There's always been a sea inside of her, caught somewhere around her lungs. She's always been too much, too ancient, too unusual, too aware of the way that people had looked at her (not looked at her at all). Back then; back when. Dawn can't explain it. There is no sea here, though, not on this planet; other planets, but not here. This place is dust and bugs, and grass that shivers blindly in the barren heat. Dawn brushes her hair from her face, damp and dry, and thinks, not for the first time, that she really ought to cut it short. Thinks that, and then Kaylee's hand is at her shoulder, unconscious-conscious touch, and Dawn remembers why she keeps it long. Remembers Kaylee's eyes, wide and bright, as Dawn's hair brushes over Kaylee's body, in the privacy of their own space.
This isn't their own space, but the world is nigh empty around them; on pause, on hold, the wind an endless dial-tone waiting for someone to pick up. Mal left them here a few hours ago – I need that you should do this, girls; pivotal part of the job, you know, he'd said, in that voice of his. That voice, which Dawn knows curls Kaylee's insides nicely, but Dawn doesn't begrudge him it (even though she does), because it does the same thing to her own. Even when he's lying, and all he wants is to have them not on the ship when he does something crazy.
At least he trusts her now, Dawn thinks; shields her eyes, and studies the horizon.
It begins with berries. Dawn barters them, for knowledge, on the ship-yard moon they find her on. Blue berries, small and perfect, all muddled up in a bag until the thin cloth is cool to the touch and damp with juice. Kaylee watches her, from the other side of the table. Kaylee watches her, and the berries, and Kaylee leans in, when Dawn watches back; when Dawn proffers an open hand and blueness, in the mechanic's direction. Kaylee takes them with her mouth, soft tongue gentle-rasping against fingers, and down between them, and her cheekbones staining pink.
River is the one who brings Dawn to Serenity. They don't really speak, they simply understand (not simply at all) how things are; they aren't the same as everyone else, and that makes them similar. Mal stares, eyebrows raised, says, Not rightly sure why I'm letting you on board, little'un, but River makes this face at him, until he shrugs and huffs and pulls a face of his own; demands to know what it is that Dawn think she can do, to make herself useful. Dawn says she knows things about knowing things. A two-day stop on a messy market world, where she uses three languages she'd never even heard before, and Mal agrees, in that way of his, that she can be fair useful in a tight spot.
Dawn spends hours in the kitchen, brewing tea, like Giles had taught her once upon a time ago, and, when Zoë speaks (quiet) of the things she's lost, Dawn understands.
Kaylee is grease and mischief, and grime and smiles, and hushed acceptance. Dawn doesn't ask, but the mechanic teaches her to tell one tool from another – to apply the pressure here, and to leave it there – and how to coax and love this great ship into sense and order. It's like being taught how to sell things, by Anya; that same heady devotion to one's calling. Dawn doesn't feel it herself, but she feels the learning of it, and the joy of it on Kaylee. It keeps Dawn's hands busy, too, when Mal isn't making use of her mind (you want I should start offering free board or something, little'un? This here is what your head's for). Dawn catches the hem of her shirt on a screw, though, just jagging it, but enough to make a tear, and that almost breaks her; she doesn't know why. She sits in Kaylee's quarters, one of Kaylee's frothy shawls around her shoulders, and watches Kaylee sew. Watches Kaylee sew, and watches a doll on the shelves watching them, and thinks about how innocent they all must seem, and how innocent none of them really are.
Or perhaps it begins with Dawn washing Kaylee's hair. Just her hair, nothing more; a thing she'd done so many times for Tara, back when life had been a steadier blend of happy – all that hair, over the side of the bathtub, and the scent of lavender, and Tara's grin, and the closest she'd come to having a mother again. Logistically it's the same, here, with Kaylee, and yet it really isn't. She watches Kaylee, eyes closed and lashes against her skin; she feels Kaylee's scalp beneath her hands, the warm water heavy with Kaylee's hair, and she wonders what it would be like to just kiss her. It's not that she's a girl – Dawn's kissed girls, even Faith, tipsy and laughing in the doorway, once. It's not that Dawn's here. It's not even that Mal had warned Dawn, warned her when he'd seen blue fingers and blue-stained lips. It's that she's Kaylee. And so Dawn keeps her mouth to herself, but kneeds her thumbs in circles against Kaylee's scalp until her stomach curls with warmth.
It's Kaylee who comes to Dawn, in the end. Kaylee's hands are rough; rough, and laced the scent of oil or grease, no matter how she's washed them. Dawn doesn't mind. Dawn likes the rough, and the soft, and all the contrasting contours that make up a girl – soft-hard of nipples giving against the roundness of pale breasts. Dawn likes the feel of them against herself, likes the feel of them beneath her own hands, which are maybe rougher too, now, as the maps that Mal sits her down before give way, sometimes, sometimes, to the touch of guns and engines. As Dawn finds herself a place on here; a home, not a location (Kaylee tastes of heat and longing and brightness, and Dawn basks in the trace of her fingers).
There's always been a sea inside of her, caught somewhere around her lungs. She's always been too much, too ancient, too unusual, too aware of the way that people had looked at her (not looked at her at all). Back then; back when. There's a sea, even as they stand here, on this planet, sand still hot beneath Dawn's boots, even though the sun has long tucked itself behind the horizon's swell. A sea, but it's steady, now, smaller; more of a puddle, somehow, beneath the weight of the waveless sky. Smaller, as they wait for Mal to pick them up, and above them hangs a vast bowl of forever, here, beneath the push of space and life, Kaylee slips her hand around Dawn's waist and tucks her thumb in Dawn's pocket; here, Dawn feels so very, very tiny, for the first time in so many, many years.
And she can reach the shore.