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The Fortune-Teller

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Things stay perfect for about six weeks, and then it’s back to normal.

Oh, it ain’t so bad as before – the part of before when things were bad. Jayne’s got to kinda liking River, now that she talks mostly normal and helps him cheat at cards. Inara and Mal were sweet as apple pie to each other for a bit, then not so sweet, but even still Inara smiles more than before and Mal some of the time holds her chair out for her at dinner and don’t even feel the need to make up for it by saying something nasty. Zoe gets herself headaches sometimes that are either from crying where no one can see her, or else they’re from never crying atall, hard to say which, but in some ways she seems easier in her mind than she was before, when she was always looking out the side of her eyes to see if Mal was gonna unwind entirely. She lets Jayne and River cheat her at cards and she comes down to the engine room to help out some of the time; she ain’t no mechanic, but she’s got strong hands, so Kaylee can put her to use on the hard wrenching jobs and she’ll stay with them all the way through, real careful and focused-like. Seems to soothe her, having her hands on a thing.

Mal’s aged a score of years since the Maidenhead, but it ain’t so bad. At least he don’t act like he deep down hates ‘em all, way he was doing for a bit. He don’t come down from the wheel too much, except for eating and sleeping, but maybe the stars do him some good.

As for herself, well, all Kaylee wants is for folks to get on together, and they do, much as folks ever do, so that’s all right.

She gets on real good with Simon, at least when she’s got him between her legs. Of course, the rest of the time Simon still talks right over her head like he don’t notice or care that she don’t understand but three words he says out of ten, and he still just can’t see that a boat’s more than a big metal suit of clothes that you get into when you want to go somewhere that you ain’t at yet. He’s sweet, though. Reads her poetry, naked poetry. Now that’s living fine; makes Kaylee feel like a gorram Companion or something.

They get work pretty steady; lots of folks would rather hire out private than barter with the Alliance nowadays. Serenity’s fixed up, but not so fixed up that Kaylee can’t keep herself busy. Things ain’t the same, but they ain’t wrong, either. It’s real hard seeing the space at the table where Wash oughta be, but other’n that, Kaylee can’t complain. God’s still with them on this ship and Mal’s still the Captain, and that’s what counts.

Normal don’t never last long on this boat, though, and Kaylee don’t like to say it’s always on account of River but – an awful lot, it’s on account of River. She’s in real high spirits for a bit, and then she gets to acting sulky, spitting it back at Inara every time she tries to do something nice, plucking things out of Jayne’s head that make him go pale and then grouchy when she says them out loud, having herself a little fit if Simon wants to do something other’n fuss over her. Oh, sometimes she’s all right, and then she just gets her back up and acts awful for no reason in the verse. “She’s young,” Simon says, like he knows it sounds lame, but he ain’t got anything better.

“She’s spoiled is what she is,” Kaylee says, and the look Simon gives her, hoo. Well, it ain’t like Kaylee don’t know where she stands when it comes to the two of them.

Still, she’s pretty steamed. Then one day she hears a funny noise in the cargo bay and thinks they’re maybe getting ready to lose one of the support struts, but when she goes looking for it she finds River all tucked up inside a closed-up packing crate and crying herself sick. “Aw, River,” she sighs, and she can’t very well be mad anymore. She thinks this must be how Simon feels about River all the time. “What’d you go and put yourself in a box for, huh?”

“I want to go back,” River says, doing her best to sound stubborn and mad while she’s still crying. “Just send me back to before.”

“To the Alliance?”

River stops crying and tilts her head up, looking at Kaylee like she couldn’t be any dumber if she had a shovel for a head. “To before that,” she says.

Don’t nobody on board know what to do with a crying girl except for Inara – Kaylee knows that from her own self, being the girl who’s usually doing the crying. So she gets River out of the box and brushes the straw off her and takes her up to Inara’s shuttle. Inara washes her face clean and puts her in a silky robe and makes a red-gold, spicy tea. River drinks it while Kaylee does up Inara’s fingernails for her, filing them just right and then painting them with little stars and something on the thumb that was meant to be Serenity but don’t look like her by the end.

“I can still hear things, you know,” River says. Kaylee and Inara look over at each other, checking to make sure they’re all thinking the same thing. “I don’t like it.”

“No,” Inara says, real gentle. “I don’t imagine most of us would like it. Is there anything we can do to help you?”

