Summary: The captain still calls her mei-mei and trusts her with Serenity’s life. She can do that. This is her element, the way it was never Inara’s.
Spoilers and/or Warnings: Post-Serenity. Sex, wine, and marzipan. Everyone's over eighteen.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Hold On Tight by watergal
She brings Kaylee treats when she can. Honeyed and sugared, things that remind Inara of slipping scraps from the table in the Training House again, back when she’d been stuck in the middle of an adolescent growth spurt and starving for sweetness as much as she had been for success.
Watching Kaylee make love to marzipan is like a new course of Companion training Inara never knew existed. She knows the minutiae of tea ceremonies, the art of artlessly peeling a tangerine until it resembles a rose, the intricacies of incense, but nothing like the earthy-greedy unfurled pleasure of Kaylee lapping at a caramel. It’s possible she doesn’t pick up these edible souvenirs purely for Kaylee’s benefit. It’s possible Kaylee knows it and doesn’t mind.
More than possible, when she licks peaches-and-cream skin until Kaylee, little Kaylee, is wet and writhing and wanting to be filled up and wrung out, saying as much without any words at all and reveling in pleasure like it’s a food group all its own. Inara mouths her perfect collarbone, draws her tongue over the tightness of a nipple flushed into candy-pinkness, slips a thumb inside her and lets Kaylee ride against her knuckle.
Kaylee is always so inquisitive, eager to hear stories of the places she’s seen, the ranks of her clients, how handsome, how good in bed, how debauched the money-to-burn types can really be. Inara only answers some of these, not accustomed or allowed to provide an overabundance of information, but Kaylee will still try to wheedle for more until Inara has her sufficiently distracted.
It’s a routine they’ve both fallen into without actually acknowledging it. When Inara isn’t with a client and Kaylee’s finished with her chores, more often than not she’ll be at the shuttle door, hair a mess but hands carefully scrubbed. Inara will bring out the big basin and bathe her, tease her breasts and thighs and make her smile and moan, then comb her hair and draw down the covers, folding Kaylee into her arms and sheets and stroking her until she falls asleep.
Sometimes, she finds herself waking up in the night with Kaylee smoothing her skin, touching and tickling and sometimes licking. Innocently asking can I? and making Inara come while she’s still half-dreaming. Mouthing and biting at her nape and cupping her breasts, letting Inara work back on her fingers—hands so skilled with manipulating the ship, but sometimes clumsy with her, treating Inara the way she would an expensive piece of pottery she shouldn’t be touching for fear of soiling it or having to pay for breaking it.
There’s questioning and habit and, sometimes, there’s talk that has nothing to do with either of their occupations. There’s Inara learning what it was like to grow up with four older brothers on a dust bowl of a moon. There’s Kaylee’s small hand stealing between the panels of Inara’s robe, touching her flat belly, unmarred by bullet scars, and asking if she wants children someday. There’s the kind of face she rarely shares with her clients, skin washed free of cosmetics, voice lilting through the kind of conversation that never comes up.
Mandell, the new pilot, a supporter of the Independents and Wash’s opposite in every way, keeps to himself for the two short months he lasts onboard.
People tell stories, friends of friends who know the Firefly that sent out the message from Miranda. They’re toasted by liberals, but only from a safe distance. With most of their primary contacts dead and their need to dodge the Alliance and still keep traveling, Serenity already has more than enough obstacles finding jobs. So many people are still so afraid. They’ve barely been getting by. Mandell takes it gracefully when Mal lets him go because it’s costing too much to pay him.
The truth is staring him in the face, but he never addresses it directly.
They can’t work.
They harbored the Tams, forged to Miranda, bolstered all the reputation that Niska had talked about beyond belief, and their fame is crippling.
River is miserable. She flies when she can, but spends most of her time crumpled in storage units or Kaylee’s hammock. Mal and Zoe clench their jaws and take turns at the helm since they can’t afford a new pilot. Even Simon learns how to steer the ship in case the need ever arises. “Can’t be helped,” Mal mutters succinctly, and nothing more.
He comes to Inara, too proud to be sheepish, and says he needs to raise her rent. She understands.
She pays him six months in advance and shortly afterward decides she has to leave again. Kaylee cries, but only a little. She understands, too.
