A/N: This sat as a single page on my computer for months until a few days ago I got a sudden burst of inspiration. Hope it's paid off. This is femslash for those of you who don't know and shouldn't contain any real spoilers for the series or film. Thanks for reading!
The words sounded poetic, even to her own seasoned ears. Of course, in her time she'd reasoned a lot about the matter. To poor young boys, unsure of their status, she'd whispered it would find them and they would no longer require her services. That wasn't the expected line expressed by the Guild though she did hope it was one which would apply to them all in their lives. And she'd talked to Book about it during a rather intellectual debate on the uprise of Companions, she had taken the 'morally lower' position, naturally, though how she could be regarded as low on this particular boat wasn't something she was entirely sure on.
But the words… She had never spoken them truly herself until now, unless the occasions in her shuttle with the candles breathing huskily were to be taken into account. The time had never been right, the person had frequently been wrong. Not least because there were few people she saw as something other than a client. She had once said that the Companion rules on dating were complicated; the guidelines for falling in love were so extensive they occupied their own space on the Cortex. She was a romantic at heart, she believed everyone had a soul-mate, either someone whose likeness to you was astounding or just a polar opposite who made the world crystal clear. Her fellow Companions would scoff at her simpleness, that she was sure of, but it was the way she felt about such matters.
In her case, she supposed she had fallen for her polar opposite. She could barely reconcile herself to the fact she had actually fallen in love, let alone acknowledge that the woman in question thought of her as a sister rather than anything else. It was the latter which she was trying to accept by absolving her sins to the person under scrutiny. It was something proving much more difficult than she had anticipated. The words were supposed to make it go away, she had been sure… But staring into the uncomprehending eyes made her heart swell with a feeling she had never experienced in all her time in the Universe. She had to say it again. 'You're perfect, Kaylee. Your smile, the way you are.' She bowed her head. 'This is coming out all wrong.'
The mechanic nodded slowly. 'Yeah, 'tis. For a moment there I coulda sworn you were tellin' me you loved me. I mean, that can't be it, right?'
'Tell me why not,' Inara probed, unsure of her own perseverance. 'That is, you don't see us together?'
Kaylee giggled her rich giggle. 'You're you and I'm…' Slowly, her grin faded. 'Were you serious? Me and you together?'
She inclined her head once then kept her eyes low. The sound of Kaylee's breathing ran in time with her own, it was all she could hear. A regular 'tum-tum'. Allowing herself to be drawn into it she barely heard the rustling of Kaylee's skirts until the mechanic was well out of the shuttle. Sighing, Inara pressed her hands against her face.
If there was a time she shouldn't have listened to her instincts, this was it. Now she was battling against the urge to follow her friend out into the rest of the ship but she knew where that might lead. Here in her shuttle she was safe. Or, at least, she could maintain the sense of security. Out there on the landings she was open to ridicule, from Kaylee, from Mal, from everyone. She couldn't bear the thought of Kaylee looking at her in any way different to the way she had become accustomed. Why had she opened her mouth in the first place?
'Knock, knock.' At the sound of the voice, she tried desperately to straighten her fallen features. 'Can I come in?'
'Not like you to ask, Mal.'
He stepped through the curtains, characteristically getting slapped on the back of the head in a very slapstick manner. 'Thought I'd break the habit. Besides, I saw what you did to my mechanic.'
At the reference to Kaylee, her cheeks reddened and she glanced at him quickly. 'What do you mean?'
'She's cryin' her little heart out. Something goin' on I should know about?'
Keeping his gaze, she said, 'Why don't you ask Kaylee?'
He raised an eyebrow. 'Well, I'm askin' you.'
'I'm not one of your crew, I don't have to suffer your mindless interrogation.'
'Mindless inter… I was only asking!'
'No, Mal, you were prying.'
'Fine. I'll go ask Kaylee what's goin' on.'
As he turned to leave, she had to protest. 'No!'