River’s mouth twists up funny. She’s looking down into her tea like a leaf-reader, even though River don’t need any tricks like that to tell fortunes. “You could quit thinking about boys,” she suggests, and for a minute Kaylee thinks the startled look on Inara’s face is funny, until she realizes River’s talking about the both of them – talking about her and Simon – oh, Lord. Simon’s rabbity little heart’s just gonna give out if he hears about this. River looks up, her mouth still wry and her eyes all shadowy, and says, “I wish I’d learned how it feels the ordinary way, that’s all.”

So they feed her cookies and promise her it’ll all get better, and when Kaylee walks her back down to her berth, River slips a thin, strong arm around her ribs and lolls her head against Kaylee and mumbles, “I’m sorry, little Kaylee. We have to stay friends, ne?”

“We’ll always be friends,” Kaylee promises. “Don’t you forget it, either.”

“I know I’m always around, bothering you. But you and Simon are the only people on the ship who never think about Mal with his clothes off. I find that soothing.”

Jian-gui!”

“I wouldn’t lie,” River says, and suddenly Kaylee feels as sorry for River as she ever has. She feels sorry for herself, too, because there’s a thing she didn’t have any need for knowing. Zoe? Jayne? “I think about it all the time now, too,” she says morosely, and ah! More of the too much! “I don’t even know who’s doing the thinking. Except when there’s cake frosting involved, because I’m pretty sure that’s coming from Jayne.”

“You have to stop talking! I mean – I’m sorry, sweetie, but I – he’s the Captain! It ain’t right.”

“Everybody talks too much,” River grumbles, and Kaylee’s inclined to agree.

Still and so, something has to be done for River, and Kaylee tells the Captain so the very next day. “She’s trying to be real brave,” Kaylee explains, “but she didn’t quit being a reader, and you stop and think what that’s like, everybody talking in her head all the time. You’d be grumpy, too.” You’ve been grumpier for worse reasons she almost says, but he looks like he’s listening to her this time, so she won’t act up.

Mal frowns and look from Kaylee to Inara and back. “Well, what the hell you want me to do about it?” he says, scratching the back of his neck. He sounds put-out, but Kaylee can tell from his face that he’s honest-to-God worried about River and just plain don’t know what to do.

“She probably needs professional help,” Inara says. “This is a talent that she has, but she’s never had a chance to gain the skills that would allow her to cope with it. Certainly none of us are qualified to teach her.”

“A real, live reader ain’t gonna be easy to come by. Alliance tends to snap them up whenever they spot one, and I don’t see us putting in for a loaner.”

“You might be surprised how many readers manage to elude Alliance attention,” Inara says, real smooth. She don’t let Mal get to her the way she used to. “Many of the small-time herbalists and water-witches and the like on the outer planets are genuinely gifted, and many of them have had to learn enormous self-control in order to retain their independence. Someone like that would have a great deal to teach River.”

Mal kicks up a little bit of a fuss about scouring the verse for some palm-reading old crone, but it’s just for show. All that time up at the wheel, watching the stars with River, and he’s gone softer than ever on her; he can kick like a mule if he wants to, but Kaylee knows there ain’t a person on this boat short of Simon Tam his own self who’d go further out of his way for River than the Captain would.

That’s how Kaylee comes to be on a moon called Maya waiting in the back room of a barber shop at the top of the narrowest, falling-apartest stairway she’s ever had to climb, waiting to see a fortune-teller.

“Angelica,” River says, reaching up to touch the bunches of dried herbs and flowers all hanging from the ceiling and making them start to swing. “Lady’s mantle. Wormwood. Vervain. Rue. Nightshade.”

“At least she ain’t doing it in Latin nowadays,” Kaylee whispers to the Captain.

“Witchcraft,” River says. “Superstition. Stories told to children, by folk who can’t bear to leave childhood behind. We learned in school.... Make a wish and wait for it to come true.”

“I’m inclined to agree with her,” Mal says under his breath. “I know you got your hopes up, but you gotta remember, little Kaylee, there’s ten hundred plain old flim-flam artists for every one genuine reader in this world. Chances are– “

“Chances are,” a soft voice says, and someone finally comes out from behind the heavy black curtain. She ain’t a crone at all, ain’t any older than Kaylee is, and she’s got a buckskin shirt with blue and green beads on it over a long white skirt, long blonde hair in a braid. Big eyes, wide mouth, hips that sway with her slow walk, and this can’t be the fortune-teller. She’s just a girl. Maybe her gramma reads the cards? She tilts her head to the side and looks at Mal for a little bit before she says, “You don’t count the odds, do you? Not most of the time.”

“Not if it takes more fingers than I got,” Mal says. “You Tara?”

She nods, and Kaylee can’t help but come out and say, “You’re so young, though! I thought you’d be...older.”

