to the latter. Something tells me the man doesn't get out a lot."
She frowned then, as though she hadn't maybe meant to say that aloud.
"You wouldn't be wrong," Kaylee agreed quickly. "The cap'n...well, he's the cap'n. But he's—we're all real glad to have you aboard. So, welcome to Serenity! Can I help you unpack? Sure do got a lotta things."
"I'd rather do it myself. Of course, if you wish to keep my company, I wouldn't complain. Will you sit?"
Kaylee nodded, eyes bright, and sat on the corner of Inara's cushy couch.
"So, Captain says you're a Companion."
"Yes, he does seem rather hung up on that point," Inara agreed. Kneeling, she lifted the lid on the first trunk.
"I didn't mean—"
"I know you didn't." Inara smile was warm and forgiving. "May I ask your role on the ship? Are you and Malcom..."
"I was going to say related." Inara shrugged a shoulder. "You favor each other slightly... And he seems very affectionate toward you. Protective."
"Oh, no, we ain't kin or nothin'—I only met him 'cuz I was sexing his mechanic. The old one, that is. I take care of her now...Serenity," she clarified when Inara raised a brow.
"Not much to look at, but what a ride."
Inara lifted her head from where she was rooting in the trunk.
Kaylee hooted out a laugh.
"Oh, gosh. Well, I wouldn't know that. Was talkin' 'bout Serenity. She's one fine ship, if I do say so, and hell, guess I do. He is swai though, huh? The cap'n."
"I suppose he has a certain rugged charm buried beneath the rough. Perhaps it would come through more clearly if he bathed."
Kaylee giggled, and Inara sighed.
"Forgive me, Kaylee." The Companion straightened, her expression distraught. "I'm not sure what's come over me. I don't usually speak this way about people I hardly know. It's not very becoming."
"I think you're real becoming. Hell, I'd become you any day. Have faith. No time at all, you'll be one of the crew."
Inara smiled again and sat beside Kaylee on the couch. Kaylee couldn't help thinking it was the saddest smile she'd ever seen.
"You know, I'm not at all in the mood to unpack just now." She reached past Kaylee's ear and caught one of her messy braids. "Do you mind?"
"Hmm? Oh, no."
"You have gorgeous hair. Has anyone told you?"
"Think you're the first," Kaylee admitted, letting Inara turn her and unwind her hasty braids.
"May I brush it?"
Kaylee just nodded, watching as Inara dug a bone-comb from her bag.
"Know somethin', Inara?" she asked after the comb's first few passes over her scalp. "I'm real glad you came. Been all alone with the boys for going on two years."
"Isn't Malcom's first mate a woman? Zoe?"
"I guess you haven't met Zoe yet."
Inara's shuttle smelled like the Heaven Mal renounced, which might have explained his habit for busting into it uninvited. Kaylee wasn't sure she believed in a Heaven—seemed what happened here in the 'verse mattered more. Still, Inara had done a fine job with the shuttle, transforming it from a dusty metal cave into a kind of sanctuary for soft words and ancient ritual, with carpets so soft they made your feet wanna weep.
Sometimes, when she visited, Kaylee found herself talking with Inara for hours and hours. Inara's life was so foreign, and glamorous. Kaylee had a fantasy—she was a firm believer in fantasies; sometimes she thought that was the captain's main trouble: him not having any—and in her fantasy, she was a Companion, too. She and Nara would fly away in the shuttle and have adventures. They'd come home to Serenity with dresses and knickknacks and, best of all, stories. She liked the idea of men desiring her, wanting her fiercely, even if she wasn't so sure about the other parts of Companioning. She thought that Inara must be real strong—stronger than the captain ever gave her credit—for being able to lie there and smile.
In addition to the talking, Inara liked to pamper Kaylee: "You deserve a rest from all the work that man has you do." Kaylee let herself learn new pleasures like the cool slide of silk, soft hands sculpting her hair and the slippery-warm wash of oils on her bare back.
Today Inara was painting her toenails: a deep, oceanic blue to match Inara's own. Inara wore toe rings, too. Sometimes Kaylee caught the captain staring at those tiny circles of gold like he maybe wanted to lick them. Sometimes she thought Inara wouldn't have minded much if he did. Sometimes she worried that one would kill the other and toss the body out the airlock, but mostly there was just a lot of glaring.
Mal always claimed to have a reason for barging into Inara's shuttle. Mechanical mishaps requiring Kaylee's express attention, or else a captainly need to impart arrival times in person. Today was the first time he sought out Inara for a favor.
"Oh, Ambassador? Good, you're not busy." He strode in smirking, arms folded over his chest. "I got a problem. Could be you can help."
"Lotion's in the top drawer," Inara said casually, one hand smoothing imaginary wrinkles in the sofa arm. "No need to return the bottle."
Kaylee gaped a second before clapping a hand over her mouth. A giggle burst through her pursed lips, and the captain waited a beat, color creeping over the crisp rim of his collar to bathe his neck.
"In fact, I had another aim in mind," he drawled finally. "But that's good to know."
Inara just smiled tightly.
"What do you want, Mal?"
"You should be thanking me, really—deal this good."
Kaylee had to give the man credit for sounding that smug when he was blushing purple as a turnip.
Inara arched a brow into her hairline and crossed her legs.
"Is that so?"
"I'm offering you quite a trade. Free month's rent in exchange for a tiny bit of counsel on shmoozing with respectable sorts. You know, bankers and whores."
"Ahh, yes. You're such a charmer, Mal. I can't imagine why you'd need my help in that arena."
"Okay, I didn't mean it about the bankers." He winked, and Inara rolled her eyes. "Cmon, I'm begging. I'm sure you just eat it up when they beg."
"Mmm, I do," Inara agreed, batting her lashes. "Now what do you want, Mal? Try to be somewhat more articulate than usual, I haven't got all day."
But she was smiling when she said it, and the captain seemed to take note. His tone got lighter, like he was talking to family and not someone with a gun trained on his gut.
"So I gotta go to this party for a meet and greet. Bit more fancy than the ones back home, if you get my drift. And there's like to be dancing."
"Don't tell me the worldly Captain Reynolds can't dance?"
"He can, just…maybe in need of a refresher course. So will ya? Never did get those dance lessons out on the ranch..."
"You grow up on a ranch, Cap'n?" Kaylee ventured.
"That I did, Kaylee." He turned earnest eyes on Inara. "Deprived childhood. Not a ballet instructor in a hundred klicks."
Inara looked unimpressed. Kaylee smiled.
"I bet you were the sweetest thing, Cap'n, running around on a ranch. Your daddy teach you to ride real young?"
She knew at once she'd said the wrong thing, because his face darkened, the half smile slipping into nothingness before a new, false one settled in its place. Inara must have seen the shift in him too because she rose and folded her arms at the breast.
"I'm afraid I can't help you, Captain."
"How come?" he demanded.
"For one thing, it's an unequal trade. An entire month's rent in exchange for teaching you a dance or two?" Inara raised a brow. "Perhaps one week's deduction would be sufficient."
"Three weeks. You might have to show me the moves a few times before I get 'em." He shrugged and tried to look innocent. "I'm a little—"
"Slow?" Inara supplied helpfully.
"I was gonna say rusty," he ground out.
"Two weeks, then." She smiled and sat back on the sofa, folding her legs under her backside. "Now, unless you've another business proposal...?"
"No, thanks, I've a notion to keep my ship. Reckon I'll let you ladies get back to your slumber party."
"Aw, could join us, Cap'n," Kaylee offered, feeling decidedly mischievous.
She thought she felt Inara stiffen against her side, but maybe she only imagined she did. What was there on Serenity to make a lady of Inara's class and breeding nervous? The very idea was laughable.
"Tempting as that is, Kaylee, I don't aim to wake with my toes painted. Or wearin' a dress."
"Does that happen a lot?" Inara wondered. "You waking up in a dress?"
"Don't reckon it happens near so often as you wakin' up without one."
Kaylee sighed. And things were goin' so nice.
Inara said nothing but kept her chin inclined. Mal had the grace to look chagrined.
"I, uh, got those captainy things to do, so I'll just—"
"Aren't you keeping late hours?" Inara mused.
The captain snorted.
"Would think you'd be used to late hours, your line of work."
"Mmm, I am. Used to them." Her eyes shined, dark as coffee without the milk, or licorice whips maybe. "Still, I wouldn't think you have the requisite...endurance."
She smiled, the expression in her eyes delightfully wicked, and the captain made a choking sound, like maybe he'd breathed some air in wrong.