No one has never mentioned this either, but Inara’s reputation has suffered by being associated with them. By returning to Sihnon, she’s treated like a princess instead of an outcast for being part of Serenity and its ragtag group of heroes. Respect and stability ease the ache somewhat, but guilt claws away at her almost every time she retires to a bedroom more than twice the size of her shuttle or eats a meal that consists of something other than protein. Sometimes she misses Kaylee coming by, wide-eyed and bright.
She contacts them on occasion. Tells Mal he should settle, knowing he won’t. Says she can send money if he’d like, knowing he won’t. Instead, she mails packages for Kaylee, little extras, candies, enough credits to buy things for herself.
They’re on Alonso when River disappears.
“We’ve got no time,” says Mal. “We’ll come back.”
Simon isn’t pleased and wants to stay behind on his own, but Zoe calmly points out that he’ll only get himself snatched up and if the Feds do catch River, word will be all over the Cortex immediately.
Mal insists she must’ve had a plan, like she did with Early, like she did with getting them to Miranda.
“Not like she can’t take care of herself,” Jayne says bluntly, and Kaylee watches Simon’s spine straighten a little. “You, on the other hand…”
It should mean something that Jayne’s giving a damn about him, however lopsidedly, but she can tell that it doesn’t.
The Alliance is aggressively targeting Reavers, but still isn’t admitting all of its own wrongs, still insists Simon is a criminal for aiding his sister’s escape and that the girl should be returned—technically, there’s no proof of the damage they’ve done, only haphazard hearsay. “As far as they’re concerned, she’s still their product and they want her back,” says Mal.
There are some communities, some planets even, rebelling against the Alliance. It’s slow, staggered going, factions and schisms and no one knowing what to believe, and all the while the crackdowns on Reavers are getting more and more intense, which means more Alliance presence on the Rim. The Feds are just as eager to curry favor and solidify trust as they are to eliminate the threat of opposition, prove they can take responsibility for their wrongs.
Kaylee doesn’t think about the negatives any more than she has to. It’s hard, with Inara safe on her home world and River possibly on no world at all. Every second they’re gone is a reminder of how the Alliance hadn’t budged on the Tams’ warrants, leaving no way to get River the treatment she needed, no closer than before. No one had wanted to work with Malcolm Reynolds anymore, not with so many dead at the Operative’s orders, and things are still so tight there isn’t any forgetting to be had. She remembers how they patched and painted the ship back into place and hoped for the best, but River still had fits and woke up crying anyway and it wasn’t the same without Book’s strong-calm presence and Wash’s wisecracking manner.
They need synchronizers like nobody’s business, but she can still wring some life out of the old ones, so Kaylee hasn’t breathed a word about that.
Serenity won’t shut down, she’s confident. Mal still has Zoe and Jayne. He’s got her. And Simon, even though River ran off. The captain still calls her mei-mei and trusts her with Serenity’s life. She can do that. This is her element, the way it was never Inara’s.
She especially doesn’t want to think about Inara and how she left them again.
Her rooms are in order, rumors still swirling once word got out that Inara Serra was returning. The warrior whore, home to roost, as Jayne had put it in one of his more poetical moments.
Laid out in a line, there was everything she'd always assumed her life would be, and in retrospect she doesn’t know if she’d still wanted it or if it was just the life she'd conditioned herself to want. Back then, everything was normal and standard and she'd never imagined anything like an illness, simple as that, could take it away from her.
Of her own accord, she'd left and decided to explore the universe, letting on that she hadn’t ever looked back. She had. The others had thought of her as insane or brave and maybe some of them liked that part of their competition was gone, or maybe even more had envied her for having the wherewithal to actually go through with it. So many young girls admired Companions for their glamour and stature; to see one of their number just willingly giving it all up to live out of a shuttle and puddle-jump from one uncivilized world to another was tantamount to anathema.
She copes with the questions and the whispers and the hero-worship, going about her business and doing it as well as ever. Telling herself once again not to look back.
Then River waves her, worse for the wear but alive.
"Where are you?" She has no idea where to begin, all her training falling by the wayside, the way so many things tended to with River. "Who—how did—why?"
"You're allowed one use of each interrogative pronoun," River tells her neatly.