Tara looks at her and smiles, and gorram if it ain’t River’s same smile, slow and a little sad. “I am older,” she says. “Old enough to have changed a time or two, and that’s what counts.”

“We don’t pay good money to those who waste our time,” Mal says. “This here’s River, and she’s got herself a head full of gunk, needs cleaning up. We heard tell you have a healing way about you, and if there’s some ease you can bring to the girl’s mind, we’d pay you fair for it. Fair, now, not cash money for tea and promises.”

She don’t get to arguing prices with the Captain right off, just comes around the table in the little room and right up close to River. She ducks her head down and puts her hands out, just as gentle and slow as if she’s catching butterflies between her fingers, and River looks at her a minute before laying her hands on the fortune-teller’s and holding on.

“Osiris,” Tara says softly, and Kaylee’s impressed. River’s from Osiris, sure enough, but no one could tell it by looking at her, not anymore. She dresses like any country girl, and she ain’t said a single word yet. Maybe this Tara really is a reader. “Tore you up and stole your kingdom. Someone walked a lot of earth, looking for you, putting you back together, piece by piece.”

“Persephone,” River says. “They buried you with your red flowers. Someone wouldn’t rest, stayed dark and cold til she had you back. But once you’ve eaten the seeds, you don’t come back the same, do you?”

They stand like that for what looks to be a month of Sundays, wandering through each other’s eyes. Kaylee looks over at Mal, who gives her a hands-up gesture like he’d give her answers if he had ‘em. Finally Tara shakes herself loose and looks back at Mal. “She’s got some knots up there, you’re right about that,” Tara says. “I can mix her something up – John the Conqueror root to let in some light, Widow’s Tear for the grieving. I can maybe settle her senses down, too, thicken up the boundaries, but it’ll make it hard for her to see out even if she wants to.”

“Hoping you could make it easier for her to stop and start up,” Mal says, flicking his fingers like he’s flipping a toggle switch on and off.

Tara frowns. “Can,” she says slowly, “but not all at once. You’d have to leave her with me for a while.”

Like they’re falling off a mountain together, River locks her arms around Tara from behind, presses her cheek against Tara’s shoulder and says, “No, you come with us.”

“River,” Mal starts to say warily.

“You got to keep a Shepherd when it was your brain that was all sideways. Why can’t I?”

“She’s not a Shepherd, River,” Kaylee says.

“You don’t know that,” River says.

When they bring her onto Serenity, Jayne looks up from his dumbbells and says, “Who’s the girl for?”

“River,” Mal says shortly, and heads up the stairs like he’s washing his hands of the whole thing.

Jayne looks to be opening his mouth again, so Kaylee says, “She’s a reader like River is,” and looks at him real pointed until that sinks in and he shuts his mouth. Kaylee takes Tara around the wrist and walks her through the bay, whispering, “Don’t pay no attention to Jayne. He’s a lot more stupid ‘n he is mean.”

At dinner Tara hardly eats a thing; Kaylee didn’t guess a reader would be so shy around strangers. Shouldn’t it almost be like they ain’t even strangers to her at all? Maybe it’s Simon putting her off her feed, because even Kaylee can see how he’s bent out of shape over having her here, especially when Jayne and River want her to tell their fortunes. He pulls Kaylee off by her elbow and says, “You don’t believe in this kind of thing, do you? Crystal balls and hocus-pocus? It’s the worst kind of superstition. Kaylee, you’re a – a scientist, of sorts, you should understand.”

Kaylee pulls her arm loose and rolls her eyes at him. “It don’t hurt anything, Simon, and it’s fun. You be nice to this girl, now, because we just got this boat back up to snuff, and I don’t want any ugliness, hear me?”

That makes him sorry, and he kisses her forehead and promises good behavior. He even lets Tara read his palm, and she looks it over, then looks up at Kaylee. Kaylee can feel her cheeks pinking up. “You’re strong,” she says. “Stronger than you realize, and you’ll live a long time. But you have a way of making yourself lonely when there’s no need to be lonely. Could be a long, sad life if you don’t watch out for that.”

Tara says it’d be good for Inara to start forgiving them that’s wronged her in the past. She tells Mal he’s like to break his back carrying all the troubles for all the folk around him, and he oughta let some off onto somebody else. She tells Jayne it’s his way to live for now and he doesn’t have to listen to folks who tell him to store up for the future. That spooks Jayne, but no matter how much he squints at his own palm and demands to know, “You saying I’m gonna die soon?” Tara won’t but shrug her shoulders and fiddle with her hair and say, “You’ve got your own ways, that’s all, and you’ve gotta trust to them.”