"You worry about my...endurance?"
"You are the captain, Mal. We wouldn't want the captain going soft." She shrugged delicately. "Bad for morale..."
Kaylee bit down on her bottom lip, worrying the pink flesh with her teeth. Any minute now they were like to come to blows. Or, Inara was. Last week she hurled a Ming vase decorated with dancing Chinese children at the captain's head, and two weeks before that she smacked his backside with an illustrated hardcover of the Kama Sutra.
The captain didn't ever dole out blows, except to Jayne once, and Kaylee to this day didn't know what that was about, even though she'd questioned the captain and Jayne both. (The captain kissed her head and told her not to worry. Jayne said it was nothing and wouldn't look her in the eye; when she tried to doctor his bruised and bloodied lip, he growled and pushed her hand away.) Mostly, though, Mal just swore a lot in Mandarin, and sometimes used the "w" word, which prompted the famous Vase-Hurling Incident that left him with a bloody ear and a foul mood.
He put up a greater fuss over the Book-Swatting Incident, carrying on and shouting that "spanking the captain was way out of line." The he grabbed the book from Inara as though to return the favor. They stared at each other for a long, lingering moment before he released her wrist, smoothing the skin of her arm as though he'd left prints. Inara murmured an apology for "resorting to corporal punishment," and asked him, in the future, to please knock before entering her shuttle. Beneath her lashes, Kaylee had watched the captain exhale a long, shuddery breath before leaving the room without a word.
But tonight Mal just smiled, a self-deprecating sort of smirk that took away ten years' worth of orneriness, and gentled features that could on another day seem cold.
"Well, Inara, I'll take heed with my endurance. Wouldn't wanna let you down—as your captain."
Kaylee wasn't sure if the captain just made an erection joke. She looked at Inara's face, and saw that the Companion wasn't sure either.
Kaylee tended to be more obvious in her flirting: a swatch of belly above low-cut trousers, thick hair flying fluidly around her face. Still, Inara had a way of making a man go puddly that was real intriguing. Of course, the idea of Inara flirting with the captain was beyond absurd.
Wasn't a couple in the 'verse made less sense than Malcolm Reynolds and Inara Serra. Course maybe that exact fact, the senselessness, was the appeal. Kaylee had to admit there was something lustful about imagining the crotchety ex-Browncoat—calloused hands and crisscrossing scars—lying with the Companion, whose skin Kaylee knew to be as smooth and unlined as a child's. She thought about how their fleshes would look, pressed together, and how her hair would seem extra black against the lighter tones of his skin. Anyway, weren't all the best storybook romances about what couldn't be rather than what could? She blinked, sensing Inara's gaze on her rapidly flushing face.
"I'm good," she said quickly. "A-okay."
Mal shook his head.
"Kaylee, you get weirder by the day."
" 'With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love.' I think that's my favorite. It's so...tragic. Don't you think it's tragic, Cap'n?"
"I'm bound to cry my own self." He pointed his chopstick at Inara. "You shouldn't show her that go suh. Like to mix her up."
Inara ignored Mal and graced Kaylee with a warm smile.
"Yesterday 'We'll always have Paris' was your very favorite. And before that—"
" 'Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.' I'd about die if someone said that to me."
Mal grinned pointedly over the rim of his mug, and Inara rolled her eyes.
"You're far too sensible to die over a man, Kaylee."
"Hey, hey, people, what about love? Love's worth dying for, right?"
Kaylee smiled. Wash got awful mushy when he was half-cocked. They oughta have wine with dinner more often.
"C'mon, Inara. You're like our Ambassador of Love." Wash flung his arm out, gesturing wildly with his wine. "If anyone believes in its wacky powers, it should be you."
"Love." Mal snorted. "Right."
Inara opened her mouth to speak but Wash was clearly in speech mode.
"Like, take Zoe and me," he said. "I mean, here's this amazing woman, who lets me call her my girlfriend...can I call you that in front of the crew, honey?"
"I think they caught on when you mauled me before dinner."
"Right. I mean, look at her. Look at her. Stop looking," he amended as Jayne grinned leeringly. "She's brilliant and scary, and has the longest, shapeliest—"
"—personality," he improvised. "I'd die for you in a second, sweetie."
"Thank you, dear. I'll keep that in mind."
"See what I mean with the scary?" Wash laughed nervously. "Back me up here, Inara."
"Zoe's very lovely, and I don't find her scary at all," Inara teased, smiling when the older woman blushed. "And as for the all-consuming power of love...I believe it does exist, though I'm certainly no expert on the subject. I feel a kind of love for my clients, but I'm afraid it isn't the sort you're talking about, Wash."
"Nope," Mal agreed. "Kind of love you mean takes place somewhat southerly, don't it."
"I'm sorry, Captain," Inara snapped, "are you implying that love's a sham or that I am?"
"Nothing wrong with love," he protested. "Just the suggestion that it's in any way related to what you do for a fee—"
"Well, not like it matters," Kaylee said quickly. "Not like people are lining up just to kiss me."
"That's 'cuz they can't find your lips under that there bird's nest," Jayne offered, nodding his head at her mess of hair.
Mal smirked, and Kaylee felt her face heat.
Inara swung her legs around so they were facing each other, knees not quite bumping but almost. She leaned in so their faces were inches apart, and Kaylee could smell the orange blossom scent of her perfume and the sweet red wine on her breath.
"Kiss me, Kaylee," Inara said softly. The cold had the opposite effect on her pale cheeks, warming them to a soft, touchable mauve. Or maybe it was the alcohol. "Kiss me as if it were the last time."
From the corner of her eye, Kaylee saw Mal drop his napkin. She knew everyone at the table was staring, and felt a little thrill at having all those eyes on her. Inara probably sparked that sorta attention everywhere she went, but for Kaylee it was new and more than a little exciting. And maybe it was Inara they were looking at now. Dark, beautiful Inara with her Core-taught manners and Companion grace. Inara who could have her pick of all the men on all the planets, and probably a good bunch of the women. Attractive people. Special ones.
Kaylee leaned across the space separating them to brush a quick, embarrassed kiss over Inara's mouth. It was hardly a passionate embrace—over in seconds and leaving no stronger impression than the memory of pressure, firm and yet yielding, and the bittersweet flavor of the wine. Still, Inara seemed satisfied, flashing Kaylee a conspiring smile before settling back in her chair.
Across the table, Jayne was grinning lecherously but Kaylee had expected as much. Wash whistled in approval, and Zoe shook her head mildly. Mal said nothing, though Kaylee saw his eyes land on Inara and linger there for a long moment before looking away.
Kaylee took a sip of her wine and tried to follow the conversation. She though about kissing Inara again. Not kissing as a joke this time, but kissing for real. Long, hot, wet, messy kisses. Sweet kisses in the cool of Inara's shuttle. Shy, exploratory kisses that changed to bold, knowing ones. Inara's mouth was gentler than a man's mouth, her face smoother. Maybe the kiss would be slippery without the abrasive rub of a man's whiskers. She wondered if Inara would cup her face, and whether she'd in turn trail her fingers through Inara's long, silken hair. Inara was specially skilled at giving people pleasure. Would she know things no ordinary lover could know? Would she know what Kaylee was feeling, what she wanted and where and how hard?
Inara was watching her, dark eyes heavy with concern. Kaylee just smiled, and shook her head.
Okay, she mouthed and took a bite of her supper.
The conversation had circled back around to movies.
"Have you even seen the film you're so intent on criticizing, Mal?"
"Just 'cuz I'm not from your fancy Core world don't mean I grew up in a barn. Well, did happen to spend a lot of time in the barn. But that was by choice! Anyway, I have seen it, matter of fact."
Inara lifted a brow, surprised.
"Nothing. I just—well, I thought you of all people, Mal, would identify with Rick. You both possess that irritating sense of...I suppose some might see it as nobility."
She shrugged and sipped her tea.
"What the hell does that mean?" Mal demanded.
"Uh-oh," Wash said, and poured more wine for himself and Zoe.
"Could you leave him, Nara?" Kaylee asked, eager to put a stop to their bickering before it consumed the rest of dinner and breakfast the next morning. "If you were Ilsa. Could you leave Rick behind and go off with Victor?"
"Rick's a bitter, cynical old man," Mal interrupted. "She's probably better off."
"Yes," Inara agreed after a pause. "Much better."
"You don't mean that, either of you."
Inara winked, and Kaylee decided she was probably teasing. 'Cept sometimes, with Inara, it was hard to tell.