Inara catches the hint as she catches her breath, taking in the sharpness of the girl's cheekbones, the glassiness of her eyes. It isn't all due to the bad connection. "They went to Alonso. They looked for you. You could be with them now, sweetie, so why?"
"Sometimes you need to see the universe." She remembers telling those precise words to so many people and the reply stings like an actual slap. There must be so many things River knows, possibly without knowing she knows them, just waiting to be said. "Sometimes the universe needs you to see it."
"You aren't well."
"My brother's a doctor; he'll take care of me. Always does."
"They came for you. They looked. Kaylee told me they nearly had to lock Simon in his room to keep him from running out as soon as they made planetfall."
"You can't find what doesn't want to be found." River sighs forlornly. "It was too loud."
"Loud?" She wants to summon somebody, to put this conversation on hold so she can take it apart piece by piece and try to understand.
"The captain wanted me to earn my keep. I'm earning it now." River glances up and smiles slightly. She looks much older now, something sad and serious having masked over her face. “They wouldn't come for me if they knew. You can tell them I'm fine. You can understand.”
It's hard for her to picture it, River living out of some hovel on Alonso and no one the wiser as to who she really is. “You mean to tell me…”
"I wanted someone to know. Fairness where it's due," River murmurs finally, fidgeting with her sleeve and not meeting Inara's eyes directly. “It's okay," she adds. "This isn't anything like what you do."
Her eyes are unfocused and it takes Inara a little while to realize why. “You need your medicine. What are they giving you? Simon must be frantic—“
"Nothing. Everything is strictly voluntary." Like Inara. Like leaving. All of it had been her own choice, even if so many of her peers hadn't been convinced it was the right one. But she'd had her reasons and she'd known it was. She'd also been functioning within her full mental capacities. She hadn't been a teenage genius who’d had the government interfering with her abilities in that area. So perhaps comparing them is futile from the beginning. “I have my own kind here. It helps.”
On the screen, River fades in and out. Inara can't speak at first, just sits and looks and tries to appear collected and demure, just as she teaches the girls to be in situations they might find themselves thrown into without any warning. If a client makes a remark or expresses a preference that catches you off-guard, do not ever flat-out refuse, do not show disgust, do not judge. They are with you because they trust you to help give them what they need. And with River, she realizes it isn't terribly different from any of that. Here, in her own private rooms, with silk drapes hanging from the ceiling, not a pilot's chair to be found, no stink of Jayne's cooking when she walks out the door, none of that at all. She should be happy here.
And then there's River, a small and nondescript room barely visible in the pixelated background behind her, nodding and telling her it's okay. "You were the one who would understand, more than anyone. When you're sick...you have to decide whether you're a burden or an asset. And if you're not one, you should strive to be better. I weighed them down. Here, I don't."
"You can't live that way," says Inara and she wants to believe it.
"People think the same thing about you. Could've been House Priestess, but you took off running instead. They thought you were crazy. Some still do. But you didn't care. You had other things to care about."
She thinks of Kaylee. If she were here now, seeing this, Kaylee would be tearing up and pleading with River to let them take her back. Bargaining with whatever she had to strike some kind of agreement. Kaylee always wears her heart on her sleeve and it hasn’t always served her well.
"But she doesn't think you're crazy," River murmurs. "Sometimes she used to wish she did. It's easy to forgive things if someone's mind isn't functioning properly."
Kaylee has nothing to forgive her for. Everyone here is gilded and lacquered and pitch-perfect, harmonious and placed for maximum effect. No wide-eyed, rumple-haired mechanics to be found. No one's hands on her like Kaylee's small nail-bitten ones, always meticulously washed clean before coming to her shuttle. "Don't want to mess it up any," she'd said before, cheerful as can be, not ashamed at all. And it had been Inara who had felt ashamed for thinking her dirty and low-class, a quaint prairie girl who had never known any sort of opulence and couldn't help but be dazzled by it now that she was facing it.
“You didn’t have to leave them. They love you.” She says it weakly, because it’s the only thing she can think to say.
“You didn’t either.” River’s shoulders lift and settle, too thin. “I’m safe. Working by night, no one asks your name.”
Drinking to quiet the maelstrom in her head, taking down anyone who rubs her the wrong way. Inara can see it plausibly enough, but it isn’t a happy life.