Even Zoe lets her take a look at her hand, and Tara sighs over it a little bit and then looks up into Zoe’s eyes like she’s known Zoe’s kind before. “You’re wrong about yourself,” she says quietly. “You think there’s something so strong inside of you it’s almost crazy, and if you let yourself feel a thing at all, it’ll just run right over you. You’re wrong. You can feel any way you want, and you’ll stand steady. I can’t see nothing strong enough to break you, not even you. If you – if you see what I mean?” Zoe nods once and her shoulders seem to ease up, just a little bitty bit.

“You gonna do me?” Kaylee asks, and Tara gestures for her to sit down.

Tara’s hands are cool, except for the tips of her fingers, that are warm like a little shock as she takes Kaylee’s hand and frames it gently between both of hers. “You always follow your heart,” Tara says. “That’s why folks like you so well. In your heart you know there’s nothing more for you, where you are. You should try something you’re not sure about, stop clinging to things you think you ought to want.”

“Oh,” Kaylee says. “I guess that’s good advice. I mean – I mean, following your heart and that.”

“See, now,” Jayne says, “it sounds good on the surface, but I been and got into trouble that way before.”

“I got a suspicion you ain’t so clear on where precisely your heart is located, Jayne,” the Captain says.

“Me now?” River says.

Tara look at her for a minute, then leans over and kisses her cheek, soft and lingering. “It’ll take a little longer with you, River. We’ll start tomorrow, okay?”

Kaylee takes Tara and her things down to the extra berth. There’s a wooden cross on the wall, and Kaylee wonders if anyone even realized there was still something of Shepherd Book’s down here. Tara takes it down and lays it in a drawer. “He’s dead,” Kaylee blurts out. “The man that belonged to. So you can keep it if you like.”

“I don’t think I will,” Tara says. “You were right to say I’m not a Shepherd. I’m not even a Christian.”

“Oh,” Kaylee says, “well, that’s all right, neither’s Inara. Are you a Buddhist?”

“No,” she says. “Not quite. Though the Buddhists have a bodhisattva called Kuan Yin. They say she was a soul who moved through hundreds of different lifetimes, and then just when she was wise enough to cross over into Heaven, she stopped and heard the tears and the begging of all the sadness in the world, all those who were still suffering, and she couldn’t bear to go. So instead of Heaven, she asked to have a wish granted. She wished she had a thousand hands and a thousand eyes to help those people with. They say she’ll live forever in the world as a saint, or at least until there’s no one left who’s hurting and needs her.”

So, forever, then, Kaylee thinks, but all she says is, “That’s real pretty. That what you believe in?”

“Not the story. Or, not that it happened just that way. I just believe in.... That there’s someone out here who’s listening to us cry. Who’s wishing for just that extra hand or two to help us out with.”

Make a wish, Kaylee thinks in River’s voice, and wait for it to come true. Well, but it’s a real pretty story anyhow, and Shepherd Book used to say, just believe in something, just don’t give in and think you’re all alone. That way of thinking seemed to do Mal some good when it came down to it, so maybe River’s right, maybe this Tara can do her some good where she needs it. “Well, you let us know if there’s anything else you want to help you settle in,” Kaylee says.

Tara takes the ribbon out of her hair and starts unbraiding it. There’s a little bitty mirror over the dresser, but Tara doesn’t seem to be looking at it any more than she’s looking at Kaylee. She should likely just go on, leave Tara to her business, but she can’t help looking at that long, loose hair, not thick like Inara’s, but more like moving freshwater.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Kaylee says. “You knowing so much about all of us, and we don’t know a thing about you. Well, except for River, I guess she can read you like you read the rest of us.”

“I’m not really a reader,” Tara says. “Not in the same way River is. I’m a witch.” Kaylee steps back at that and hugs her arms around her, because why would someone make a thing like that up? So it must be true, even if she can’t see that about Tara, just can’t make herself see it at all. “It’s all right,” Tara says, with a little smile. “I’m a good witch. It’s not – it doesn’t make me so different. Everything’s just vibrations, you know, different speeds of energy, and I can feel them move. That’s all it means. I know when a thing’s on the move, and where it’s going to.”

“That does make you different,” Kaylee says. “Here on Serenity, we don’t hardly ever know where we’re going to.”

That makes Tara smile. She’s got the prettiest mouth, full lips that other women have to paint to get. She moves just a little closer to Kaylee, just cancels out the distance Kaylee put between them. “There’s one thing I should tell you about me, though, just so I don’t catch you by surprise one of these days.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ve never been the type to romance with men. Just women.”

“Oh, you’re sentimental?” Kaylee says.