"If you loved someone that much...you'd make it work, wouldn't you? No matter what?"
Mal just shook his head.
"Least you didn't show her Mutiny on the Bounty."
"I've only got the one dress." Kaylee quickened her pace to match Zoe's brisk stride, the burlap grocery sack slapping at her legs with every step. "Not really 'propriate for a wedding."
" 'Sokay, Kaylee." Zoe kept her eyes on the road and walked even with the captain. "Sure your dress is just fine."
"It's real plain. Just a little pink thing I used to wear for pickin' up men. Cap'n's seen it," she added with her most innocent-seeming smile.
Sometimes she liked to say things like that. Just to watch him squirm.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. That's a fine dress, Kaylee."
Well, damn. Was hardly fun if he didn't play along by actin' all traumatized. Beside her, Jayne kicked at some stones in the dirt. A cloud of dust flew up, and they all started to cough. Mal spared Jayne a glance before returning his gaze to the ground. The four of them walked a ways in silence.
"Think Nara would put my hair up, Cap'n?" She jogged a little to catch up to him. "You know, for the ceremony."
"Don't got the time to get your hair played at. Important thing is you see to Serenity." He gestured to the parts he was hefting.
"Can't I see to that stuff in the morning?" she pressed. "I mean, tonight's Wash and Zoe's wedding. 'Sides, I kinda want Nara to paint my face up—you know, make me all pretty like her. Not that I'd ever be that kinda pretty, Inara pretty, but…ooh, Zoe, I bet Inara would do you, too, what with you bein' the bride…."
"Inara's gonna do Zoe?" Jayne perked up enough to ask.
Mal stopped short, and Jayne almost ran into the back of him. Kaylee wondered if the cap'n was gonna give him a warning, tell him to keep a civil tongue, but instead Mal turned stern eyes on her.
"Time ain't exactly been a luxury that we can indulge, Lil' Kaylee. The sorta primping goes on with ladies like Inara—curling these hairs and tweezing those. Likely take hours to pretty you up that way, and we don't got—"
She flinched, and he must've seen it 'cause he stopped, a horrified expression sliding over his face.
"Oh, hey, Kaylee. I didn't mean—"
Zoe dropped her bag and turned to face him.
"Sir, I know you're angry with me. But if you keep taking it out on the crew, we won't have one."
"Wha—? Whoa. Zoe, I ain't angry." Kaylee wondered if the bit where he was shouting didn't suggest otherwise. "Don't know what would give you that impression. Just 'cuz I can't for the life of me see it working. Can't, in fact, see you agreeing to a coffee with the man, never mind fifty-odd years of wedded bliss. Just 'cuz I've said time and again what a bad idea shipboard romances are. Not to mention the fact that he don't get you—not really—and that he won't never, can't possibly. No, Zoe. I'm not angry!"
"What was I thinking?"
"That's funny you should mention. Since I been askin' myself the exact same question. Hell, Zoe, him? He's a five year old with grown-up shoes. 'Look at me, guys. I'm the shiniest spaceship pilot in all the 'verse. And I might, just might, do you the honor of flyin' your ugly-ass ship, just let me talk it over with my plastic dinosaurs first—'"
Jayne started giggling, in a manner somewhat less than manly, and Kaylee threw an elbow into his ribs to shush him.
"Man flies this ugly-ass ship pretty well, sir."
"He flies it damn well, but that's beside the point."
"What is the point?"
"Anything else about him bothers you? Best tell me all the reasons he ain't good enough. Because after today, Wash'll be my husband, and you'll be keeping them opinions to yourself. Sir."
Mal's face turned stony.
"Do what you want, Zoe. Just don't ask me to watch, or stand up for you when I think you're makin' the biggest mistake of your life."
"I'm not asking you to watch. He and I—that's a separate entity. Doesn't have a thing to do with you and me. And I don't see much changing just because Wash and me make official what's been real for some time."
"No," Mal said, his voice real low. "What could possibly change?"
Zoe arched a brow, and the captain looked away.
"I just don't see what's so wrong with the way things were," he said softly. "You and me and the big, beautiful Black. Nobody one else mattered worth a damn. Wasn't it okay, Zoe? Weren't we surviving?"
"Hey, wait a minute." Jayne nudged Kaylee's side. "The cap'n actin' all cockeyed on account of Zoe marryin' Wash?"
Kaylee just rolled her eyes.
"We were surviving," Zoe said. "Weren't living. And it ain't been just us for awhile now."
He glanced over, as though only then realizing they weren't alone. He met Kaylee's gaze, and she tried to make her eyes all steely, but she never was much of an actress.
"It's okay, Cap'n." She thought the words might have come off as more convincing if her voice weren't shaking. "Not like we're sweeties. Not like you're my big brother, or anyone owes me nothin'."
"Kaylee…wait a minute, I didn't mean—"
But she was already walking.
"I may be three kinds of sumbitch," she heard Jayne mutter, "but least I ain't ever made her cry."
If Mal had a retort, it was lost to the wind.
Jayne's fingers slid over the wooden pew to squeeze her thigh.
"Ow!" she hissed. "Jayne!"
The preacher turned, his lips twisting in a sour expression, and Kaylee blushed an apology.
She glanced at Inara for help, but the Companion looked straight ahead, her gaze fixed on the couple at the pulpit. Even though her hair was clean and curled and piled on her head, her gown a thousand times richer than the clothes Kaylee and Jayne wore, Inara had earned the coldest of the preacher's glares when the small wedding party arrived at the church. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that the captain stayed behind on Serenity. Preacher or no, the man would be on the receiving end of Mal's fist for looking at Inara that way.
"I'm gonna sneak out the back," Jayne muttered, his mouth near her ear. "Tell Mal I'll be a day or two."
"Jayne, they ain't even done with the ceremony yet," Kaylee chided. "Can't you hang around to kiss the bride at least?"
Jayne arched a heavy brow and snorted, and Kaylee followed his line of sight to the couple exchanging vows. Wash looked caught between hysterical laughter and absolute horror. Every few seconds he giggled, and Zoe dug a subtle elbow into his side. Even now, wearing what passed for her wedding gown—a sleeveless white shirt with a Mandarin collar, a brown leather skirt that kissed her knees—Zoe was pure badass. Kaylee couldn't see under Zoe's skirt, but she'd bet fifty-platinum that there was a menacing-looking pistol strapped to the bride's muscular thigh.
"C'mon, now, Lil' Kaylee." Jayne leaned back in the pew, one hand creeping down to scratch his crotch. "You think I'm getting my lips anywhere near that?"
She had to admit he had a point.
"Fine, go," she sighed. "Even though you did promise you'd dance with me later."
He looked mildly guilty at that.
"Aw, Kaylee. Be half a dozen boys fightin' for a go with ya."
"I don't feel like gettin' groped by strangers. Not tonight."
"What's wrong with tonight?"
"Ja-ayne. We're watching two people get bound together for all eternity. They're saying vows before God and some guy playin' the organ. Don't it make you want, well, more?"
"Give me some good trim, good whiskey—hell, even bad trim and good whiskey. That's all I'm needin', Lil' Kaylee."
She whipped her head side to side.
"Nuh-uh, I don't believe that."
"This ain't some fairy tale, girl. Lily-skinned princes don't swoop in from outter space to charm the coveralls off ya. Best you get that through your pretty head, Kaylee, 'cuz people who live with their heads up the clouds just wind up gettin' rained on."
"Well ain't that romantic, Jayne. Hell, sounds like a wedding speech right there."
"Aw, c'mon, Kaylee. Ain't all bad. Go and find yourself a partner with the right parts. You're a good-lookin' girl, bet you can find one willin' to put up the coin for a decent room and a few bottles of stuff to sweeten the mood."
He patted her hand and made to go.
"Wait." Her fingers twisted in his shirt, tugging him back down. "Just look at them, Jayne. Look. Can you honestly say there ain't a little part of you that's wanting what they've got?"
He looked at her for so long she felt her cheeks heat. His eyes dipped below her chin, and she could practically see him taking in the swell of her breasts and the point of her nipples, the jut of her hips and the soft curve of her belly beneath her dress.
"Jayne," she whispered, all manner of confused.
"I'm just lookin', Kaylee." He met her eyes again. "Just lookin'."
True to his word, Jayne took off before anyone got to kissing the bride. Wash was first, of course. He took to his task with surprising care, cupping Zoe's neck with one hand while the other held firm to her waist. The kiss itself was gentle and serious, as though he'd be receiving marks at the end. Zoe seemed content to let him lead, and after rested her head on his shoulder like she'd been waiting a long time for the support.
