When Lin Wei clutched his chest and dropped to the deck of Serenity, somehow Kaylee was the first at his side, even though Inara had been the one gently leading him across the cargo bay by the arm when he fell. One look at his ashen face, staring eyes, and slack mouth must have been enough to tell her, just as it had told Inara, that she was out of her depth. "Simon," Kaylee cried, "Simon, come quick, this fella needs a doctor." Inara knelt down next to Lin Wei and took his limp hand in both of hers. Kaylee's face wore a look of desperate compassion, and Inara noted with distant surprise that much of it seemed directed toward her.
Soon Inara heard Simon's footsteps banging against the deck plates as he ran toward Kaylee's pleading voice. Kaylee moved aside to give him her place next to Lin Wei. With one hand, Simon began to pull tools from the doctor's bag he had carried to the cargo bay with him, while his other hand searched out Lin Wei's pulse. "What happened here?" he asked Inara.
"I don't know. I was walking him down to meet his driver and he just collapsed."
"Did he display any notable symptoms before that? Chest pain, dizziness, arm pain, shortness of breath?"
"He was a little short of breath, I suppose." Inara paused, then added, a bit weakly, "Though not any more so than I'd expect an 83-year-old client to be after an appointment."
Simon made a tiny, flustered sound. Out of the corner of her eye, Inara saw the corner of Kaylee's mouth quirk upward despite the worry her features still displayed. Then Simon's professionalism took over. "Right," he said. "Thready pulse, no respiration. I'm guessing V-fib, secondary to a myocardial infarction. I'm going to need a little help..."
Moments later, Jayne arrived carrying the small blue bag that Simon had requested from the infirmary. Simon pulled open Lin Wei's shirt and attached the electrodes of the defibrillator the bag had contained to Lin Wei's bony chest. "Everybody give us some space," Simon said, sounding every bit the decisive physician Inara knew he wanted to be seen as. She reluctantly let go of Lin Wei's hand, alarmed by the blue tinge already spreading around its nail beds, and pulled herself to her feet. She felt someone squeeze her shoulder and looked over to see Kaylee standing next to her, a steady and unexpected presence that would not let go.
"Clear!" Simon pushed the button on the defibrillator. Nothing happened. He pushed it again, picked the device up, looked closer. "Tā mā de...Dead battery. How far are we from a hospital?" he asked in a tone of voice that suggested it was already too late.
"Simon, wait." Kaylee let go of Inara's arm and bounded over to a nearby pillar. There, she opened an electrical panel and flipped a switch inside. Half the lights in the cargo bay went out, plunging the ship into dingy yellow twilight. Inara watched as Kaylee produced item after item from the pockets of her coveralls - a length of wire, a roll of tape, small metal clamps, a multi-tool. Rapidly she spooled out the wire, using it to connect the circuits inside the panel to the battery terminals of the defibrillator. Kaylee placed one hand on the breaker. "Here goes…" she said to no one in particular, and flipped the switch again.
A loud bang issued from somewhere deep inside Serenity. The lights flared, blindingly bright for a second before their bulbs exploded in a sudden symphony of tiny pops, showering down sparks from the ceiling along with the odor of singed wires. But even in the sudden dimness, Inara could see Lin Wei's head jerk and his chest begin to rise and fall again. She knelt back down beside him, squeezed his hand, exhaled in relief when his eyes focused on her face and his fingers weakly gripped hers in return.
Mal, who had arrived from whatever he'd been doing in the cockpit just in time to witness the height of the commotion, strode over to Simon with relief, irritation, and pride warring on his face. Simon didn't look up from checking Lin Wei's vital signs. "He's alive, Captain, but he needs more care than I can give him here."
"Call the local medics, then," said Mal. "And Inara?"
"Add the cost of new light bulbs to your customer's bill, would you?" Inara rolled her eyes, but Mal had already turned away to clap Simon on the shoulder. In a low voice he said, "Can't say I'll support anyone blowing up my ship, but gorram, you and Kaylee wowed me with that trick." Inara found herself nodding in agreement as she watched Kaylee swiftly disassemble the nest of wiring she had patched together before she ran to the cockpit to call for help. She wondered what else Serenity's new mechanic might be hiding up her pink, flowered sleeve.
* * *
Lin Wei would live, despite the heart attack and his age; his wealth gave him access to the best medical care in the 'Verse. Before Serenity departed from the planet, a courier came by with a letter in which Lin Wei thanked the crew for saving his life, and urged them to take a case of fine wine from his family estates as a tangible sign of his gratitude. Mal stashed most of the bottles somewhere on the ship - whether to be sold off later or saved for an even more special occasion, Inara wasn't sure - but declared that a few would be opened on the first night of the long journey through the black to their next port of call, to help the crew celebrate their latest successful job.