Tara smiles again. “I think that’s what they call it now, yes.”

“That’s – fine. Inara’s a little bit of both, and she’s – she’s – fine. I mean, not just fine. I like Inara best of practically anybody I know. Well, not – not that way. She wouldn’t, Inara wouldn’t.... She’s a Companion, you know. She only goes with ladies, real glamorous ladies, from the core and thereabouts. I wouldn’t be....”

“I’ve never met a Companion,” Tara muses. “Seen a few, but never up close.”

“Oh, Inara’s – you’ll like Inara lots. And she, she sometimes.... She don’t always charge money. I mean, there’s them that she goes with for romance, too. Not that often, and she’s got a real strong fondness for the Captain– “

“Yes, I noticed that,” Tara says. “So does River.”

Lord, that’s a piece of trouble on the event horizon. Kaylee hopes in addition to being sentimental and a good witch, Tara’s got experience patching up hearts. “But if you like...that is, if.... Well, you’re pretty, real pretty, and you’ve got, seems like, a real good temper like Inara mostly does, and you talk like you’ve got education. She might.... You should try, is all, if you find yourself inclined to Inara.” She isn’t thinking about that, Kaylee doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that thought in her head, of Tara all pale and soft and curvy with that swing when she walks, Inara more shined-up and slender and flexible in a different way, like a gold necklace chain is different from a length of ivy. Oh, she’s thinking, and she needs to stop quick.

“Inara’s not really to my taste,” Tara says. “Though she seems like a very nice person.”

Kaylee plain can’t imagine that. How can anyone think of doing themselves better than to go with Inara? “You got odd tastes,” she says, but she don’t mean to be mean about it. It just seems awful peculiar to her, is all.

“So I’ve been told,” she says. “Still, I like the kind of girls I like. What can you do?”

“Right,” Kaylee says. “No. That’s so. I mean....”

And then she goes a little out of her wits, maybe. All that talk about Inara, and oh, what’s the point of acting innocent, now they’ve got not one but two readers on Serenity? Inara’s the prettiest gorram human being in the verse, prettier than Simon even, and Tara’s shy and bold both, she’s got witchy green eyes and she knows things Kaylee doesn’t know, things she thinks maybe she needs to know, and Kaylee’s a fool if she don’t do something about it. There ain’t no man here, so she can’t wait on one of those to get this done – not that waiting on Simon turned out to be the easiest way to get a thing done, but it felt like the right way, the way civilized folks do it. Now it’s just Kaylee who can do it, plain Kaylee from the haybarn and the engine room, no civilized rules to help her out. All she can do is, she steps up and puts her hands in Tara’s watery blonde hair and kisses her.

It don’t feel a thing like kissing Simon, or any of the other boys Kaylee’s ever kissed. Tara smells like dried flowers and her cheek is smooth where Kaylee’s thumb brushes it. She kisses back slow, not shy but like she’s savoring, like Kaylee tastes good. Tara’s hand spreads over her back and she hears herself making little noises into Tara’s mouth, happy noises.

She’s come this far, so why not break another rule or two? Kaylee slides her hand up the soft, tanned skin of Tara’s shirt and cups it around Tara’s bosom, which is, oh, perfect, she’s got exactly the kind of bosoms Kaylee always yearned to have and never did get. They’re maybe nicer than Inara’s, even. Kaylee thinks maybe she likes ‘em big. So does Jayne, she recalls from stories he gets yelled at for telling around her, and that’s the gorram strangest thought she’s ever had, so she breaks off the kiss, kind of laughing and kind of scared witless at the same time.

Tara smiles at her and sort of pets her with both hands, from the crown of her head down her hair to where the heels of her hands come together underneath Kaylee’s chin. “I think you have some obligations to settle up before this,” Tara says, and it takes Kaylee a second of thought before she remembers Simon. That’s the thing that finally makes her blush – not that she’s been kissing all up to a girl, but that she forgot about Simon.

“He’s not – I think you were right,” she says. “He’s a thing I thought would make me happy, but.... He’s a thing I thought would make me something I ain’t, and that ain’t no reason to stay somebody’s sweetie.”

“No, it’s not,” Tara says. “You should tell him that, don’t you think?”

Kaylee nods. That’s just what she’ll say to Simon, who she thinks will go along; she thinks he’s maybe been thinking that she’ll up and turn into something she ain’t, too. “Then can I come back here?” she says, bold and playful, putting her hands on Tara’s shoulders and swaying close so their noses nearly touch.

“I think I better tell you what I told River,” Tara says, and kisses her for just one second. “This’ll take some time, so best we start tomorrow.”