While Wash paid the preacher for the service, Kaylee grabbed Zoe and hugged her.
"I'm sorry he didn't come," she whispered. "Ain't right."
"I need the captain for a lot of things, Kaylee. Don't need him at my wedding ceremony." She gestured at Kaylee's hair. "Inara put that up for you? Looks good."
When Wash got done with the preacher, Kaylee wrangled him beside Zoe so she could take captures. After she had a good set with just the two of them, she handed her captograph over to the organ player and grabbed Inara to do group shots.
"Oh, no," Inara protested. "Really, you three just—"
"And miss the chance to be captured with a Registered Companion?" Zoe arched a brow. "Get over here."
"Why didn't you wanna be in the captures?" Kaylee whispered after, when Wash was kissing the bride for about the eighteenth time.
"I thought Wash and Zoe might not want...and it could be awkward later. They'll have to explain to their children about the strange lady with the odd costume."
"Their kids'll know you, silly. You'll be Aunt Nara who brushes the hair and...makes tea parties."
Inara stared at her hands, and Kaylee frowned.
"I just...you know I can't stay forever, Kaylee. You understand that, don't you?"
"Well, sure! I mean, none of us are gonna be on Serenity forever. But for a long, long time. Right?"
The four of them went to a bar. It was raining sheets, and Wash took off his jacket—a gray plaid blazer kept for special occasions—to hold over Zoe's head. They ordered champagne at Inara's insistence, and a big plate of hot wings at Wash's. The groom also insisted that the bride dance with him, and she did, cuddling close for slow songs, trying to stand back as he bent and twisted to the fast ones. Exhausted, laughing, Zoe retreated to the safety of their grimy vinyl booth seats, and demanded that Kaylee dance in her stead. So Kaylee smiled and let Wash twirl her, too, until Inara returned from the Ladies Room, and they caught her up between them.
When the song ended, the three of them went back to the table, dizzy from the drinks and the spinning. Red-faced, his collar soaked with sweat, Wash collapsed beside Zoe and covered her mouth in a kiss. She curled into him, conforming to his flesh as though she wanted to crawl through it.
It hit Kaylee finally—why Zoe was married to Wash and the captain so upset about it. She watched Wash suck Zoe's earlobe between his teeth, whisper something that had her roaring with laughter. It all made a kind of sense now.
Mal and Zoe walked through Hell together, and the pieces of each one that came out couldn't exist without the other. It wasn't just about the sex. Whatever they did in the privacy of his bunk or hers wasn't pretty or sweet, but necessary. Mouths gnashing and tongues clashing. A brisk, all-business bout of foreplay and then hard, desperate coupling. Probably they held each other after, clung tight to a warm body in the encompassing darkness of space and their own heads. And, come morning, they went back to being two broken halves that couldn't ever make a whole. They weren't happy exactly, but they needed each other, relied on the other's continued presence, steady and unwavering as the thunk-thud of one's own heartbeat.
Kaylee looked at Inara, watching the scene with a sort of detachment, and wondered if she too knew about Mal and Zoe, or suspected at least. She knew lots of things without having to be told.
Mal and Zoe knew pieces of each other that were closed off to the rest of the 'verse. Knowing all that, they could give each other relief maybe, but not pleasure, solace maybe but not real joy. It was surviving. But it wasn't living.
And that's what it came down to, really. Zoe wanted to live. The captain was too scared to try.
Kaylee mused over that while Zoe stuck her tongue in her new husband's ear.
"I think that's our cue," Inara said lightly. Casually, she slipped some money in the pocket of Wash's blazer, and came to take Kaylee's arm.
"Bye, guys." Kaylee waved even though she was fair sure Wash and Zoe couldn't see a damn thing from that position. "Have a real good honeymoon."
"Huh?" Wash glanced their way, his eyes still sex-glazed. "Hey, thanks for comin'. Thanks for—" The rest of his sentence was lost against Zoe's mouth, and Kaylee let Inara lead her away.
Sprawled on her belly over a queen-sized mattress, Kaylee dipped her hands into Inara's thick mane of curls. She toyed with the loose strands in between getting good and drunk off Inara's rice wine.
"They looked real happy," Kaylee said. Her lips made a popping sound as she sipped from the bottle mouth. "Dontcha think they looked happy?"
"Mmm, very." Indian-style on the floor, Inara reached up to steal the sake.
"Ain't ever seen two people so happy."
"They seemed very happy," Inara agreed diplomatically.
Kaylee slid off the bed so they were hip to hip. She brought her knees to her chest and pressed her face into their hollow.
"I'm gonna die alone," she said into her kneecaps.
"It's true. 'M gonna die all alone, hunched over with gray hair and grandma lips. Won't be nobody to remember I was pretty once—tight and young with all my parts standin' at attention. All I'm askin' for is someone will lie to me, say, 'No, honey, your boobs ain't down to your belly.' But there won't be no one around to say it. Gonna get worse every year, too. Every time I look in the mirror, until one day I won't know that person lookin' back at me. Can see it plain as day, so don't try to convince me otherwise…."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Inara passed back the bottle. "Though I will remind you that you're twenty-one, and by your standards, I must be postmortem."
Kaylee hiccuped a giggle and took another swig of wine.
"I'm goin' crazy here, Nara. Right bibbledy. I don't get sexed soon, no tellin' what's gonna happen. Gosh, even Jayne was lookin' good tonight. Jayne."
"Oh, please!" Inara laughed shortly. "I'll be ill."
"You ever get...ya know, twitchy, Nara? When it's been awhile between clients..."
"Sometimes. Although—it isn't like having a lover, Kaylee. I see to the client's needs. It doesn't always happen in reverse."
"You mean the men you see don't...see to you?"
"Some do. Some are very….attentive…while others pander more to their own ends."
"Sounds like a man," Kaylee giggled. "Looking after his own end."
"I take female clients too, Kaylee. I don't expect them to—what's wrong?"
"You service girls?" She knew she sounded shocked, and all sorts of naïve.
"Yes...I thought you knew that."
"Nope," Kaylee said. "Didn't know that."
Inara hesitated, the bottle of wine at her lips.
"Does it bother you?"
Kaylee shook her head too fast. Her brain lurched. She shook it again, more slowly.
"Doesn't bother me, Nara. I bet they're real glamorous."
Inara handed back the bottle, wiping her mouth delicately with the back of her hand.
"Some are very beautiful; some are special in other ways."
"How is it?" Kaylee blurted, the wine making her bold. "Lying with a girl..."
"Have you never been with a woman? In earnest, I mean," she said with a smile. "Not play-acting at the dinner table..."
Kaylee beamed back.
"Nuh-uh," she answered, shaking her head. "What's it like?"
"Oh, it's not so different from being with a man." Inara cocked her head, thoughtful. "Softer, maybe. And sometimes it's more sensual...I could show you?"
Resting a hand on Kaylee's shoulder, Inara arched an eyebrow for permission. Kaylee nodded, belly full of winged insects, and shut her eyes. She waited, and after a beat she felt a soft mouth press hers. At first, she could see the differences plain as day: no stubble rubbing the sensitive skin of her upper lip, or forceful tongue plundering her mouth. Inara's cheek was smooth against her own, and her hair smelled of something rich and clean. When Inara parted her lips, her tongue just darting out to glance Kaylee's own, Kaylee kissed back with abandon. She forgot that she was kissing a woman and just concentrated on kissing Inara.
Inara broke the kiss, one slender hand stretching to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Kaylee's ear.
"That was...real shiny, Inara." Kaylee tried to smile brightly. "You can...hell, you can kiss."
"I—I'm glad you liked it."
She thought Inara sounded funny, as though the tutorial hadn't gone exactly as planned. Not that Kaylee planned on having the reaction she did. The winged insects were doing loop-the-loops in her tummy.
"Oh, I liked it. Hell, what's not to like?" She bit her lip. "Inara? Can I ask you something? Am I bein' too nosy?"
"Was that your question?" Inara teased. "Whether you're being too nosy?"
Kaylee shook her head, smiling back.
"I don't mind," Inara assured. "What did you wanna ask me?"
"If I'm prying, you just go ahead and tell me. Inara...have you ever made love with a girl wasn't a client?"
"Yes. Not often but once or twice. When I was younger and still a...Kaylee? Honey, what is it?"
Kaylee shrugged, tried to smile.