When he looked back she could see the irritation building on his face. Deep down she knew he was only questioning her because of a lingering loyalty to Kaylee. His sense of responsibility to her, more than any other of the crew, was touching though Inara had to admit it was on the brink of causing difficulties here. The last thing she could stomach was Mal eliciting the truth from Kaylee then humiliating her with it. If she was to stay on the ship she needed to get to Kaylee first- to explain, if she possibly could.
'No?' he repeated slowly. 'You wouldn't be tellin' me what to do now, would you? I mean, as you've kindly pointed out on many many occasions, this is my ship.'
'I just meant…' She paused and took a deep breath, her eyes pleading with him. 'Let me talk to her first.'
After a moment he shrugged. 'Okay. Don't want no complications, alright? We'll be on Boros in a few days, need it to go off without a hitch.'
When he'd brushed under the curtain again, Inara stood, making her way over to her water basin. Splashing herself with the cool water may have appeared uncouth but it cleared her mind in a way nothing else could. A few seconds later she was ready to face Kaylee, though she would be lying if she said she knew what she was going to say to the mechanic.
Predictably, she found her in the engine room. Resting her shoulder against the doorframe, Inara watched as Kaylee fiddled with some valve or other. If Kaylee hadn't been periodically wiping away her tears on her long rainbow sleeves, Inara would've been smiling at the sight of her just doing what she loved. As it was, an enormous sense of guilt was settling on her shoulders. The last thing she had wanted was to cause Kaylee pain. In some bizarre form, she had hoped her feelings would be reciprocated. Now that was true delusion.
Eventually, she cleared her throat. 'Hey.'
Kaylee glanced towards her then looked back to the metallic object she was holding. 'Gator valve. Told the Capt'n it needs changin' but he won't hear of it.'
'What was his excuse?'
'Oh, the usual. Somethin' 'bout needin' money for food.'
Inara smiled. 'That old lie.'
'We'll get to Boros in a few days,' Kaylee interrupted speedily. 'Maybe I'll talk to Zoe, needs doin'.'
Recognising the reluctance in the mechanic, Inara let it lie. 'Well, I'll leave you to it then.'
'Yep, that'd be good.'
It was only when she was back in her shuttle that Inara let herself express any kind of emotion. Lying down on her fragranced bed, she gazed up at the shuttle ceiling, watching the vague vibrations as Wash obviously manoeuvred precariously. Whenever she felt anything other than good, she let herself be moved into sleep by the slow motions of the craft. That was one thing which made Serenity more her home than any other world or ship she'd lived in- she could manage to fall asleep here whilst troubled. It had been a problem which plagued her youth, she certainly hadn't expected it to be solved on a ship like this one. Then again, she hadn't expected to fall in love with the ship's mechanic either.
Three days later, slightly off-schedule due to an unforeseen incident involving an Alliance cruiser, the crew were assembled in the dining room, enjoying their last meal before touching down for a few days. Against all precedent Mal had allowed his crew some time off; he said it was down to needing time to find a cheap gator valve, Inara personally believed he had bowed to Wash's frequent protestations about a holiday.
Over the last half an hour Inara had gleaned from the conversation that Jayne had arranged some kind of drinking marathon with a few old buddies, Wash was whisking Zoe off to the most exotic place Boros had to offer (which was a dubious prospect) and Book was seeing what the religious sector had to offer. Simon and River were of course staying on the ship. Inara herself had refrained from booking any clients for the stay, she hadn't felt the need.
Mal was presiding over events with his usual careful eye- after laughing raucously at a joke from Wash he looked to Kaylee. 'Got any plans on Boros?'
The mechanic had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the meal and, indeed, for the last couple of days. Inara knew she wasn't the only one to notice- Book had curiously glanced over the table several times- but she was certain she was the only person to know the reason. 'Oh, erm…' Kaylee faltered in the spotlight. 'Thought I'd just stay on the ship.'
'That's not like you,' Book said gently.
'Well, Kaylee ain't ever been what you'd call normal,' said Jayne, laughing with his mouth full.
Mal's parental streak reappeared with a vengeance. 'If you wanna keep talking you best get a polite tongue in your head.'