As she perched on a rickety chair at the edge of the banged-up table in the galley, Inara was grateful for the wine. Even before she saw the way most of the crew gulped down the fine vintage as if it were no different than engine room moonshine, she had known that she and most of Serenity's crew came from very different worlds that were not always mutually comprehensible. But the pleasant buzz the drinks afforded both loosened Inara's tongue and helped her to smile and laugh along with the others even when she didn't fully understand the references they made or the punch lines of the anecdotes they told.
It also made it easier not to walk out in a huff when Jayne started in on Lin Wei. "83 years old and still keeping up with Companions," he said, letting out an appreciative, low whistle. "I sure gorram hope I can still get it up at that age. 'Course, I guess I'll have to have his money then too. Must cost Yéyé a fortune to get you sexing him up." Jayne smirked and drained his cup again.
"It's not like that," Inara said. She wanted to say more - about the many years she had known Lin Wei, how he had supported her from the beginning with his money and his connections while making it clear that he expected nothing from her in exchange, how she had still chosen him as one of her first clients despite all of those assurances, how the sex act was only one aspect of what she enjoyed about their time together - but thought better of it. She knew that anything she said to Jayne about her work would only be misunderstood, whether or not any liquor was flowing.
Instead, it was Kaylee who spoke. "Come on, Jayne, you know Companions choose their clients. Must be more than money makes Inara go out of her way to see him."
"Companion chooses the client," Mal added, "and that's why all the money in the 'Verse won't never be enough to get one to bed you, Jayne."
In the midst of the raucous teasing that followed, Inara met Kaylee's eyes and gave her a small and grateful smile. Kaylee smiled back. "Don't you pay no mind to Jayne. He runs his mouth like that to everyone. I'm glad your friend's gonna be okay."
"I am too," Inara said.
"Seems like you and Lin Wei go back pretty far. Tell me how you know each other? Of course, assuming you wanna and all."
"We met when I was new to the Companion Academy…" Inara's stories of Lin Wei poured out unbidden. She hadn't realized just how much she'd been wanting to talk to someone about her memories of him, as if to reassure herself that she would never forget them no matter what the future might hold. Kaylee listened intently, leaning toward Inara's voice, laughing and frowning and exclaiming at all the right times. Soon the conversation turned to other tales of Inara's time at the Academy, and from there to the friends and mentors that Kaylee had known back on her homeworld, the people who had taught her about engines and machines and encouraged her to dream up toward the distant stars.
Before Inara knew it, she and Kaylee were alone in the galley. They'd moved from the table to the couches for comfort. Everyone else had long since stumbled away to bed in a tipsy haze. Kaylee fidgeted on the cushions and reached for the wine bottle. She poured the last of it into the empty glasses and handed one to Inara. Their fingers brushed, and a sudden spark of static electricity crackled between them. Inara flinched.
"Sorry," said Kaylee. "That happens a lot on the long hauls, I'm afraid. Air gets awful dry when you have to run it through the scrubbers so many times. Before you know it, we're all snapping and popping all over the place whenever we touch anything."
"I've noticed." Inara sipped from her glass, considering whether it was truly wise to share the story that Kaylee's comment had brought to her mind. The wine propelled her ahead. "It seems to happen even on the shorter trips. I don't suppose you remember the client I had overnight when we went from Sihnon to Ariel..."
"Yeah, I do. Curly hair. He was cute."
Inara wondered just how much attention Kaylee had been paying to her clients anyway. "That's the one. While we were in my shuttle, he - "
"Never mind. Excuse me, I've had too much wine. I shouldn't have said anything."
"That ain't necessarily so." With a smile, Kaylee slid closer to Inara on the couch and gently squeezed her knee. "Some of these tales, you burst if you don't tell them to no one. You just let it out if you wanna. I promise I won't go passing it around."
Inara smiled back at her. She really did want to be able to talk to someone about her work, and this was the first chance she'd had since coming aboard Serenity. "Well, it was his first time - not his first first time, I mean, but his first with a Companion. He was nervous. They usually are. And it didn't help that when he got in the bed - well, I have satin sheets, and every time he moved, he shocked himself or me." Kaylee's hands flew to her mouth and she began to giggle uncontrollably. "He just kept apologizing and apologizing. It was so hard not to laugh."
"Poor guy," Kaylee squeaked out once her laughter had subsided. "I hope he had fun anyway."
"He did, as far as I could tell."