"I'm not askin' for anythin'. Ain't askin' you to service me like you do for your clients. Oh, God no! Just thought...here we both are. In a way, we're kind of in the same boat. Hell, we are in the same boat, but ain't just Serenity I'm meaning. I figure we're both sorta by our lonelies, and you think I'm okay to look at, right? I mean, you aren't repulsed by me, are ya?"
"Kaylee, I think you're lovely! It's just...the situation. It's complicated, sweetie—"
"It's okay. You don't gotta explain." Already embarrassed and cruising rapidly toward humiliated, Kaylee started to rise. "I'm sorry. Just forget I even—"
"You've been such a good friend—I didn't mean to—Oh, God, I shouldn't've said nothin'!"
Inara curled her fingers around Kaylee's wrist, halting her.
"You're very dear to me. I value your friendship and hope you do mine as well."
" 'Course I do, Nara," she said seriously.
Inara smiled. In the lamplight, her eyes were dark, the nearly-black pupils rimmed with gold and rife with thought. Kaylee figured it was some kind of tragedy for someone as beautiful as Inara to look so terribly sad.
"I want you to be sure," Inara said then. "We can take this night and enjoy each other. But you have to be certain it's what you want."
"I'm not sure I get it," Kaylee admitted, eyes widening. "Are you...do you wanna be with me!"
Inara smiled again, her eyes turning warm and gentle with the gesture.
"This is just a moment. An expression of affection, and comfort, between close friends who could use some comforting. It needn't be more. Do you understand, Kaylee?"
Did she? She wasn't so sure.
"I think so," she said, not wanting to lie outright. Anyway, she didn't know what the truth was anymore. "Inara?"
"Do you mind if we kiss some more first?"
She let Inara guide her to her feet and then draw her down onto the bed. They sat facing each other, knees bumping, hands laced in the middle. Inara's fingers felt like cream against Kaylee's calluses, her thumb stroking a gentle pattern over Kaylee's palm. Inara waited, and Kaylee understood she was to make the first move. Rocking forward, she brushed a tentative kiss over Inara's lips, and then another.
The kissing made her giddy, and left her feeling warm all over. When the shock of what she was doing wore off some, Kaylee inched closer, and Inara's hands slipped soft and warm under her pajama shirt. Fingertips ghosted over her back and her belly, exploring and arousing, dancing a ticklish path over the flesh.
"Wow," she said, breathless. "You're real good at that."
"It's my job to be good at that."
"Then they oughta pay you more."
She didn't realize Inara was unbuttoning her shirt until the cool rush of air hit her chest. Inara traced a finger from throat to bellybutton, and gently parted the fabric.
"That's nice," Kaylee murmured. "Nara? I'm afraid I won't know what to do. I mean, I know just fine with boyfolk, but..."
Inara kissed her again, and she closed her eyes to experience the full sensation. Slowly, she raised her hands to Inara's firm tummy. She traced Inara's bellybutton jewelry through the nylon and silk of her nightie.
"Don't be nervous, Kaylee." Inara's voice was gentle, almost instructive. "Nothing's going to happen unless you want it to."
But she did want it to, that was the troublesome part. Typically it took a hard chest and some other rigid parts to get her this wound. And somehow she knew these weren't Inara's usual inclinations. But here, on Serenity, none of that seemed to matter. Out in the Black—okay, they were parked on Persephone on account of the wedding, but still—a person could get awful introspective. Sometimes she just needed to connect, to take pleasure from someone outside herself. Kaylee had always been good at appreciating life's pleasures, even when they come from unusual sources.
Inara's fingers were kneading her hipbone. Kaylee gasped in a breath as those same fingers spanned her belly, slid up her rib cage to cup her breast. Knowing hands massaged her nipples to tiny peaks.
"Ohh." She exhaled the word around a shaky sigh. "Inara…."
She let the weight of Inara's full breast fill her palm. She hadn't held too many beautiful things in her life, and she knew this moment would stick with her.
"Inara?" The voice pierced the still calm of Inara's shuttle. Kaylee's eyes flew open at the intrusion.
"Inara, you seen Kaylee?"
Mal's voice, lower than usual and stretching around the corner.
"Tell her I need to—sweet Ye su, I need to sit down."
The captain's hand shot out to clutch the wall.
"Mal, get out," Inara hissed.
Kaylee felt sorta bad for him. It looked like he wanted to, except his legs wouldn't obey. He did manage to turn around, one arm lifting to cover his eyes.
"Okay, this is...new."
"Mal, this is completely inappropriate—"
"Oh, I'm being...that's good! Seein' as you're the one servicin' my crew. Well, I guess Jayne'll be happy—" He stumbled then, almost crashing into the wall, and Kaylee realized for the first he was drunk. "Where is Jayne? I wanna tell him the good news."
"Why you arogant hou zi de—"
"Hold it." Kaylee rose, not to steady on her own feet, and swayed toward Mal. "Inara's not servicin' me, Cap'n. This is just a...a moment." She glanced at Inara for confirmation. "Something we both need."
He'd been real focused on fixing his gaze a good three feet above the opening in her shirt. Now he did look down, and met her eyes.
"Oh, Jesus, Kaylee. If you tell me you're getting married—"
"No one's getting married, Cap'n. No one else," she added pointedly.
He looked a little guilty at that, and reached up a hand to scratch his head.
"How was...everything go off as planned?"
"Wash and Zoe are husband and wife."
"Well—well, guess that was the plan. And you two came back here and...with the drinking." He made a grab for the near-empty wine bottle and almost overturned it.
"Your night also featured alcohol consumption, I take it." Inara eased back on her elbows, a hint of amusement tugging at her lips. "Shouldn't you go to bed before you hurt yourself?"
He managed to look at once uncomfortable and offended.
"Hey! I ain't drunk. Not that drunk...anyway, I don't wanna interrupt your...moment. So I'll just be—"
"Mmn, I don't think he's interrupting. I think the cap'n needs to be here same as us."
The captain and Inara both whirled at that, Mal weaving on his feet.
"Huh?" they asked in perfect unison.
Kaylee giggled and reached for Mal's hand. He was pretty loaded, and didn't fight her much as she tugged him down on the couch.
"We're all of us feelin' a little lonely tonight. Nothing wrong with helping one 'nother over the hump."
"Yes, there is!" Mal and Inara said together.
Kaylee just shook her head.
"You two gotta stop doin' that. You're weirdin' me out."
"Kaylee, this is crazy," Inara tried.
"Lady's got a point," Mal agreed. "Now maybe I've had a few, or ten, too many tonight and my brain's actin' a little funny—not really doin' the things a brain ought—but this, this is crazy. I'm right, aren't I—about the crazy?"
"Oh, really? Well, I'll just drop it then. Soon as you two look each other in the eye and say a part of you don't want this."
Their gazes locked, and Inara was first to turn away. Mal opened his mouth, but for once seemed at a loss for words.
Kaylee smiled and tried to sound more certain than she felt.
"I think we should all have a drink," she asked.
"I could surely use one," Mal muttered.
"Get in line," Inara said, already routing another bottle of sake from a crate under the bed.
She popped the cork and swigged down a mouthful before passing the wine to Mal. Unsteadily, she lowered herself to the edge of the coffee table.
"Kaylee." Mal took a long gulp, glanced at Inara and took another. "I only came up here to apologize."
"And I forgive you, Cap'n." She leaned over the sofa cushions to kiss his cheek. "I know you only said those things on account of you were upset about...you were upset. No big thing."
"Okay, but I want you to know...I like havin' you here. On my boat."
"I know you do. You and me are A-okay."
"Well, good. Now what's got you all upset, Lil' Kaylee? Some reason you're unburdening your soul in a bottle of sake and…seeking out other means of comforting?"
She told him, and it felt kinda good saying it aloud again. Not that she really expected the captain to fix her problems. But in a way she guessed she did. Everyone on the boat sorta expected that of him 'cuz he was the captain.
"Kaylee, you ain't dyin' on my ship, hear? Long before the shriveling grandma lips, I'm gonna dump you on some civilized world where you can make some boy an honest man."
She got a little teary at that.
"You're real sweet to me, Cap'n."
"Yes, and only a small bit sexist," Inara agreed, arching a brow.
Mal shot her a wry look before turning to Kaylee again.
"I don't let people die on my ship. Clean up's a pain, and it stinks to high heaven."
To punctuate his point, he leaned in to kiss her temple. At the last minute, she had a kinda epiphany, and tilted her head so their mouths hit. It wasn't a brother's kiss, exactly, but neither was it a hot-blooded embrace. It was sorta chaste; even with her hands clamped over his ears, he didn't open his mouth for her tongue. Still, he didn't pull away right off. She knew if he weren't good and drunk, he wouldn't have allowed even that much intimacy between them.
