Some dance to remember; others dance to forget
River spins counterpoint to the stars, cancelling out their momentum and achieving, for the moment, stillness. Some dance to remember; some dance to forget. River dances to do both. She is Schrödinger's ballerina, whirling to the melody of physics, the whole orchestra of existence coursing through her brain, unknown as long as she remains unobserved. In this moment she can be both River and not-River, both the genius sister and the functioning soldier instead of a dysfunctional blend of the two.
Eventually, though, someone always opens the box.
"What are you doing, mei-mei?" Simon peers out of the infirmary with a smile on his face, watching her spin and twirl.
River halts but her vision remains steady, an aftereffect of her dance. It will wear off soon but for the time being she smiles at Simon and remembers the way he held Kaylee's hand underneath the table today. While the clarity lasts, the box has opened upon a sister today. "Kaylee likes ballroom dancing. You should offer to give her lessons."
River heaves in a breath a feels rejuvenated. The last time she had danced such a lively jig she had been on Jian Jing, with the reborn cattle. Simon and Kaylee will do a more stately dance, however; Simon much prefers the dignity of a fine waltz. Then she remembers Simon's piano lessons and hastens to add, "I'll pick the music. You have terrible taste."
Simon laughs, and River commits it to memory as the edges of her vision gradually give in to the spin of the world. This is something she wishes to remember next time she can find the stillness. Simon's laughter is so rare, these days.
Kaylee's face widens in a delighted smile when he makes the suggestion, and she looks at him wide-eyed as she clarifies, "You wanna go dancing? With me?"
Simon figures he deserves the doubtfulness, given his history. His tongue tends to get him in trouble (though at least now he has the chance for his tongue to get him out of trouble as well) so with that in mind, he simply nods and extends his hand in tacit confirmation. Kaylee laughs as she extends her own hand and Simon showily bows to kiss it. "Well, shiny!" she chirps, "I ain't never done any proper dancing before, not really. Just a couple steps here and there, and that one time Cap'n and I went to Inara's ball and he got stabbed."
Unfortunately, Simon remembers that too. Mal had been a nightmare, as usual, continually prodding at his wound. And the smell of manure from their subsequent cargo had put him off food for days. But he also remembers how Kaylee had been so excited to have that dress, and how she had waltzed about the ship humming for days afterwards.
It was good of River to remind him of Kaylee's love of dancing; his heart warms at the thought of making her that happy and content.
"Oh, but this will be exciting! We can dance in the cargo bay – only place big enough, really. And I can bring my sound system and hang it from the suspension chains to make the acoustics Gao Guhn." Kaylee kisses Simon's cheek and bustles out of the engine room, a waltz already in her step. "I'll just go get dressed!"
Simon watches her go with a smile. Then he asks the empty room –"Wait, now?"
It's a jing tsai trick to lug a jury-rigged sound system up her bunk ladder, across Serenity, and down the cargo bay stairs in a frilly dress as Kaylee was wearing – but she manages it with only minimal hardship, and all before Simon arrives. Kaylee expected that, though; Simon always takes the longest to get ready, no matter the occasion. She's looking forward to seeing what shwai outfit he'll bring out, and it gives her time to get the speakers hooked to the suspension chains so's they won't fall the minute they lift. Kaylee had forgotten how much the dress hinders her movements, and she bats at it more than once while strapping her sound system all together – but she's not going to regret one moment wearing it practical or no.
Serenity has been so gloomy of late, and Kaylee's been at a loss on how to cheer the place up. Usually, she has help – but now her help is gone. Kaylee takes a deep breath, lets it out slow, and forces her mind away from that unpleasantness. She focuses instead on what she can change. If she finds the right music, lets it waft through the halls, then maybe when she goes to dinner still humming the strains of that right melody someone will look up and smile and forget for a moment the empty chairs and empty plates 'round the table.
Kaylee is trying to choose which songs to play when Inara steps out of her shuttle. "I thought I heard you out here," she says as she comes down the stairs. Then, upon seeing Kaylee's outfit, she adds – "You're looking elegant today. What's the occasion?"
