Author's notes: Thanks to k, Biogeekgrrl, and Distraction for beta reading. Written for Raebird for Femslash Santa 2005.
The whole 'verse started looking different after Mal sent out the Miranda signal. It wasn't 'cause the whole 'verse was magically changed once folks knew what the Alliance had done, or even 'cause everything seemed a mite dimmer now that Wash was gone. There wasn't nothing philosophical about it. Five days after everybody in the 'verse got a fast education in government corruption, the Prime Minister of the Alliance gave a live speech on the Cortex, announcing a big fancy program to build up the Rim. Now, every backwater moon Serenity landed on had a new highway going up, or a water purification plant, or a state-of-the-art network of Cortex transmitters. Mal got right incensed every time they landed somewhere with new construction. He'd give another ugly speech about how the Alliance was putting folks deeper under its thumb and raping the land to boot. All Kaylee could think was, maybe with a four-lane road in the backyard, her daddy'd be able to make himself a living.
She sent him a letter to ask, but no matter how many times she checked for post, she didn't get no answer. She hadn't gotten word from home for a long time. Her mama and daddy couldn't write so well, and she reckoned they was ashamed, or they couldn't afford the fee for a letter-writer. Or there was the possibility she didn't like thinking of: she'd been gone so long, they'd given up on her, assumed she was dead or whoring herself somewhere. Families did that when their children left the homestead and didn't come running right back, 'specially out where Kaylee came from. Kaylee liked to think she had a new family now, one held together by choice and mutual affection, and stronger for that.
Now that Inara was back on board, it was starting to feel like family again. Inara stuck close to Kaylee, and Kaylee didn't question why. They'd been friends all along, always been fond, and Inara seemed to be in need of a friend to turn to. It was plain as morning that, for all they'd called a truce, she was still bitter at Mal. And worse, still not sure Serenity was where she belonged. Every time they landed, it seemed like Inara was looking around, seeing if this was a place she could step off and start over.
Or maybe Kaylee was too yi xin de, and all Inara wanted was souvenirs. With the new highways going up, it seemed like a little gift shop had popped up at every crossroads. Inara loved them, the tackier the better. Kaylee tagged along partly because Inara always asked her to, and partly because she had to learn more refined taste if she planned on keeping Simon.
"Look," Inara said. "'Your name in Chinese, painted on a handmade teacup.' The characters for 'Zoe' mean 'make love.'"
Kaylee chuckled and looked through the cups. "They ain't got my name."
"They never have mine," Inara said.
"Too bad," Kaylee said. "Woulda been fun to see what they woulda done to it."
Inara pursed her lips and furrowed her brow, going through the list of characters in her brain. It was a sweet expression. Kaylee thought Inara was prettiest when she wasn't trying to be, when she looked like someone another person could touch. "Resolute stammering trash," she said, just as the shopgirl brushed by them. Kaylee covered her mouth so her giggles wouldn't attract attention.
The shopgirl noticed them anyway. "Oh, those are minutes of fun if you can read Chinese," she said. "They're almost worth buying just for the humor value."
"Oh, we weren't going to buy--" Inara said. She gathered back her composure. "I mean, we were just browsing."
"It's all right," the shopgirl said. "Even with my discount, there ain't hardly anything here I'd buy."
"All the same, we're sorry for wasting your time," Inara said.
"There is one thing," the shopgirl said. "We sell some jewelry that a woman in town makes. You folks look like you might actually be able to afford it." Kaylee frowned: Inara's fine dress made them look like easy marks. It was something she wouldn't have noticed a few months earlier, but lately, everything seemed like a trap. The simplest thing could take folks away. And even when life brought people closer, there was still so much distance. She would've thought that Simon would've opened himself up to her by now, but even when he was inside her, she could feel the space in between them. Some days, she missed him almost as much as she missed Wash - the him that she thought she would have had, anyway.
She reassured herself that Inara knew how to look after her own purse, and she followed the shopgirl over to a glass display case. The cloth-lined shelves presented a small array of earrings and pendants carved from green and red stone. After some consideration, Inara pointed at a green disk with a hole in the middle, hanging from a thin black silk cord. When the shopgirl took it out for her, Inara fastened it around Kaylee's neck. "Just to see," she said.