After, she touched her face where his whiskers had rubbed her raw.
"Kaylee, what in the sphincter was that?" Mal demanded.
"A kiss. You do remember kissin', Cap'n..."
"Uh, yeah. Don't remember you and me...with the kissing...so much. I'm thinkin' that's new."
"Was it so bad?"
"Kaylee, I...Oh, sweet Ye su, gimme the bottle back. And what about you, huh?" he demanded, jerking his head at Inara.
"What's got you contemplating the meaning of life?"
Inara's shoulders tightened visibly beneath the fabric of her nightgown.
"I'm not contemplating anything!" She tried to retrieve the sake, but he held it just out of reach.
"Somethin' I'm wondering, Miss Serra. Been nagging at me ever since you set foot on my spaceship. See, I been thinkin'—"
"Oh, this ought to be good—"
"—and it all comes down to you bein' what some folks consider, maybe lacking a better word, respectable. Hell, there's those would say I ain't good enough to kiss your boots—"
"Inara don't wear boots," Kaylee said helpfully. She eased the sake bottle from Mal's grasp and tipped it to her lips.
"Are you approaching a point, Mal?"
"Matter o' fact, I am. Here's the part that's fuzzy. What's a reasonably respectable businesswoman such as yourself doin' on a ship full of...them that earn their keep by unconventional means?"
"I told you, it's a mutually beneficial relationship—"
"Inara." He leaned forward, and his blue eyes met hers in a way that was all sorts of disarming. "Lady like you could have her pick of captains...ships, that is...spaceships...why'd you leave Sihnon?"
"What is it you're running from?" he asked quietly.
"This…you're being...this conversation is ridiculous. I'm not running!"
"So why are you here then?"
"I—I wanted a change. Some people like change, Mal."
"Go suh. Nobody likes change. Well, not unless what they got ain't shiny. Something happened to you back there. Didn't it?"
"Cap'n…" Kaylee warned.
Drunk or no, she could see plain this was a bad path. Inara didn't mind talking about her girlhood, or training to be a Companion, but regarding the year or so before she came to Serenity, she was real tight-lipped. Even Kaylee didn't know what happened to make her leave Sihnon, and she and Inara were close. Of course, after tonight, they might all three be a whole lot closer.
"Might help, you know," she said softly. "Might be just the thing."
The captain and Inara stopped squabbling long enough to flick a glance her way.
"What's the what, Kaylee?" Mal asked, impatient now.
He reached out a hand to snag back the sake bottle, which had made its way to Inara by now.
"You and Nara sexing each other," Kaylee said, and giggled as he choked on a mouthful of wine. He started to cough, and Kaylee reached over to pound his back. "Might just resolve some o' that burning sexual tension between you."
"Kaylee! There's no tension," Inara hissed.
"Yeah," Mal chimed, still red-faced from the choking fit. "Least not on my end…."
He smirked, and Inara rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
"Yes, Mal. I lie awake at night wishing that a certain ship's captain would sneak into my shuttle and…ravish me! I'm plagued by fantasies of your gun drawing skills and…dizzying fashion sense!"
"I have great fashion sense!"
"I think it's got somethin' to do with Serenity," Kaylee interrupted, her tone thoughtful.
"Serenity? It's the ship's fault!"
"Ain't nobody's fault, Cap'n. Just is."
"Kaylee, my ship ain't dirty."
Inara flickered her eyes.
"Mal, try not to be judgmental for thirty seconds."
"A whole thirty?"
But his lips were twitching. Kaylee took that to be progress.
"This is a good thing, Cap'n. We're all of us needin' this. Three people on the same lonely boat in the same lonely 'verse."
"This...this is three kinds of bad."
"Only three?" Inara murmured.
"Do you wanna kiss him first or should I?" Kaylee asked.
They were talking in unison again—Captain and Inara. Kaylee rolled her eyes and slid closer, so her thigh bumped Mal's.
"You prob'ly knew all along I had the hots for ya, cap'n. Guess I wasn't real subtle about it."
"Naw, you were—okay, yeah. I knew. But all that—you imagining feelings—was just 'cuz I'm the captain. Y'all look up to my authority."
"Actually, I just thought you had a nice butt. But you're real…authoritative."
Mal opened his mouth and quickly closed it again. Kaylee just laughed and punched him friendly-like in the arm.
"So you gonna kiss me now?"
"You gonna hit me again if I don't? Anyways, didn't we already get around to that? Granted my brain's a mite fuzzy, but I do remember kissin'."
"Nuh-uh. I kissed you. Now you kiss me. Only fair."
"You want a kiss, huh? What if I ain't up to par?"
"Mm, I'm willin' to risk it."
This time he opened his mouth. His hands slid up her arms from wrist to elbow, whispered over her neck and shoulders. Work-rough fingers held her arms immobile, as he took her bottom lip between both of his.
He kissed her with a quiet intensity, his tongue probing and exploring, learning the inner caves of her mouth. As though finding his pleasure meant first securing hers. It was long, dizzy seconds before she realized he was kissing her—hands stroking her with a firm but gentle possessiveness—like she was his ship.
She thought she understood. Kaylee carried carnal knowledge of Serenity—had communed with the ship in ways the captain couldn't. She knew all Serenity's secrets and how to stroke her into compliance. Much as he loved her, Mal couldn't ever know his ship that way.
Kissing Mal was just playing a part. Her part. The Black could be cold—colder than the coldest day on Harvest when the icy air crawled in your nose and your mouth, and stole the breath from you. But they didn't freeze, any of them, because Mal and Serenity wouldn't allow it. No one could die on Serenity, and no one could leave.
Kaylee found his hand, lean fingers nestled tightly in the mass of her hair, and lowered it to her breast. His eyes flew open, and the harsh, throaty sound he was making stopped. Pressing his palm more firmly against her chest, she swept the roof of his mouth with her tongue. She kissed him until he was groaning against her lips and she was sure he could feel the pounding of her heart under his fingertips.
Pulling away, Kaylee slumped back against the sofa cushions to catch her breath. She glanced at Inara, whose expression was all but unreadable. Kaylee wished she knew that trick—concealing her feelings. She never could hide 'em worth a damn. Captain wasn't much of an actor either. She could read his thoughts easy enough, and they all seemed to spell out guilt.
"That was real nice, Cap'n," she said softly.
"Mal." He massaged his temples with both hands. "Mal would be good right now."
"That was real nice, Mal. Oh, gosh, that sounds funny. Didn't feel so funny though."
"No, guess not..."
"Course we gotta be fair."
"Inara's turn." She smiled triumphant-like.
She expected the captain to fight her, but he just swallowed hard.
"Now how do we know Inara even wants a turn?" His voice had a kind of hitch at the end. "I mean, I'm not quite her type. Don't got the big, fat bank account for one."
"No," Inara said sweetly. "But you do have a big, fat—"
"'Okay," Kaylee cut in. "Think that's enough smalltalk."
"Hey, I'm just getting going!"
"I think she's right. You should kiss me, Mal. Right now."
"You tryin' to shut me up?"
"The thought did occur to me."
"I'm not like them. Any of your fancy gentleman." His fingers grazed, just the tips, over her jawline. "Ain't gonna touch you like you're made of fine glass."
"I never wanted to be touched like I'm—"
His hand slid around to clasp the back of her neck, and his lips drowned out the rest of her words. It was awkward at first, Kaylee could tell, the captain and Inara both struggling for dominance. Inara's hands reached out and grasped his shoulders, fingers embedding in the fabric of his shirt, twisting so she could better her grip. Kaylee thought he'd pull her inside him if he could. After a while, his kisses gentled, and became like nuzzles. As though she was glass after all, and him capable of shattering such fineries.
When he broke the kiss at last, Inara rose and lifted a fingertip to her mouth. She touched her lips, as though seeking proof that it was her lips and not two others that the captain had been kissing. Under Mal's heavy-lidded gaze, she moved, just a bit unsteadily, to Kaylee's side and crouched. Somehow she made the pose seem ladylike.
"Are you sure, Kaylee?" she asked, laying a hand on Kaylee's leg. "You have to be sure."
"It was my idea, silly." Kaylee grinned. "Tonight's gonna be an adventure. Just like joining this crew. And, hell, what's life without adventures? That's what my daddy always said."