The entire table tensed as Jayne stopping smirking. 'Hell, I'm only sayin'. Ain't my fault if it's the truth.'
Feeling her reserves of anger and frustration building, Inara snapped, before Mal could get a word in, 'What would you know about truth, Jayne? Or normality for that matter.'
Mal, evidently surprised, sat back in his chair his arms crossed. The rest of the table were silently watching as Jayne spat back, 'I'm gettin' lectures from a whore now?'
'Hey!' Kaylee said quietly. 'Ain't no need for that.'
Shocked at the defence, Inara glanced over at the mechanic. Kaylee was steadfastly avoiding her eye but still… 'I agree,' she said finally.
'Yeah, well, I don't!' burst out Jayne.
A breath then Kaylee slammed her hand onto the table, making everyone jump. 'Just shut up, okay, Jayne? Shut up.' With that, she stood and fled the room.
Inara suspected everyone was as surprised as she was. Wash cleared his throat, asking, 'Okay, who did what with the real Kaylee?'
'She's conflicted,' River said suddenly in her own quiet way. 'Doesn't know what to do.'
'Wish you'd stop doin' that,' Jayne muttered.
'You know what I wish?' Mal questioned angrily. 'I wish that, just for once, you'd do what the hell I tell you.'
'Ain't my fault Kaylee's got herself into a strop,' answered Jayne defensively. 'Must be time of the month.'
The stony silence that followed that remark was broken by Shepherd Book. 'I think someone should see if she's okay.'
Inara scraped back her chair. 'I'll go.'
She wasn't in the engine room as anticipated. Nor was she in her room. After circling a few times, Inara noticed a hunched figure beside the mass of crates in the cargo bay. It took a few seconds of deliberation before she descended the metal steps as quietly as she could.
Kneeling down next to the mechanic, she refrained from any form of touching. 'I know Jayne's got terrible taste but that was an extreme reaction.'
Kaylee shrugged, raising her head. 'It needed sayin'.'
'Well, that I won't deny. Listen, I…'
Tentatively resting a hand on her arm, Inara asked, 'What are you so afraid of?'
For a moment she thought Kaylee would shrug her off but she didn't. 'I'm not.'
'You know, I really didn't intend to upset you. I shouldn't have said anything.'
The mechanic looked at her slowly, Inara being drawn by the soft lips and fragrant hair slipping down over the shoulders. 'I've been thinkin' 'bout it all week and I can't… I don't understand. I mean, look at you and then…'
'Oh, Kaylee!' Inara chided softly. 'Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?'
A small blush worked its way onto the freckled face. 'You don't have to…'
'You think I don't mean it?' Partly out of frustration, partly out of desire, she moved her fingers under the defined chin, raising it and brushing their lips together. She felt Kaylee's argument and then her yielding. Briefly, Inara wondered whether she should stop, but, in all honestly, she wasn't sure she could. Having watched Kaylee's body movements, her blossoming smile and listened to her cheerful tone, her sensuous laugh, she had been convinced that this would be it; this kiss would be perfect. Knowing she was right only served as an incentive to continue.
When Kaylee shifted her weight and pulled away, Inara braced herself for rejection. Instead, the mechanic's head lowered back to its original position, giving Inara the opportunity to draw her into a rather one-sided embrace. After a moment, she murmured, 'Come with me when we get to Boros.'
For a long breath she thought Kaylee would refuse but eventually the mechanic nodded slowly. 'Okay.'
Inara couldn't keep the smile from her face. 'Thanks.'
She was putting the finishing touches to the hamper when there was a slight clearing of the throat from the opposite side of the curtain. Recognising it as male, Inara didn't bother to rush in stowing it under the bed. When she finally said, 'Come in,' she was meticulously preened and sat as nonchalantly as possible.
Mal had his arms tightly crossed as he entered. 'Could you have taken any longer?'
Not attempting to hide her smile, she answered, 'Probably.'
He rolled his eyes. 'Women.'
'Did you want something, Mal?' she queried when he failed to elaborate on his appearance after a few seconds. 'If not, I have things to prepare for Boros.'