Kaylee nodded and sipped from her glass. "Even so, it ain't been quite so dry as that in the crew quarters. Ain't necessarily normal for it to be that much worse for you. Could be your shuttle's environmental systems are having some problems hooking up right with Serenity's. I could come up and take a look at her right now. If you want."
Inara hesitated. The tilt of Kaylee's head and the look in her half-closed eyes suggested she had something more than air duct repairs in mind. Or was that just Inara's own wishful thinking, fueled by the late night and the wine and the relief of finally connecting with another person on the ship? I can't be sure. She chose her words carefully when she spoke, not wanting to close a door before she saw it fully opened. "Thank you so much for that offer, Kaylee. But it's so late. I'm sure you must be as tired as I am. I wouldn't want to keep you awake." Except that I do. Abruptly, she stood up. "I think I've had a little too much to drink. Might we talk about this again another time?"
"Of course. I reckon I am awful sleepy." Did Kaylee really sound disappointed, or was Inara just imagining things again?
"Then let's talk again soon. I've really enjoyed this time with you. Good night." Silk skirts swirling, Inara rushed out the door and up to her shuttle before she let Kaylee say anything more to change her mind.
* * *
Inara didn't know much about engines or machines. She could pilot her shuttle safely from place to place, and recognize when something was wrong with it that couldn't be fixed by charging the batteries or rebooting some systems, and limp it along to a mechanic and pay through the nose to have it repaired, and that was where her expertise began and ended. Even so, she could tell that whatever Kaylee was doing to Serenity's innermost workings was complex, difficult, and unwise to interrupt. She hovered guiltily by the engine room door, worried that her presence might somehow distract Kaylee from her delicate task, yet still unable to look away.
The faint warning siren had made her stop there on her way back from giving Mal the shuttle's monthly rent. Alarmed, she looked inside and saw Kaylee staring into the innards of an engine panel, silent and focused. Something in Kaylee's posture and apparent unconcern, how she looked like she knew exactly what she was doing, made Inara pause before she said anything.
One of Kaylee's hands worked tirelessly and deftly inside the panel, tightening screws and bolts, joining wires, swapping tools without the need to so much as glance at the contents of the toolbox at her side. Her other hand gently held a greasy, oblong chunk of metal that was connected to the engine by various, multi-colored wires. Finally, decisively, she slid the metal piece back into what appeared to be its proper housing, tightened a few screws around it, and toggled a switch. Something sparked once, twice, three times within the engine - then a low hum rose out of the panel and the alarms fell silent.
Kaylee let out the breath she'd been holding and replaced the cover on the panel, wiping sweat from her forehead as she turned toward the door. She gasped and jumped back when she saw Inara standing there. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Inara blurted.
"Don't be," Kaylee said, pulling a rag from the pocket of her coveralls and wiping the engine grease from her hands. Her smile flashed as bright as ever, but Inara could see that her shoulders were tense and her whole body was quivering.
Inara moved closer. "Kaylee. Is everything okay?"
"Just...a little shook up, is all."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Kaylee met Inara's eyes with a nervous, unsteady gaze. "If I tell you, just...don't tell Mal, okay?"
"I would never betray your confidence."
Kaylee sighed again. "Something ain't been right with Serenity's electrical systems ever since I hooked Simon's medical doohickey into her power grid. Mind, I'd do that again to save your friend, but the point is it needed fixed. Didn't want to say nothing to no one 'cause I figured a bit of tinkering would make it right again. Well, it was worse than I thought. A surge protector failed somewhere back along the circuit and everything fed back and fried the failsafes in the motivator. Wash mentioned she was decelerating every time he put the autopilot on, but I figured it was just a secondary grav relay starting to give out...I'm sorry, I'm just chattering away, aren't I? None of this makes a gorram lick of sense to you."
"You know more about this ship than I ever will. But that's fine. I understand the shape of it." Letting people talk their way through crises that she barely understood until they arrived at their own solution was, after all, a major part of Inara's own job description.
"I guess the point is, the damage was worse than I expected. And it's my fault it got that way. Don't worry, she's working now, I got her patched up and flying straight, but…that thing you saw me working with, while you were at the door? It was...well, a real important part of the ship, I'll say. If I had dropped that battery core after I took it out, or wired anything in wrong, it could have caused a short and we'd be dead in the water."
"Oh, Kaylee." Inara took another step closer and rested her hands on Kaylee's shoulders. "But that didn't happen. All of us and the ship are safe now."
"I know that, it's just...sometimes I feel like I ain't got a clue what I'm doing out here. I ain't never even been up in a ship before Serenity. Captain always says I'm the best mechanic he's ever seen, but I can't stop thinking that one of these days he's gonna figure out that I'm just making it all up as I go along."