"Kaylee, can we not talk about your father right now?" Mal tossed back another shot of rice wine. "I'm fair sure he wouldn't appreciate the current situation."
"Mal, hush," Inara chided. "Kaylee?"
Kaylee didn't say anything. She just slipped her fingers through Inara's and squeezed, and let herself be tugged to her feet.
"Come to the bed," Inara said quietly. She glanced at Mal, and one look had him following at a slower pace, like he was sure with every step he'd turn around and walk out.
Nervous energy had Kaylee bouncing on the mattress.
"Sit down," Inara said, and Kaylee realized she was talking to Mal, who looked like he might fall over without the support.
"You givin' orders on my ship?" he slurred. He stumbled, and she caught his arm, lowering him to the foot of the bed.
"Consider it almost-friendly advice. Kaylee?" Her voice flowed easier than oil through an engine. "Why don't you sit in Mal's lap?"
So Kaylee slid into his lap, positioning her body so both her legs straddled one of his and the coarse cotton of his trousers rubbed pleasantly between her thighs.
"Don't fall and break your...anything," he warned, a little awkwardly, and settled his hands on her hips.
"Won't," she promised, and turned her head to kiss the underside of his chin. "Mmm, this is nice, Cap—Mal."
"Nice," he repeated.
Her motions gentle, Inara eased Kaylee's sleeves from her shoulders and set the discarded nightshirt aside. She drew Kaylee's other leg up to span Mal's lap fully. Taking his hands in hers, Inara dragged his warm, calloused fingers up Kaylee's belly and over her ribs, before bringing them at last to rest over Kaylee's breasts. Leaning in, she kissed Kaylee full on the mouth.
Kaylee flung her head and almost bashed the captain in the nose. He swore and chuckled and kissed her hair. His big, hard hands cupped her breasts, moving tentatively to squeeze and pinch, while Inara's softer ones cradled her face. It was too much, all at once, and she had to bite down on her lip to keep from screaming. She broke the kiss to draw several, shaky breaths and rested her head on Mal's shoulder. He made to brush her hair back, but Inara was already reaching for her hand. Legs wobbly, she let Inara ease her out of Mal's lap and back onto the bed.
The flush coating her from face to waist, Kaylee rested her back against the cool satin of Inara's bedspread. She tucked her arms under her head, letting the cold, sleep-conditioned air raise her nipples to pebbly points. She felt like she was floating, and part of her gazing down on the physical Kaylee: her auburn hair hopelessly rumpled, the wild waves of it flowing over the peach flush of her chest. She could see the jut of her collarbones and the creamy mounds of her breasts, the gentle curve of her hips and the dark thatch of hair visible through plain white panties.
Somehow, the thought of the captain seeing her this way—her body stripped, her skin glowing—was incredibly arousing.
"How do you feel, sweetheart?" Inara stretched out beside her, on hand supporting her head, the other drawing lazy circles over Kaylee's belly. She stopped long enough to scoop a strand of damp auburn behind Kaylee's ear.
"Beautiful," Kaylee said because it was the first word to slide through the haze of her brain.
"You are, Kaylee."
Inara's sure hand swept over her belly and her thighs. Two fingers wiggled under the waistband of her panties and pushed a slippery path inside of her. Squeezing her eyes shut, Kaylee didn't see Inara beckon the captain. But she felt his knuckles graze her cheek, and his hands slide over her shoulders and arms before he filled his palms with her breasts. Beyond herself, she squirmed under Inara's skillful handling and thrashed over the bedspread. Mal's fingers massaged her chest, the pad of his thumb working the hard peak of her nipple. She felt her toes tingle and a sweet, steady pressure imbue her nethers. When Inara withdrew her fingers, she nearly whimpered.
"Relax, Kaylee," Inara encouraged. "I'm right here."
Kaylee nodded, eyes clear and trusting, and let Inara part her knees.
The first lap of Inara's tongue had her crying out. Body bowing off the bed, she titled her head back, looking for the captain. She extended a weak arm over her head, and pressed her hand flat against the spot where Mal's pants bulged.
He hissed out a sound she couldn't identify as actual words, and troubled blue eyes met her own. His hand flew to cover hers, and she didn't know whether he meant to remove her hand or hold it in place, so she just squeezed his hard length, her fingers rolling over the tip. Later, she fret over his tortured soul, worry that he'd find a way of blaming himself for this. Now, she couldn't think beyond coaxing his tongue into her mouth and kissing him breathless while she came.
"Captain?" She lowered her eyes to slits. "Kiss me, Cap'n. Please?"
He bent forward and tried to brush her mouth gently, but she didn't want gentle. She parted her lips against his and sucked at his tongue while her body tensed and tightened and found release.
After, Inara held a robe open, and Kaylee slid her arms through the sleeves. She was warm and damp with sweat, and the silk felt deliciously cool against her blushing body. She lay back on the sheets, her eyes full of gratitude, while Inara secured the belt at her waist and stroked a loving hand over her hair. The captain, somewhat red his own self, averted his gaze.
"Don't gotta be a gentleman now, Cap'n," Kaylee told him, a lazy smile curving her lips. "Can look all you want."
"Kaylee, I got a handful of brain cells still functioning here. They all agree I ain't bein' anything near a gentleman. And most of 'em say I oughta head back to my bunk about now."
Kaylee pouted because, lying in Inara's bed, sex-tousled and satisfied, she could.
"I'd be real disappointed if you did go, Cap'n. Nara, too."
"Is that so?" His tone was doubtful.
"Not inconsolable perhaps." Inara shrugged. "But were you to stay, you might prove mildly useful."
"I can be all sorts of useful," Mal said, rising up on his knees, and Kaylee thought he sounded like an animal would, all low and growly. He lifted a hand and drew his fingers through Inara's hair, but she shook her head.
He started to get a hurt look on his face, but the hurt shifted rapidly to shock when Inara next spoke.
"It's your turn, Mal."
His eyes went wide, and it was a few seconds before he was capable of human speech.
"I seem to recall my mama mentioning something about ladies first," he said finally.
Inara's lips twisted in a smile that wasn't entirely kind.
"She's not here, Mal."
He nodded, and the look in his eyes wasn't exactly kind either.
"Thank God," he drawled. "I wouldn't like to explain this if she was."
He made a move to kiss her, and she shook her head again. He frowned, obviously frustrated now and edging toward angry.
"Take off your shirt," she said quietly.
Mal's fingers flew to his buttons, and he was halfway through before he realized what he was doing and stopped. He looked up and met Inara's gaze, and she stared back, her expression a challenge.
Slowly, Mal finished unbuttoning his shirt, his eyes never leaving Inara's. When it was done, he eased the maroon cotton off his shoulders and let it fall to the bed.
"You want me bare, you got me," he said, and Kaylee hid a smile because he was still wearing an undershirt, not to mention pants, and was a far cry from bare. Of course bare didn't have to mean naked...
"It's a new look for you," Inara said softly. She gestured to his undershirt with a tilt of her chin, and he raised a brow before obediently rooting the shirt from under his pants and tugging it over his head.
"I'm starting to feel a little under-dressed here," he admitted.
Unblinking, Inara found the hem of her nightgown and peeled it up her body. She tossed it aside and lowered her arms so the captain could see her matching bra and panties in pale gold lace.
"Better?" she asked dryly.
Mal swallowed again—Kaylee watched his Adam's Apple beat in his throat like a miniature heart. His eyes darted from Inara's face to her breasts, as though trying to decide where safely to rest his gaze. Finally he seemed to settle on a spot just over her left shoulder.
"Not sure," he admitted, and Inara's lips curved triumphantly. Her hands went for the belt of his pants.
Kaylee got up on her knees and wrapped her arms around Mal's torso, hugging lightly.
"Let Inara take care of you, Cap'n. It'll feel real good, I promise."
She turned his head and kissed him on the lips, kissed him because she knew she'd never kiss him this way again. He'd never be this intimate, this open, no matter how long she stayed on his crew. Kaylee touched his forehead and his lips and the hollows of his cheeks and tried to give out all the comfort he wouldn't ever allow himself to take after tonight.
Inara kissed her way down his belly and swirled her tongue in his bellybutton. Her head ventured lower, and she eased his undershorts down some to nip lightly at his hipbone. She pressed a single, almost chaste kiss to the part of him that swelled against his shorts. In an instant, he was hauling her up his body.
"Your hand," he said, his voice hoarse, and Inara arched a brow but she said nothing.