'Things for Kaylee?'
Glancing quickly at him, she felt her anxiety levels rise. 'I don't know what you mean.'
'Oh, I think you do.' Studying her silence, he continued, 'Kaylee let slip to Shepherd Book that she's getting off with you at Boros.'
She raised her eyes. 'And he willing shared this with you?'
'In a manner of speaking.'
'In other words, you were eavesdropping.'
He shook his head. 'I was walking past!'
'I'll believe you, Mal,' she said, as patronisingly as possible. 'Though I'm sure I'm the only person who would.'
'Hey, don't turn this back on me!'
'Turn what back?'
'You think I don't know what you're up to with Kaylee?' he asked, his mouth visibly tightening.
Her stomach flipped at the look on his face. She hadn't anticipated dealing with the paternal side of Mal until much later, preferably after she and Kaylee were secure. As it was, she didn't know how the mechanic would react to his disapproval; she wasn't likely to risk his wrath, Inara knew that well enough. 'Sorry?'
'Don't act all innocent. How long have you been planning this?'
'Mal, I've honestly got no idea what you're talking about.'
'Right. Okay.' He began to leave then came back from under the curtain. 'I'm not gonna let you do it you know. Kaylee is too good to be dragged into that world, 'specially by the likes of you.'
On realising what he was insinuating she couldn't help but laugh. 'Oh, Mal, you think I'm training her?'
Perhaps he was a little put-out by her amusement; his certainty seemed to drop. 'Well, aren't you?'
'No! And, frankly, I'm surprised you've got the gall to ask me that. You're unbelievable sometimes.'
'I'm unbeliev… I'm just lookin' out for my crew, is all.'
'Fine,' she replied shortly. 'Next time, get your facts right. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like my rented space to myself again.'
Wash's voice rang loud and clear over the intercom, 'Inara, you're good to go in about two minutes.'
'Thanks,' she answered, then glanced behind her for the fifteenth time and muttered, 'I wish I could.'
She hadn't seen Kaylee since the mechanic had agreed to accompany her onto Boros. One concern was that she would have second thoughts, or perhaps she felt forced into the situation in the first place. Inara was worried that she'd misread the signals, misunderstood the kiss; she was also slightly tense because of her earlier confrontation with Mal. She knew that, if he wanted to, he could persuade Kaylee that he needed her help with the engine part and she'd be off the ship before Inara could blink. That would be just like Mal.
Suddenly, a voice startled her. 'Hope I'm not too late.'
Twisting in her seat she found Kaylee peeking round the curtain that separated the control panel from the rest of the shuttle. Smiling, she shook her head. 'Of course not. I thought you weren't coming.'
'Said I would, didn't I?'
Examining the freckled face, Inara was pleased to note that there was no discomfort there- everything seemed to be smooth. 'Wash says we're nearly good to go, why don't you strap in?'
Soon they were disconnecting from Serenity. Inara checked her directions then turned them towards their destination. It was only a ten minute journey, during which she felt Kaylee's eyes on her the entire time. After a careful landing, she turned off the engine and spun herself towards Kaylee, not really certain of what she was going to say.
Luckily, the mechanic herself spoke first. 'Where are we?'
'Well, that'd be telling, wouldn't it?' Moving towards Kaylee, Inara took her hand and led her into a sitting position on the bed. 'I'm really glad you came,' she said, lifting a single finger to trace a cheekbone and getting a small shiver as her reward.
Kaylee leaned towards her, planting a small kiss on her lips. When she pulled away, obviously nervous, Inara drew her back in quickly, not eager to lose the moment. Sliding an arm around the slender waist, she felt warmth spread down to her toes. That mindless searching that everybody did, trying to find that someone special- for how many of them was it right in front of their eyes for months and they were too short sighted to see it? She'd never considered herself blind until Kaylee had innocently stepped into the shuttle wearing a new flowing dress and she'd suddenly awoken.
