Inara lights candles, though she suspects they'll be at least mostly unnoticed, a waste of time and wax. She doesn't really mind. She'll still notice — flickering light, dancing shadows, the faint scent of orange oil dipped into the wax.
The lingering smell of melted wax and wisps of smoke when she blows them out, late into the night. When River steals her candle snuffer and stands on the tips of her toes to reach the candle on the highest shelf. When Kaylee laughs, calls them xiuqi as though it's a word to insult, and pinches the wicks between her fingers.
The shuttle will never be only Inara's space. Mal still refuses to accept that he should knock before entering, even after she wrote it in the new agreement they drew up, and Zoe will sometimes visit to share tea and talk. And then, of course, her customers; if Mal failed to make an honest living before, he has no chance now, when he and his crew are wanted by every back-water lord and captain, trading on the rumor of exactly who brought the Alliance and the Reavers to war.
But her clients get incense, Zoe gets tea, and Mal gets nothing. Only River and Kaylee get candlelight, the best Inara has for making this space their own, when they are in it.
Kaylee doesn't dress for Inara and River — what's the point, when they see her every day covered in engine grease, with her overalls torn at the knee? Maybe Simon got to not wanting to see her that way when she was with him instead of with Serenity, but doesn't Kaylee know how crushes don't last and reality ain't like any fantasy.
Except for how it is sometimes. Like now, when she brushes her hair and washes her face and it don't matter none if she doesn't because Inara says, "Let me find my comb," and River climbs into her lap and ties a ribbon in her hair. She feels dressed anyway, then, different than she ever did in that dress she wore on Persephone.
Not that it matters none, cause Inara always looks perfect and River always just looks like River. But Kaylee likes being something special, like them. Someone pretty, even with engine grease under her fingernails and a rip in her knee.
River thinks Kaylee made more sense with Simon, even when Simon finds her in the kitchen and asks why she wants chocolate cake — real chocolate, not flavoring or frosting. Zoe bought it, last planet they were on, but not for her. Zoe doesn't eat any of it, but no-one notices except River, and River doesn't tell.
River still sees everything, but Simon says she's different now, better, and she thinks that's what he means.
She hasn't stabbed Jayne in weeks. Maybe months. That makes Kaylee laugh and say she must be better, and Inara cover her smile with her hand and ask if Kaylee's sure she doesn't mean worse?
"It's a gift," River says, which is sort of true. It isn't exactly her gift to give, but that doesn't always matter.
"For Kaylee?" Simon asks. He's curious, in his head, like he doesn't know what he doesn't know and doesn't know if he wants to know it. He's right about Kaylee, when he thinks of her, except that he isn't, really. Kaylee made more sense with Simon than she does with River, but Kaylee makes most sense with River and Inara. They make most sense together, three. Smallest odd prime, three for growth, three octopus hearts, if the denominator of a rational number is not divisible by three, then the repeating part of its decimal expansion is an integer divisible by nine.
She wonders if they're an octopus, three hearts together, or contained in an octopus. But then who would have only two legs instead of three?
"Yes, for Kaylee," she says, and cuts three pieces of cake.
Maybe another octopus would lend them a leg. Some of them must have spares.
River brings cake, and curls up with her head on Inara's leg like a cat, her hands tucked under her chin. Inara smoothes River's hair back and gets a purr. "I knew you'd do that," she says quietly.
"I like a cat better than an octopus," River says. "Draw some more."
Inara doesn't ask about the octopus. Instead, she draws a tiny cat curled on the doorstep of the house in her picture, and River rubs her head against Inara. It feels different when you draw than when I do, River said once, frowning.
How? Inara asked, looking over to River and Kaylee curled in the middle of her bed like children, except they were naked, and not like children at all.
Like Kaylee and Serenity, River said. Not like dancing.
Serenity dances, Kaylee said, and they got distracted, but River, after that, liked to sit with Inara when she drew or painted, her eyes closed, seeing the picture Inara was creating before she drew it.