Inara's compliment makes Kaylee feel warm and fuzzy as she always does when Inara compliments her; even after all this time, it's nice to know a Rim-girl can be just as nicely dressed as a Companion. "Simon's taking me dancing," she explains. Once more a bubble of excitement stirs in her chest. She's got a fancy core doctor prettying himself up for her, about to sweep her off her feet with suoyou de dou shidang. They'll dance until their feet are sore and then go back to their bunk. Kaylee bounces on the balls of her feet with sheer anticipation.
Inara is glad to see Kaylee and Simon's relationship progressing. The boy can be hopelessly clueless at the best of times – and unthinkingly cruel at the worst – but today he's done well. Kaylee is practically bursting with excitement as she and Inara select music, chattering happily and twirling about with anticipation. It makes Inara happy to see such uncomplicated loving joy. She can pretend, just for a moment, that the world is always as simple as this moment, as clean and honest as two people whirling through the cargo bay looking to experience nothing more complicated than their love for each other.
"I'm so excited, "Nara," Kaylee confides in her. "I always loved dancing."
Inara smiles and helps Kaylee make last-minute adjustments to her hair. Then, when Simon finally makes his entrance, Inara discretely ascends the staircase on the other side of the bay. She pauses by the doorway to watch Simon and Kaylee grasp hands, see his lips moving and her eyes crinkling with genuine delight, and then turns away to give them privacy.
She turns straight into the scowling visage of Jayne Cobb. "What yi da tuo da bian is the gorram Doctor doin' now?"
Inara starts when Jayne speaks, but that's not his problem. She should pay attention to her surroundings more than whatever spectacle the Doctor's planning today. It seems not a day goes by without that the fancy Core da yeh coming up with some other conto get in Kaylee's overalls. And Kaylee, crazy girl, seems content with that kai tze instead of a nuhn tze huhn. Jayne scowls. People can be so gorram stupid.
Inara rests a hand on her rack as she catches her breath, which does a lot in cheering up Jayne's foul mood. "I should put a bell on you," she says, then continues before Jayne can think of a way to leverage allowing that into sex. "They're dancing." Thwarted again.
Jayne's never though dancing was a two-person activity in public. Unless it's in a crowd, all that rubbing and grinding is awkward. He ain't about to let an opportunity to heckle the Doc pass by, so he steps up to the railing alongside Inara. Except they ain't doing normal dancing. It figures Simon would be teaching Kaylee the Core-style, where everyone holds hands and spins around a lot like a one-legged frog hopping around in a circle. Jayne sniffs in disdain. His sisters used to do this, too – probably still do it, back home, except with babies on their hips and daughters that dance as well. They'd escort each other around the house and ask each other for dances and pretend dashing romantic figures would sweep them off their feet.
Jayne used to be the horse they rode to the ball when they were small enough to carry on his back, and afterwards he would still have to stand in the front door and announce each one before they came in. If he forgot even one of the ridiculous titles they gave each other, they'd make him come back in and say it all over again.
"They're actually not that bad," Inara says. "Simon knows the steps and Kaylee has good rhythm. They work well together."
Jayne knows some things he and Inara could work well together at, but he's close enough for her to kick him in the balls for suggesting it. Instead, he scowls. "You can hear this kuh wu racket all the way in my bunk. How'm I supposed to concentrate with this disturbin' my calm?"
Inara gives him a long-suffering look and goes to heat water for some calming tea. Jayne honestly don't know what offended her this time. It was a legitimate question – he's checking his grenades and explosives to make sure they're all properly contained and in working order. He loses his nerve and jostles the wrong wire, all of them will be kissing the black.
Good thing a woman's strange moods ain't his problem. Jayne watches just a bit longer, so he'll have appropriate blackmail memories to taunt the Doctor with later, then goes to find the Captain and complain.
There's a noise in Mal's ear like the buzzing of a gnat – just barely perceptible to his senses, but not loud enough he can discern what it is or where it's coming from. He jams his pinkie in his ear and wiggles it about, but that don't help. He starts slowly moving his head around, trying to pinpoint its origin, but Jayne hauls the door open and stomps onto the bridge scowling. Mal quickly rights his posture, removes his pinkie from his other ear, and tries to look as a captain should. He nods at his merc and acknowledges his presence with a dignified, "Jayne."