As punishment for thwarting her, or maybe just to torment him, she made him wait, her soft mouth lingering on the crook of his neck and the fleshy part of his shoulder. Rising up on her knees, she reached for Kaylee, and they kissed with Mal's body caught between them. Kaylee could feel him shivering, the muscles of his back clenched tight against her breasts. Sympathetic, she slid a hand between his legs to offer relief but Inara shook her head no. Eyes firm and unwavering, she redirected Kaylee's hand to his backside. Nuzzling briefly at his lips, Inara dipped her head to thrust her tongue in his ear, while Kaylee ran her hands and fingernails up and down his back and buttocks. Finally, when Kaylee was convinced the captain could withstand no more teasing, Inara slid a hand down the front of his shorts.
Mal let out a low groan and fumbled at Inara's bra. The combination of drunk and sex left him too uncoordinated to work the clasp, so he settled for easing a hand down the cup. Whatever he did with his fingers had Inara faltering, though she regained herself quickly. She captured his mouth in a firm kiss and continued to stroke him. Sleepy and sated, Kaylee rubbed the captain's chest and watched Inara jerk him through his shorts.
Inara's hand moved with a sure, knowing rhythm, and when he whispered for her to go faster she just shook her head and kept her pace. As though she knew his body better than he, which maybe she did because a few seconds later he came hard all over the front of his shorts.
Inara released him, and the captain glanced down at his lap, half embarrassed, half past caring about such things. He looked at Inara, and the look in his eyes was so sweet and grateful it damn near broke Kaylee's heart. Kaylee thought about what Jayne had said, and how if this was a fairy tale, the captain would be begging Inara to let him rescue her. Except Inara didn't seem to want rescuing.
She lay back against the pillows, reclining like some sort of ancient queen. She seemed entirely comfortable in her nudity, or almost nudity, her body bare save the scraps of gold ornamenting her breasts, the triangle of it hugging her between the thighs. She was almost painfully lovely, and it was no wonder, really, that the captain looked on her the way he did. Like she was a cool mountain pool, and him all manner of sweaty. Or, maybe, it was the other way—Inara was the hot springs and the captain half frozen.
Mal finished fighting off his remaining pant leg, twisted about his ankle, and smiled sorta shy-like.
"You got favorites? Or reckon I should use my judgment?"
"There's protection...in the drawer by the bed."
His eyes flashed with something that might have been anger, but it faded so fast Kaylee wasn't sure.
"Ain't about me, girl."
He moved closer, one hand just a murmur along her kneecap.
"Anyone ever ask you before? Any of your fancy clients bother learning what you like?"
"Some clients contract with me regularly—"
"That's not what I asked. I—never mind. Don't much wanna talk about that now. Don't much wanna talk period."
He stretched out beside her and, his movements gentle, lowered Inara's bra straps from her shoulders. Almost reverently, he pressed a kiss in the curve of her breast.
Sprawled on the opposite side of Inara, Kaylee saw the older woman shudder. She guessed that Inara didn't care how the captain wanted to make love to her. It was the waiting, and anticipating, that disarmed her. She couldn't predict his next move, and the not knowing destroyed her.
Mal drew his thumb across Inara's breast and, without warning she rolled to the side and cupped Kaylee's face. Holding firm to Kaylee's chin, Inara kissed her with a mindless desperation, which Kaylee tried her best to return.
When Inara finally released her, the captain was watching, his expression steady and determined. Reaching out, he strummed Kaylee's hair with his fingers. He smiled his captainy smile—everything's going to be okay—and she smiled back. His shoulders were straight and unhunched, and Kaylee wondered if sometime, during the war or after, maybe, he'd done something like this before. Taking Kaylee's hands in his, he arranged them over the rich lace of Inara's bra. He pressed a soft kiss to Kaylee's forehead before turning his attention back to Inara.
Lowering his face to her belly, he nuzzled and bit at the firm flesh with teeth and tongue. He rolled his cheeks against the delicate skin, his stubble leaving angry red marks on her skin, but neither seemed to notice. Inara's eyes were closed, her dark lashes resting gently against the golden apples of her cheeks, as she breathed through her nose. Mal licked and sucked at her belly and then ate his way up her rib cage to kiss her breasts through Kaylee's fingers. Inara was shaking now, her beautiful body arching on the bed. Spreading her knees, the captain touched his nose to the apex of her thighs.
He raised his head.
"Don't—I mean, I didn't, so you shouldn't have to—"
"You been handin' out a lot of orders this evenin'. Don't reckon I like it much." Then, for no clear reason, his face softened. "I ain't that awful, girl."
The captain titled his mouth in something resembling a smile, and Inara's lips curved in response. Kaylee thought how shiny it would be if they smiled like that always. And maybe they would now. Maybe they'd decide to be a couple, or maybe they wouldn't, but at least they'd be free. A glimmer of doubt passed over her face like a shadow, but Kaylee pushed the unwelcome thoughts away. She felt lighter—warm and safe—and there was no call for thinking that Mal and Inara didn't feel that way as well.
"Here?" Mal murmured. "Inara, you gotta help me."
"There. Yes." Her voice was breathy, her eyes squeezed in concentration.
"Good girl. That's good."
He lifted her leg over his shoulders and did something with his tongue, and seconds later Inara was tensing and tightening, her fingers embedding themselves in the short brown stalks of Mal's hair.
After, the captain sat on the edge of the bed, knuckling his temples with a fist.
Inara readjusted her clothing and squeezed Kaylee's hand on the bedspread. Kaylee squeezed back but her forehead was crinkled in a frown.
"Cap'n? You okay?"
"Hmm?" He looked up, ragged, sobering, but oddly sated. "Yeah, honey. I'm okay. How 'bout you?"
"Shiny." She flashed a sleepy smile, her eyes huge and soft. "We're all gonna be just shiny."
If she said it firmly enough, maybe they'd all believe.
"This—all of it was just a moment. Right, Nara?
"Just a moment," Inara said quickly. "It doesn't change anything."
"What would change?" Mal murmured. His voice sounded strangely flat. "It's late. Or early. Sometime when all good captains oughta be sleeping."
"Captain." Kaylee snagged his wrist. "Stay?" She looked at Inara.
"Kaylee, the captain doesn't want to...of course, you're welcome, Mal."
"Just for a few minutes," Kaylee wheedled. "Just till I fall asleep. Please?"
He was snoring.
They tried to rouse him, knowing he'd feel awkward come morning, but he was drunk and well-sexed. They'd have had better luck raising the dead.
Kaylee lifted herself on one elbow to peer over the rise and fall of Mal's chest.
"Inara?" she whispered. She could have shouted.
"Remember when you said you'd teach the cap'n to dance?"
"You never said how it went."
Inara turned on her side, her eyes matching dark pools against the pale of her face.
"There was nothing to tell. He only came the once. He stayed less than an hour, I showed him a dance or two, and he refused to take more than half my rent check that month."
"Did you guys fight?"
"No." Inara yawned, one hand rising politely to cover her mouth. "We laughed."
Kaylee fell asleep and dreamed she was locked in a tall tower. She needed a prince to rescue her, but all she got was the crew of Serenity. Jayne complained that he was too gorramn tired to climb the tower and rescue her. Wash couldn't quit giggling. And Mal just yelled at her for getting locked up there in the first place. In the end, she got bored with arguing and decided just to rescue herself. So she did, and dreamed that she climbed down and had a picnic with strawberries and sweet whipped cream.
Mal woke up with a weight over his heart like someone was sprawled there. He wondered if maybe he was having a heart attack but figured he wasn't that lucky to die in bed. For the first time, the knowledge that he'd likely meet his end in a firefight was a comfort, and he smiled easily and opened his eyes. He looked down and wished for that heart attack after all.
Oh, sweet Ye su, what did he do? It came back to him in pieces: two pairs of hands, two seeking mouths. He felt the slice of two sets of fingernails—one long, square and a blue so deep it was almost black; the other short and round and pink like kittens' noses. Together they raked a crisscrossing pattern over the flesh of his back. His hands juggled the competing demands of four, individually sweet breasts, and his tongue recalled the separate flavors of two distinct mouths. He felt teeth bite into the curve of his neck and soft, soft hands touching him in places that hadn't known a woman's touch in some time.
Glancing down, he saw their heads, one a mass of black curls, the other wavy and auburn, both snuggled into a curve of his armpit. He hoped like hell he didn't stink.
Very carefully, he set to work easing himself out from the two, warm arms slung over his chest. If he made it out alive, he'd go to his room and shower. He'd bathe away both their scents, and then he'd go make coffee. He was Malcom Reynolds. And he had a ship to captain.