"Is Kaylee on her way?" Inara asks. She draws a hummingbird then changes it into an eagle.
"A beaver," River says. "Like on Earth-that-was. In the book, leading the children. Then they got turned into stone."
"Did they get better? "
"Yes. And they built things."
At least that makes sense, in its way. Inara shades her eagle into a tree, and draws a beaver for Kaylee instead.
"Kaylee's here." River goes to her feet as gracefully as any companion, and drops a curtsey as Kaylee steps inside. Kaylee giggles, takes her hand and kisses it.
The opening and closing of the door makes the candle flames dance and Inara smiles. Now this room belongs to them, in a way it never does when they're only two.
"Hey, you," Kaylee says. She kisses the top of Inara's head, then her mouth when Inara tips her head back for it, upside down.
"Like a sloth," River says. "Hanging from a tree." She looks around, then tips herself into a handstand. Inara's glad she has leggings under her skirt, though she suspects they soon won't matter.
"I'm not a sloth." Kaylee tips her head to look at River, then sits next to Inara and starts tugging at the laces of her boots.
"No, you're a beaver." Inara points it out on her picture — a house, a mountain, a tree. She doesn't know what it will really be, not yet, and she knows that thought sounds like River. "And River's a cat."
"Where are you?" Kaylee asks. "Do cats stand on their heads, River?"
River's feet land with a thud. "No. Not unless they fall down."
"Nine lives," Kaylee says quietly. Inara reaches for her hand at the same moment River wraps her arms around Kaylee from behind.
"What should Inara be?" Kaylee asks after a little while. Her voice barely trembles now, except when she thinks of Wash and Shepherd Book. Inara wishes she could say that she knows what it's like to have nowhere to go that's safe anymore; she isn't welcome at the Companion Training House after running away, no matter how romantic the girls think it is.
River unwraps her arms from Kaylee, links her thumbs together and flaps her fingers. "A butterfly."
"Cause of her pretty things?" Kaylee catches River's butterfly in her cupped hands, then uses the grip to pull River round and into her lap. River rests her head on Inara's shoulder and wriggles until she looks more comfortable. "Butterflies don't stay. Always flitting off after the next pretty flower."
Inara doesn't say anything. No-one has asked her if she'll leave. No-one has asked Kaylee about Simon, either, and no-one knows what to ask River. After three months, Inara thinks the time for asking is coming close.
She doesn't mind. She knows her answer, and is only waiting to give it.
"An otter," Kaylee says. "Cause they're all sleek and graceful, but they like to play with other otters."
Inara sketches a pond in front of the house. The sleeping cat might be watching it, and the beaver under the tree certainly is. She draws an otter, climbing out of the water.
"Looking for friends. No otter friends," River says.
"The otter can make new friends. Look, she has a beaver and a cat. Like a children's story." Kaylee's smiling now.
Inara puts down her pencil. Maybe she does already know what this picture is. "River brought chocolate cake."
"With frosting?" Kaylee's eyes go bright. "That's nearly more tempting."
"More tempting than what?" Inara asks. She's never known Kaylee to turn down anything sweet.
Kaylee looks at her, eyes wide and innocent, and Inara isn't fooled for one moment. "That's such a big bed you have."
River turns her head and nips Kaylee's shoulder. "All the better to seduce you in."
"Don't say Grandma," Inara begs. She knew those antique folk story books would get them into trouble eventually. She just didn't think it would be like this.
Kaylee laughs. "I wouldn't dare," she says.
River stands up, holds one hand out to Inara, her face solemn and fixed. "I like your bed. No wolves. Take off your dress."
River is often so matter-of-fact about sex, while Inara seduces and Kaylee flirts. Inara likes that about her; it's the one time she's mostly straightforward.
"Then we can have cake," River adds, as though this may honestly be more enticing.
It isn't; it won't ever be, but in the flickering light of the candles, with River and Kaylee so close she can hear them breathing, Inara is more than happy to oblige anyway.blog comments powered by Disqus