Inara gripped Kaylee's shoulders more tightly. This was something she knew a lot more about than engines. "Can I tell you a secret?"
"Everybody on this ship feels like we're just faking it sometimes. Even the captain. Even me."
Kaylee's eyes ran over Inara's body, taking in her silk robes, her perfect makeup, her neatly curled hair. "But you always look so...put together."
"Before I came aboard, I'd never been outside the Core before. Half the things I see out here on the Rim make no sense to me at first. But I keep flying, with you, and I remind myself that everyone feels as confused and uncertain as me sometimes. And do you want to know another secret?" Kaylee nodded. "While I was watching you fix the engine - and when I saw what you did to help save Lin Wei's life, before you told me about any of this - all I could think was how amazing it all was and how talented you are." Her mouth went dry as the next words tumbled out. "It was one of the most beautiful things I'd seen out here. Truly."
Kaylee's mouth dropped open, her expression unreadable - but before she could speak, another alarm blared out from somewhere in the engine room, and Kaylee pulled away. "Gǒu shǐ," Kaylee swore, moving back toward her toolbox. "If it ain't one thing on this boat…"
Inara knew better than to ask what had happened now, or to get in the way. Slowly, silently, she withdrew from the engine room with a fond glance over her shoulder at Kaylee, who was once again lost in her work, all doubts and uncertainties banished from her stance. The way it should be, Inara thought as she crept back up to her shuttle, wishing with a fervency that surprised her that their conversation had not been interrupted.
* * *
"I have a present for you."
Inara looked up from her half-finished bowl of noodles to see Kaylee standing on the other side of the table, holding a small wooden box in her outstretched hands. "What's the occasion?" Inara asked, genuinely surprised.
Kaylee shrugged. "Wanted to thank you for what you said to me in the engine room a while back. It really helped. So, I saw this at the jí shì when we stopped off at Persephone and I thought you might like it. Go on, open it."
The box was made of rosewood, finely carved and polished with craftsmanship that rivaled anything Inara had seen on the Core. Inara lifted the lid with care. Nestled within the green velvet lined interior were small envelopes of tea, the smell of each blend more intoxicating than the one before. "Kaylee, what a lovely gift. Thank you so much. You didn't have to do this."
"I know that. I wanted to. Ain't nobody else I've found on this boat yet I can really talk to about, you know, feelings and such."
Inara frowned in confusion. "Not even Simon?" Often she had seen Simon and Kaylee together both on and off Serenity, walking and talking with an easy rapport that Inara had not yet summoned the courage to ask Kaylee to clarify. "I thought you two were close."
"We are. And we ain't, too, you get me?" Kaylee walked around to Inara's side of the table. "Simon's a good man, and a good doctor. I'm glad he's my friend." She paused, choosing her next words carefully, waiting for Inara to meet her eyes. "But he ain't always a kind man, understand? And if I'm gonna be with someone as more than just a friend, it's gotta be with someone who's kind."
Just as Inara opened her mouth to ask Kaylee exactly what sort of kindness she was referring to, the lights above them flickered out and the galley went dark. Inara rested her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. Is this spaceship actively trying to get in our way? "Gorram it," groaned Kaylee, sounding as frustrated as Inara felt.
"I hope this isn't something serious," said Inara, sitting up straight again and resting a comforting hand on Kaylee's arm.
In the pale light filtering in from the corridor outside, Inara could just make out Kaylee's sudden, slight smile. Kaylee lifted Inara's hand from her wrist and placed it on the table with a gentle, lingering touch. Inara watched as she moved around the room, looking out at the rest of the ship, listening intently to the distant reverberations of the engine, and finally locating and opening an electrical panel on the bulkhead. "Just a blown fuse," she said after a few moments spent peering inside. "Easy fix. I just need to get the part from down in the engine room."
"I can't adapt my circadian rhythm this quickly." Inara and Kaylee turned to see River standing at the door, looking confused and a bit lost.
"Oh, baobei." Kaylee regarded River with infinite patience and compassion. "I just need to fix a little something and then it will be all back to normal. Hey, come here a second. I got you something on Persephone." River approached Kaylee, her body language still skittish. Kaylee reached into her pocket and pulled out a small cloth bag. "See? It's those wintergreen candies you told me you like."
"Sài wēng shī mǎ," said River with unexpected seriousness. "At least now I can demonstrate triboluminescence." Inara looked at Kaylee, unsure what River meant, but Kaylee only raised her palms in a gesture of equal bewilderment. River reached into the bag, delicately pulled out a single small, oblong candy, and popped it into her mouth. She bit down hard with an audible crack, then immediately opened her mouth wide to display a startling flash of bluish-purple light. "See? Because methyl salicylate is fluorescent."