River’s hair falls in front of her face, hands clasping under her chin as if she’s making an offering. If she’s crying, Inara can’t tell. “Kaylee misses you.”
When it’s over, she saves the conversation and forwards it to Mal without thinking twice.
They all gather on the bridge to see.
“It keeps things at bay. Wash was so loud,” River whimpers, looking over her shoulder at something lost in the fuzzy grayness of a sub-par connection. “Too loud.”
Kaylee remembers; it made her wake up sobbing sometimes. Miranda moved out of her head and other secrets swarmed in to take its place. Wash and Book had been dead for months and it hadn’t gotten easier for her, no way for those open wounds to scab over and scar, always fresh and always out of her control.
Simon is stark white, staring. His sister has unfocused eyes and a voice slurred with spirits, hair chopped raggedly. “Nothing changed,” she murmurs before Inara’s voice urges her not to disconnect and River’s face flickers away.
When they reach Alonso again, she doesn’t hide.
The room is bare and sparse, neat as if no one lives there at all.
Her dress is well-worn into colorlessness. When she turns, there’s the silhouette of a sparrow tucked behind her hair, diving between her shoulder blades. When she stands, small smooth ski-jumps of hipbones stand out clearly against the cloth.
“I got a job,” she says, feathering fingertips towards her nape. Kaylee can’t help but wonder what happened that made her willingly submit herself to needles. Maybe because she knew the old River never would have. No matter how careful Simon was with his syringes, she never liked them.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Jayne stares at her. “Besides the usual, that is.” Mal doesn’t even bother shushing him.
“I’m not an asset anymore.” Flat and sullen. “They wouldn’t want me now.”
There's a chipped wineglass in her hand and she's surveying it coolly, taking a dainty sip even though there’s nothing inside it. Twisting fingers around the stem as if she can wrinkle it as easily as cloth. Mal takes it and sets it aside. “Be that as it may, you might not be the best judge of who wants what.”
Simon’s mouth is hanging open as if doesn’t know what to say at all. “You can’t lock up your mind and pretend to be average.”
River isn’t looking at him. Gray rings under her eyes, lines bracketing her mouth, gaze dry as can be but swimming in hurt. “You didn’t have to come back for me.”
And then Simon’s taking her hands in his, drawing her in close, brow furrowed like he’s trying to understand but not sure he can manage. It’s almost too quiet to hear him, but Kaylee does, and she suddenly feels like crying. “We wanted to.”
Kaylee thinks they’ve come full circle.
There are no treats from the Training House this time, just necessities, but that’s okay. “Necessities,” for Inara, covers quite a bit.
They can’t retrieve her on Sihnon, too heavily Alliance, but they meet at a halfway point and Inara stands out in the crowd like an ember amidst ashes.
“Better late that never.” Zoe is fierce-eyed, smiling faintly, fighting to keep from losing anyone else, again or not. She’s threatened to strap River into the pilot’s chair until she does right by it instead of flittering off whenever something distracts her. Oddly enough, River has responded well to the ultimatum so far.
Inara goes down and Kaylee’s sobbing and clutching her fit to snap something, then Simon is gently prying her away before she breaks a bone and she’s on the verge of begging him to fix her, perform some medical magic that won’t let her go again.
She’s getting engine grease on Inara’s dress even though it won’t be half as easy to have it cleaned out here as it would back on Sihnon, but Inara doesn’t seem to mind, or even notice.
“You come back on this boat, there’s no getting off,” Mal says gruffly, his captain-face firmly cinched in place—the one that’s supposed to make him look too tough to smile at, but hasn’t ever stopped Kaylee before and certainly doesn’t now. “We need the revenue too much.”
Inara smiles at him with only the barest trace of irony. “I suppose I can manage somehow.”
Jayne is suspiciously examining something that could be either lamp or a bondage device, but no one bothers to stop him.
Kaylee takes no chances, holding onto Inara and bundling her back into her shuttle as if she’ll disappear between blinks. “You really think you can stay this time?” Her voice sounds tiny and watery when she asks it, but it’s all she has and Inara’s never seemed to mind any of her shortcomings before. One of those things Kaylee never thought to question, just gratefully accepted.
Satin ripples from Inara’s shoulders and her lips are softer still against the salt-damp corner of Kaylee’s mouth. “I want to.”