Now the door's open, he can distinguish the faint strains of a melody. So that's what the noise was. Music. He hasn't heard much of that on Serenity's decks in a long while. He can't follow the tune, but it's tickling his brain with its familiarity. Has Mal heard this before? He didn't know anybody on his crew liked classical; his first guess would be Inara, but she favors traditional qinqin.
"Simon and Kaylee are dancin'," Jayne announces, like Mal should care.
"You don't say."
Ah, Simon. Mal should have guessed. He knows the Doc hadn't brought music onboard – he had personally rifled through the Doctor's belongings his first week onboard, after all – but maybe Simon had actually bought something for himself with the coin he'd earned as lookout on their last job. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Still wouldn't explain why the music seemed so gorram familiar to Mal.
"It's ridiculous, Mal." Jayne whines. "He got Kaylee into this big frilly get-up and is draggin' her all around the cargo bay, and I can hear that ruttin' music in my bunk. I'm trying to concentrate afore I blow somethin' early!"
Mal reminds himself he pays the merc for his guns – metal and muscle alike – and not his manners. Jayne's said cruder. That don't help much, though, when it's a topic Mal'd be more interested in never hearing about again. He stands up. "I'm goin' to get sommat to drink. Try not to wear yourself out too much down there."
Jayne follows after him, grumbling. "I don't get why everyone's so gorram thirsty neither."
Mal ignores him in favor of figuring out what exactly his merc meant when he said 'big frilly get-up.'
Mal walks by as Zoe is setting out the rotgut, on his way to the cargo bay. She knew he'd be around right quick once Jayne had stomped past her complaining. The last time somebody had been dancing on Serenity was her and Wash, and they did it in the privacy of their own bunk. A'course, they didn't do nothing as fancy as Simon and Kaylee; just clutch and sway and quiet conversation with music playing soft in the background.
Zoe decides she might as well start on the drinking; Mal will be along soon enough. She pours herself a slug and downs it fast as she can without breathing too much.
They hadn't danced much at the end, too worried about the cinch on their belts and the rattle of an empty fuel cell to spare time for merriment. It's good that Simon and Kaylee are learning to let the good times work independent of the bad. Otherwise, they might never get started on a family. If they want such a thing.
Mal stumps back in with a thoughtful frown on his face and reaches for a glass. Zoe fills his up first, then hers. He waits until her glass is full, clinks his own against it, then shoots it down. Zoe matches his movement, and they make faces at each other as they wait for the burn to settle.
Like a lot of things, it'll get easier to take the longer she keeps at it.
"So," Mal says. "Dancin'."
As a long-time bachelor, Mal never had learned to accept all those normal couple things like dancing without comment. He'd demanded Zoe and Wash do such acts in private, away from him and his shipboard romances sensitivities, and simple moments of open affection still tend to baffle him – doubly so if done in public. No wonder he and Inara still snap at each other more often than not. As hopeless as he is, it'll be decades still before they settle their differences. No hurrying that, though.
Zoe pours them both another drink and they pound it back.
Maybe Kaylee and Simon's relationship will be good not just for them. Simon might kowtow to Mal's privacy proclamation, but Kaylee will be affectionate where and when she wants to no matter what Mal says. Perhaps he can learn something about how to woo a woman and apply it himself.
If not, at least Zoe will have endless opportunities to rib Mal and his discomfort with other people having sex.
Mal picks up the bottle and pours them another round. They drink and gasp, but the edge is starting to fade. Zoe leans back in her chair and listens to the music flowing through Serenity. For the first time in a long while, she feels the rock in her stomach lighten. It'll never go away – not completely – but sitting with her captain and a bottle of rotgut, listening to the beginning of someone else's romance, Zoe can almost pretend Wash is sitting in the bridge playing with his dinosaurs. She can imagine him looking up at her when she walks in on him, wearing that embarrassed goofy smile. She can recall his nimble pilot's hands running over her, muttering lowly into her shoulder how he can't believe he was so lucky to have such a strong, beautiful woman fall in love with him. Wash might be gone, but Zoe will always have those memories of him.
Zoe pours the next round and holds her glass up for a toast. "To love, old and new."
"To love," Mal murmurs.
Zoe lets the burn of alcohol bring tears to her eyes, and feels the soft melody of music soothe them away.