When they finally broke apart, Inara gently brushed her fingers over Kaylee's hair then brought her hand down to slowly massage her shoulder. Everything that she'd done for the others immediately felt natural; the slight breath as Kaylee closed her eyes was real this time, not to mention the unique smile that slowly spread over the inviting lips. Inara felt her hand tremble as she traced a line down her left arm, resting their fingers inside one another.
Though loathe to break the spell she felt she had to be sure. 'Is this what you want?'
Kaylee grimaced slightly. 'I don't know. I mean, I never got to thinkin' 'bout you in that way before. Didn't think it was right. You bein' who you were and me bein'…'
When she trailed off, Inara squeezed her hand gently. 'I wish you'd stop putting yourself down, Kaylee. You're so much more than you think.'
She looked unconvinced but nodded. 'Point is, I never thought 'bout it till you said what you said. Don't rightly know how I'm feelin' now. Is that alright?'
Inara smiled. 'That's perfectly okay. Close your eyes, I've got something for you.'
Waiting until her eyes completely closed, Inara then moved onto the floor and pulled out the things she had prepared earlier. Sliding a green velvet pouch into her left hand, she picked up a small cooler first. Sitting back on the bed she placed the cooler on Kaylee's lap. 'Open them,' she instructed.
The mechanic fingered the outside of the box. 'What's this?'
'Open it and find out.' As Kaylee lifted the lid she added, 'I got them from Ariel last week. I hope they're still fresh.'
The smile that spread over Kaylee's lips as she picked a strawberry out of the box was priceless. Inara tenderly took it from her and traced it over her lips. Kaylee flicked out her tongue to take it, Inara relenting only as she saw a spark in the mechanic's eyes. Part of her wanted to continue teasing but the sight of Kaylee's ecstasy at the fruit was an equal substitute.
Swallowing, Kaylee grinned. 'Lot to be said for real food.'
'Obviously. There's something else,' she said, placing the pouch in her palm. 'I want you to have this.'
Shaking the contents gently into her hand, Kaylee immediately protested, 'Oh, I can't take this!'
Lifting the pendant up, Inara said, 'Turn around.'
'Inara, I can't…'
The pleading won her over. She willingly turned, allowing Inara to place the small object around her neck. When she had finished, Inara leaned forward to flick her tongue across a patch of the smooth neck, causing her companion to shiver. Manoeuvring herself so their lips met tenderly, she hesitantly placed a hand on Kaylee's upper thigh. To her relief it wasn't pushed away, Kaylee seemed to be enjoyed the contact.
Breaking away, Inara guided them both to their feet. 'Come on.'
Grabbing another strawberry quickly, Kaylee followed her out of the shuttle and into the warm afternoon air. Her eyes lifted up to the green heights either side then rested back on Inara herself. 'I've never seen this before.'
'It's for the privileged only,' smiled Inara, taking them further into the deep valley. 'We're so far down, from the air it just looks like a quarry. I like to visit whenever I'm here, especially considering the rest of the planet.'
Kaylee laughed sweetly. 'Well, thanks for sharing.'
'My pleasure.' Sweeping a hair away from the curved lips Inara leaned forward to kiss them. 'I want you to know, there's no pressure. I'm happy with just this moment.'
'That feels great.'
Running the brush down again, Inara felt the permanent smile attached to her face deepen. For a while she and Kaylee had enjoyed the peace and surprising tranquillity outside but when the evening began to draw in and the goosebumps had become due to the weather and nothing else, they'd been forced to retreat inside. The reoccurring nervousness had instantly diminished when she'd spotted her hairbrush; she knew how much Kaylee loved having her hair brushed. Sure enough, the mechanic was relaxing into her arms more with every second. 'I'm glad. Can I get you anything?'
'Not if it means me waking up.'
'How about if I promise that won't happen?'
Kaylee half-turned her head. 'You can't promise that!'
Inara laughed, halting her brushing to slide her arm deftly around the slender waist. 'I think you'll find I can.'
After a brief kiss, Kaylee settled back against her. 'This is so weird.'
'Is that a compliment?'