The shopgirl held up a mirror, but Kaylee couldn't look into it. She saw too much of her reflection in the shopgirl's dead eyes and cynical smile. But for Mal's kindness, Kaylee would've been a lot like her, alone and planetbound in a nowhere job, every day the same. Kaylee touched her throat. The stone was cool and perfectly smooth.
"How much is it?" Inara said.
"30 credits, if I lie to my boss," the shopgirl said.
"Pian yi de," Inara said. "Is it real?"
"Mined in the foothills outside of town," the shopgirl said. "Reckon they'll be in the middle of town, soon enough."
"Then I'd like to support local industry," Inara said, unclipping her purse from her skirt.
Kaylee shook her head and fumbled for the clasp of the necklace. "It's okay. I don't need it. What am I gonna do, wear it in the engine room?"
"You'll wear it for good fortune and long life," Inara said, "and enjoy the gift."
Kaylee didn't know what to say, so she stood with her back against the display case, tracing her toe back and forth across the floor of the shop while Inara paid for the necklace. As soon as it wasn't stealing to go outside, Kaylee left. She walked around to the side of the shop and took off the necklace. She thought, for a moment, of setting it down in the sand and walking away. But the rules of being raised poor were noisy in her head. Don't be wasteful. Never throw away a gift.
Inara came up alongside her and put a hand on her shoulder. Kaylee shied away like a startled horse. Inara said, "You should have told me if you didn't like it."
"I like it fine," Kaylee said. "I just can't never wear it. Even when I ain't working, it'd just... make stuff all complicated."
Kaylee nodded. "And with Mal, and Jayne'd make fun of it, and -" She sighed. "Sometimes pretty just ain't worth the trouble."
"And sometimes it's the whole point," Inara said. She was looking out at the landscape and the road that tore through it like a gray scar. "This won't last. The Alliance will pay for the initial construction, but they'll leave the upkeep to the locals. People will stop using it, and that girl in the shop will be out of a job. But they'll never get those foothills back."
Kaylee elbowed her. "You been talking to Mal, ain't you?"
"He's inescapable," Inara laughed. "But he's not wrong."
"It's an awful depressing way to live, though," Kaylee said. "Not thinking of nothing but the worst."
"Maybe that's why I'm sticking around you and avoiding him," Inara said. "No, really. Optimism feels - it feels like something to believe in. After - you - there was a moment when we were fighting off the Reavers, and I was the only one standing. The rest of you were all injured, and I was sitting there with an empty crossbow, praying that... anything. Thinking all the while that the most likely scenario was, we were all going to die there. But we were lucky, and we didn't, and you're here and you're fine, and sometimes I catch you in the corner of my eye and I--"
She stopped talking, but she didn't sound finished. Kaylee was afraid to interrupt her, even in the silence. Inara's lower lip was shaking, and the loose corkscrew tendrils of hair around her face looked like thunderstorm rain. Kaylee raised up a hand to fix Inara's hair or her sadness, whatever could be fixed. That was what she was good for.
Inara met Kaylee's eyes and closed her hand around Kaylee's wrist. She'd stopped looking like she was about to cry. Instead, her eyes had gone round and intense, her jaw soft. She had the look about her of a woman deciding whether or not to kiss someone. Because Kaylee hated it when people looked like they were going to kiss you but didn't, she kissed Inara. Inara lowered her hand slowly, bringing Kaylee's down with it. And she kissed back, her lips parting just slightly, her breath like cinnamon and her lips a little rough from the heat. Kaylee closed her eyes and squeezed the necklace tight in her hand.
It was all perfectly sweet until Kaylee's brain started working. She shook her wrist free from Inara's grasp and took a step backward. "Mal," she said. At the same time, Inara said, "Simon."
Kaylee listened to her own breath in her ears. It was like she couldn't see nothing, and she couldn't blame the sun in her eyes. The thought that tossed and turned in her mind was, she wasn't done kissing.
Kaylee was not the sort of girl to leave a job unfinished. She was not the sort of girl to give up on anything.
Author: Mosca [website]
Details: Standalone | PG | *slash* | 9k | 02/03/06
Characters: Kaylee, Inara
Summary: An exchange of gifts.
Notes: Thanks to k, Biogeekgrrl, and Distraction for beta reading. Written for Raebird for Femslash Santa 2005.