“I don’t get it. It’s dirt,” Wash said as he stared blearily at the ornate glass vial in front of him. Actually, he wasn’t entirely sure it was only a single vial; occasionally it seemed to be multiplying, but that might be the Shadow Sake he’d imbibed at a rather frighteningly fast rate at the local pub an hour ago. “Why’d she keep a pretty glass bottle of dirt?”
“It’s not just dirt,” Kaylee said as she continued to rummage through the things Inara had left behind on Serenity when she went back to the companion temple. “It’s… special dirt. Or something.”
“Still just looks like dirt,” Wash said, yawning as he sat down on the couch that remained in the shuttle, then promptly burrowing into the pillows like a sleepy four-year-old.
“I suppose,” Kaylee said, still moving around random items in the box Inara had somehow, completely accidentally, totally not on purpose, no, really, overlooked.
Kaylee didn’t buy for a single second that Inara was gone forever. She’d be back, and this was just solid, tangible proof of it, not that the captain would realize that even if she pointed it out to him. Sometimes she swore he was so dense about other people’s feelings that he made Jayne look like a genius. Still, Inara wasn’t around right now, and while Kaylee idolized her, she’d always been curious about the fine things that a companion would keep in her room. So, after a few drinks while they were in port on Bernadette, she’d convinced Wash to sneak into Inara’s room for a quick look around. She was pretty sure the whole idea was going to sound a lot less like a good thing when she was completely sober, but right now she was having fun.
“I wonder when she wore this last,” Kaylee said, unfurling an iridescent silk scarf of scarlet with black birds embroidered on it. “It’s so fancy.”
Wash looked up from the pillows blearily and squinted at it, shrugging.
“Probably wore it to somewheres I can’t even pronounce while talking to people so important they’ve got whole books wrote about ‘em,” Kaylee said wistfully as she carefully rolled it back into what turned out to be an untidy bundle.
“Mm-hmm,” Wash replied, already better than halfway back to sleep. “Most like.”
Kaylee pulled a face at him for his lack of interest and went back to looking through the trunk in front of her.
“Probably not wise to be doing that,” Mal’s voice said from the doorway.
Kaylee gave a small shriek and nearly toppled over as she looked up at him, completely guilty. Wash blinked his eyes open blearily, waved at the captain, then tried to go back to sleep.
“Inara’s right. You really don’t ever knock before you come in,” Kaylee said.
“You think I’m the one doin’ wrong in this picture?” Mal said, frowning.
“Um, this ain’t what it looks like?” she said lamely, punctuating the question with a little hiccup.
“Oh, so you ain’t goin’ through Inara’s things behind her back?” Mal said, raising an eyebrow at her.
“Okay, it’s what it looks like,” Kaylee said, blushing, “and I know I shouldn’t oughta do it but…”
“You get down to the holo of her graduation ceremony at the temple yet?” Mal said, sitting across from her.
Kaylee’s jaw swung open for a moment before she managed to shut it again.
“You’ve been looking through Inara’s things?” she said, sounding offended.
“Folks living in glass houses ain’t got no call to lob hand grenades,” Mal said. “Besides, if it’s on my boat and she’s left for good and all, it’s mine. I had to make sure there weren’t any illegal substances in there that could get a good, moral captain like me in trouble with our fine Alliance.”
“You ever been hit by lightning?” Kaylee said.
“Just how drunk are you?” Mal said, staring at her.
“Daddy always told me liars get hit by lightning sooner or later,” Kaylee said, shaking her head. “I ain’t sittin’ next to you the next time there’s a thunderstorm about.”
“Uh-huh,” Mal said, fumbling through three pairs of shoes and a cosmetics case until he found the frame he’d been searching for.
“So, was there?” Kaylee asked.
“Was there what?” Mal said.
“Was there anything illegal in Inara’s stuff?” Kaylee said, leaning closer.
“Nope. All checked out. Some fairly expensive things in here though. Could fetch a pretty penny or two if we needed engine parts or food to tide us over a while,” Mal said as he shook the frame, trying to get it to power up.
He didn’t see the apricot satin slipper that hit him in the face until it was an inch from his nose.
“You are not selling Inara’s stuff!” Kaylee said, looking angry.
“Hey, don’t go throwing footwear at me if you want to stay my mechanic! If she’d wanted it, she woulda took it,” Mal said as the hologram flickered to life, showing a younger Inara wearing a stunning kimono covered in a pattern of autumn leaves, smiling with dignified grace at the camera. “No use holding onto things that ain’t got a purpose.”
Kaylee could have smacked him with the other shoe for being so dim as not realizing why Inara would leave them there, but she chalked it up as a lost cause. Besides, he’d been so ornery since Inara left that he really might chuck her out.
“I get most of it,” Wash said, suddenly lurching upright on the couch, which startled Mal badly enough that Kaylee saw him instinctively reach for a pistol that wasn’t even on his hip at the moment, “but not the dirt. Why’s she got dirt?”
“Don’t know, don’t care, but the thing it’s in looks expensive,” Mal said, and Kaylee noticed that he was looking just a little too long at the image of Inara laughing and smiling. “All right, best put everything away for now. Wash, your wife’s waiting for you in your room. The deal with the Katasovna sisters went fine, and I think maybe she’s looking to celebrate. Sobering up a little’s probably a good thing since I don’t think she put ‘husband passing out’ on her schedule.”
“You really don’t like me, do you?” Wash said, getting to his feet but smiling good naturedly.
“I can’t stand you. Now toddle off before Zoe kills you,” Mal said, grinning back as Wash left.
Kaylee never ceased to be amazed by how weird menfolk were when it came to letting each other know they were friends.
“Okay, night, Captain,” Kaylee said.
“Technically, it’s morning,” he said as she left the shuttle. “We’ll be leaving in six hours.”
“Right,” she said around a yawn. “Sure thing.”
Mal looked around the nearly vacant room, trying not to let himself feel much of anything. It was a habit now, which he was able to stick by in most situations, but sometimes there was the creeping suspicion, the certain knowledge that he wasn’t always as in control as he wanted to be. He was vulnerable, and that, as he’d learned in the war, was dangerous. And stupid. He looked at the hologram again, wondering if maybe he had been struck by lightning in his own way, then shut it off and tossed it with deliberate carelessness back into the trunk.
“Ain’t nothin’ stays forever,” Mal said, getting to his feet. “Not her, not them, not nothing.”
He left without a backward glance, leaving the vial full of dirt from Earth-That-Was sitting on the floor, gleaming in the dim light.