'Oh, sure. I mean, I just don't know how it happened, that's all.'
'You really have no idea how incredible you are, do you?' Inara closed her eyes, using her index finger to explore Kaylee's face, feeling the blush. 'I mean it. And, Kaylee, I meant what I said the other day. I do love you.'
After a moment the mechanic raised a mischievous eyebrow. 'How much?'
Inara bit her lip as she opened her eyes, unsure of how far to go. 'Bao bay…'
Kaylee turned her body slowly, tentatively resting one hand on the bed while the other slipped under the hem of Inara's dress. She couldn't hold in her involuntary gasp at the sensation of the nails slightly scraping her thigh. When Kaylee seemed to realise the effect she was having, the mischievousness on her face reached new levels. 'I could stop…'
'Please don't,' Inara appealed, more than aware of the desperation in her voice. Never in her life had she felt so vulnerable, she'd always been the one in control. Suddenly her composure was being rattled by the mere fingertip touch of a person, she'd never believed that particular myth. Then again, if anyone was going to shatter her illusions it would certainly be Kaylee. 'I don't think I could stand it if you did.'
'Then I best not, huh?' the mechanic said, teasing her hand further out of sight. Inara closed her eyes and swallowed.
When the sun rose, as well as it ever did on Boros, the next morning, it was with a degree of regret that Inara woke up her slumbering partner. In sleep Kaylee was almost as beautiful, she even smiled in her dreaming. Waking her from her thoughts seemed a crime befitting of Mal and his crew. It had to be done though.
'Sweetheart?' she murmured, gently stroking her cheek. 'It's time to get up.'
'No, I don't wanna wake up!'
Recognising the semi-awake pout, Inara planted a small kiss on the mechanic's lips. 'I'm still here.'
It took a few seconds for Kaylee to fully believe that then she sat up slowly. 'Thought it was good as a dream, even better when it's real.'
'Well, I'm flattered to hear that. I think I should be praising you for what you did last night.'
If she wasn't mistaken, the younger woman was blushing. 'Oh, I…'
'No, listen,' Inara said quickly. 'Kaylee, that's not what I… I haven't… Well, let's just say it's not in the job description and I doubt I could even…'
Probably to stop her cheeks going any redder Kaylee broke her off with a lingering kiss. 'I hear ya.'
Inara found she was blushing slightly herself. 'Good. How do you feel about a strawberry breakfast?'
The grin was self-explanatory. 'You have to ask?'
'I can't believe we've got to go back.'
Smiling down at the woman gently massaging her toes with a forefinger and thumb, Inara answered, 'You're missing Serenity already. You can't fool me.'
Kaylee shrugged mildly. 'Well, yeah, but I'm gonna miss this more. It's been great, these past few days. It's gonna change when we're back on the ship.'
'Oh, I don't know. I'm sure I can persuade Mal that it's in the best interests of Serenity if his mechanic comes to my shuttle on a daily basis for her hair brushing.'
'I'll believe that when it happens.'
'Don't underestimate my power,' replied Inara, twitching her toes erratically.
Clambering back up to the head of the bed, Kaylee muttered, 'I kinda guessed how powerful you are from last night.'
'As long as you realise it.'
'Wouldn't dare say otherwise.'
Her retort was interrupted by an alarm beeping on the dashboard. She felt her heart sink a little bit. 'That's Wash, we've got to go.'
Kaylee's own face fell but she soon smiled chirpily again. 'He better have got the right valve. If he ain't I'll…'
Watching her lover descend into an incomprehensible rant, Inara inwardly smiled. So she'd taken a leap, admitted to something she hadn't thought she ever would. There were boundaries she hadn't dreamed of breaching which had been vaulted without thought; her head was literally swimming from the fast events of the last week. It was unbefitting of her station, but she couldn't care less. The image of Kaylee glowing in wonderment at her every touch- and her feeling exactly the same way, whether she was being touched or the one doing the touching- was more than enough to keep her satisfied in space and keep the demons at bay. Perhaps it was worthwhile following instincts sometimes after all.