Kaylee grinned and applauded. "River, that's amazing! Can I try?" River nodded and held out the bag. It took a few attempts for Kaylee to master the same trick, but soon both of them were expertly taking turns at perfectly cracking the candy in their jaws, sparks bursting from their lips as they laughed in delight.
Finally, River tired of the game, slipped the bag of candy into her pocket, and wandered away, mumbling to herself, "My sample size is too small. I need to encourage other subjects to participate in the experiment." The echo of River's bare feet against the cold metal deck faded, and Inara rested an impulsive hand on Kaylee's shoulder.
Kaylee looked up, still smiling. "What?" In that moment there were so many things she wanted to praise about Kaylee - her kindness, her patience, her openness, her joy - but somehow she knew that all of those words would only seem trite. Inara settled for leaning in and kissing her where the light had been. The spark that passed between them then was like no other that Inara had felt before.
* * *
Some nights later, Inara and Kaylee were alone in Serenity's galley again, drinking the tea from Persephone this time. After returning from the stove with the kettle to replenish the hot water in their cups, Inara rested a hand on the edge of the metal table and winced as the built-up static shocked her yet again. Kaylee frowned. "That sounded like it hurt."
Inara shrugged as she poured the tea. "I think I'm getting used to it, honestly. Or at least, it seems like a minor complaint now compared to how dry my skin has become." She rubbed her hands together, sighing at how rough they felt. "I can't believe that with the number of different creams I own, I still haven't found one that can keep up."
"I can help you with that." Kaylee smiled and sipped from her chipped porcelain cup. "I got some nice lotion that's just the ticket. Made from my āyí's own secret family recipe. I'm more than happy to share if you wanna try it."
"Yes, thank you. I'd like that very much."
Kaylee's smile took on a more mischievous cast. She leaned across the table and half-whispered, "I'll rub it in for you too, if you'd like. Anyplace that's dry."
Inara's heart stuttered in her chest. She imagined that if she stood, she would fall to the deck this time, out of breath, in need of Kaylee's touch to shock her back to life. Instead, she reached out and took Kaylee's hands in hers. She whispered back, "Only if I can do the same for you."
They must have both drawn even closer to each other, because suddenly their lips were together, pressing and tasting as Inara squeezed Kaylee's hands as if for dear life. Kaylee slipped one hand free and reached up to brush Inara's cheek, to stroke her neck, then to weave through her hair as Inara's tongue slid into her mouth. Without warning, she pulled away. Inara let out an involuntary moan at the loss of contact, feeling her face flush, feeling how much more of this she wanted. "I need this table not to be here," Kaylee said, gasping for air, and Inara couldn't help laughing.
Inara stood up, unable to control her trembling. She took Kaylee's hand again. "Then take me where you want me," she said, meaning every syllable. She let Kaylee pull her along, through the corridors of Serenity, into whatever she had just ignited with her words.
* * *
A strand of purple fairy lights and a single candle beside the bed were all that lit Kaylee's quarters. Inara stared into the candle's flame and let her vision blur and lose focus. The room was warm and silent and dim, scented with the faint floral perfume of the candle's puddling wax and with the herbal tones of Kaylee's wonderful lotion and with their own bodies. In such a peaceful atmosphere, Inara could hardly blame Kaylee for having fallen asleep in her embrace - but Inara knew that if she joined her, she would miss the perfection of this moment.
You never know which sparks will catch, Inara thought as she watched the candle flicker. Or where the fire will go. She hadn't entirely known what to expect when she came aboard Serenity - adventure, perhaps, and a steady income, but nothing and no one like Kaylee. Nor did she know what to expect from the days beyond this night. She'd seen enough to begin to understand a little about how terribly hard this way of life could be, and to guess at some of the dangers they might still have to face. But for now, to be with Kaylee in this room, to hold her in this bed, was enough.
Kaylee stirred in her sleep, muttering to herself as she tightened her embrace and tangled her bare legs with Inara's own. Inara smiled and pressed a small kiss on Kaylee's forehead as she felt drowsiness begin to overtake her. In the morning there would be time to think, to plan, to figure out what happened next. She sat up just enough to blow out the candle, inhaling the final wisps of rose-scented smoke that wafted up from the extinguished wick. Then she settled down into the cozy darkness of the soft and narrow bed, reveling in the warmth they had created together, trusting they could recreate it whenever they saw fit - and hoping the inner flame that they held now between them would last.