It’s been months since Kaylee had popped her head into Inara’s shuttle to introduce herself as the one to call if anything went wrong. But even now, Inara can’t quite put a name to what Kaylee is to her. Sweeter than a sister, there’s no trace of rivalry. Certainly not the child she’ll never have, although the girl has a trick of coming to her shuttle late at night with a lit-up face, as if she’s expecting a bedtime story. She doesn’t want to hear the details of the sex, things the Guild forbids telling. Kaylee only wants to know what comes after, how many men wanted to take her away from it all. It’s not desire she wants to hear about; it’s the fairy tale.
Her life on this boat, or in any space dominated by Malcolm Reynolds, certainly resembles no sweet, familiar story. She’d walked onto the ship expecting to find a standard ex-sergeant: a courteous and efficient man proud of his record if he’d been for the winners, or a bitter, ambitious man with a veil drawn over his past if he’d been for the Independents. She hadn’t thought to find a man whose dark humor spared himself least of all, a man who’d bleed to death, bleed all over you, just to spite you. Unprepared, she’d succumbed to the temptation of excitement and heedlessly invited an explosion with her looks of distaste and her elegant little phrases, punctuated by disdainful pauses. She’d gotten enough of a reaction to send her to her dedicated source box to pull up everything she could find on Malcolm Reynolds, Browncoats, and the Battle of Serenity Valley. She’d had the contracts drawn up that night.
What she saw in him after Zoe’s return confirmed her belief that she’d chosen her new life well. They were a formidable pair, Mal and Zoe; can’t have one without the other, and together, she senses, they are more than the sum of their parts promises.
The distress signal comes after a long run of good luck dodging Alliance patrols and an even longer run of nothing but protein mush in the kitchen cabinets. The call for help switches unceasingly from English to Chinese and then back again. No one answers Mal’s offers of aid. Wash steers Serenity in close, and Mal, Zoe, and Jayne board Prospector.
Mal’s a little unnerved; it’s like stepping into a painting, everything’s so very still. He heads up to the bridge after posting Jayne as lookout. Still nothing and nobody’s moving. He taps a button and the controls suddenly blaze with light. He can see that all the lifeboats have been launched, but he can’t figure what prompted the flight. He gets Kaylee on the com and minutes later she’s walking towards him, looking like a little girl playing ’verse traveler in her suit, excited breath misting the glass. He sees her reach out to touch Jayne’s hand as she passes him, and the familiarity in the sweep of her hand along his arm cannot be masked even by their bulky suits. And then she’s right in front of him, looking up at him the way he thinks a baby sister would, and he tells himself he’s imagining things; his hand reaches for her shoulder as he gives her the orders. He follows her to the engine-room, leaving Zoe and Jayne to begin inventory.
She’s only looked at the engine for a few moments before she pops back up again, startling him a little. “Extenders snapped off, Cap’n. Weren’t braced.” She looks at him like she honestly believes he understands her secret code.
“What does that mean, Kaylee?” he asks patiently.
“Engine’s fine. Everything’s workin’; they just couldn’t go anywhere.”
“Because . . .?”
“Oh! Extenders is what gets the the power of the engine to the right place so’s the ship can actually move,” she says, striving for the simplest language.
“And they couldn’t fix it?”
“Looks like they didn’t know what was even wrong. 80-04’s ain’t everyone’s cup o’ tea. Most times it’s easier just to leave it and move on.”
“Anything here might be useful on Serenity?” he asks, and at her nod radios up to Jayne to grab a few empty sacks and head to the engine room. “Tell Zoe I’m comin’ up. Let’s do this right and quick.”
“Here you go, dear,” Zoe smiles as she places a small plastic dinosaur in front of her husband. “Kaylee found that for you on the ship.” He looks at the two of them. They’ve both got the same expression on their faces, wicked and innocent at once.
Playing it straight is the way to go here, he thinks. “Thank you both,” he says soberly, scooping up his new toy and heading back for the bridge. On his way out, he decides being a grown-up is no damn fun. Peeking his head around the doorway, he announces, “New show tonight!” and growls, shaking the tyrannosaurus at them.
She needs all the training the treacherous guild bestowed on her to keep her composure when Kaylee bursts into the shuttle with the doll. It’s fairly crude, with lank brown hair and a grimy complexion, but the fabric of its dress is surprisingly rich, peach with the dull sheen only heavy silk can muster. She wore a dress of the same material when she took her final test at the Academy. She becomes aware that Kaylee’s saying something. “ . . . so shuai, isn’t it?” the girl asks wistfully. “I’ve never seen the like. Except in here.” There’s that smile again.
“You’re welcome to try on anything that pleases you,” Inara answers, steering the conversation smoothly away.
“Oh, I couldn’t! I don’t wanna muss your pretty things.”
“You wouldn’t, mei-mei. And I could arrange your hair, and we could even try some cosmetics.”
Kaylee’s got an odd look on her face. “Face-paint?” she asks. “No.”
“Are you afraid that the captain will disapprove? He might not like it, but what occurs in this shuttle is none of his business.”
Kaylee’s shaking her head. “No, it ain’t the cap’n. I ain’t afraid o’ him,” she smiles, dimpling, remembering the circumstances under which she’d first met him. Her smile fades as she recalls her friend’s clipped tone. “’Nara? You afraid of him?”
Yes, she wants to say, of course I’m frightened of a man who’s built a life around a devastating loss; I’ve built mine despite my loss, by ignoring it, pushing it to the back of my mind. But his loss freed him, unhinged him. The only time he’s predictable is when he’s calling me a whore. “No,” she finally says; “we just don’t see eye-to-eye on most things.”
Kaylee’s already examining the first closet of Inara’s gowns. Her voice is a little muffled when she says, “Only one who always does is Zoe.”
Zoe’s never called her a whore, never been anything but pleasant to her, but Inara has to unclench her throat before she can speak. “And she knew better than to marry him.” She was striving for lightness, but she got it all wrong; how she sounds is bitter.
Kaylee stills suddenly, like she’s been slapped. She slides the closet door shut with fumbling hands. Her face and voice are carefully blank. “I have to go,” she says.
“No, please!” Inara begs, hating herself for hurting the girl so. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me to say such a thing.” She holds out her arms, pleading for forgiveness. When Kaylee walks into them, her heart seizes with relief and she can’t think of the last time she touched somebody so trustingly.
“He’s a good man,” she hears Kaylee mumble into her shoulder. “He’s the one showed me all these worlds.”
“I know, bao bei, I know. He’s the one who gave me my home.”
“shuai” “rich, handsome” / “bao bei” “darling”
Continue: Part 21/21